March 17, 2013
At a superficial level, what you see may be what you get in many relationships. Nevertheless, what we see initially often presents less than a thin sliver of truly significant information about people. Knowing this—and knowing that, at best we know only part of the story—makes us more charitable in our judgments and more cautious in our behavior if we are wise. Today’s story reports only a glimpse of a woman’s inner world, but that glimpse taught me—again—to be cautious about the meaning I assign to first impressions.
To tell the truth, I am uncertain about what I saw. I know only that for a brief moment I saw past the cold hard surface that this woman presented to the world, and that what I saw seemed the shadow of a person to whom my first impression gave no clue.
My first contact with this women occurred in the context of the dining room at the rehab center. She habitually ate alone at a small corner table that gave her a relatively clear view of the entire dining room from which she could watch those residents who choose to eat their meals there rather than in their rooms.
She presented a commanding appearance. Her shoulders were broad and even in her wheel chair she was obviously taller than most women. Her hair was quite dark although it was clearly streaked with silver; she wore it up, coiled in an elegant bun held by a beautiful comb. During meals, she watched all of us with a disinterested indifference that (paradoxically) missed few details about any person present. Her face was remote, cold, and oddly fierce. I thought when I first saw her, “There’s a woman who in her lifetime has likely taken few prisoners.” In my mind I dubbed her “The Duchess.”
I had no contact with the woman until the day before the Christmas party. There was a piano in the activities room, and the Recreational Director had asked me to play some Christmas carols before the party. Out of experience I have developed a severe distrust of the playability of pianos in public places; I postponed my answer until I had had an opportunity to try out the piano.
The night before the party when the activity room was empty and residents in their rooms, I wheeled myself down to the piano to determine if it was in fact playable. It was not. Many of the keys made no sound at all when struck; the damper pedal was disconnected or broken; those keys that did strike a string sounded as though they had been tuned by a tone-deaf, mischief-making Christmas elf. Playing this piano for a Christmas sing-along was simply not possible.
Still, I sat for a bit in the now dimly lighted room, “noodling,” amusing myself by attempting fragments of Christmas music in unusual keys. Since more white keys than black keys had been damaged, I tried things like playing “Silent Night” in six flats. After a while I wondered how old the piano was, and what kind of music had been played on it when it was “young and playable.” I began trying fragments of old jazz classics and standards from the 40’s and 50’s, and wandered, willy-nilly, into some of Johnny Mercer’s old tunes.
I was attempting (unsuccessfully) to the find the bridge in “Dreams.” I played the phrase “as smoke-rings rise in the air, you’ll find your share of memories there, so dream. . .” about three times, found myself stuck in exactly the same place each time, and gave up the attempt with a grumpy unmusical bang on the poor piano’s dysfunctional keyboard. Turning to go, I discovered that without my awareness, a number of residents, including the Duchess, had left their rooms and come quietly into the activity room to listen.
“Please, play some more,” said a resident whose stoke-slurred speech was barely audible.
“Play ‘Laura’," said the Dutchess clearly in a no-nonsense voice.
I was startled into obedience. As I fumbled for the keys, the lyrics began to sing themselves in my head and the music came back to me:
Laura is the face in the misty light,
Footsteps that you hear down the hall,
The laugh that floats on a summer night
That you can never quite recall.
And you see Laura on a train that is passing through,
Those eyes how familiar they seem. . . .
Unfortunately, at that point the music required that I play a large number of keys that were not playable on that piano. My mind shut down and ability to think appropriate substitutions for the harmony vanished. I stopped with unceremonious abruptness.
In embarrassment, I turned to the Duchess and said, “I know the rest of the lyrics: ‘…that was Laura, but she’s only a dream.’ But I’m sorry; I just can’t get the music that goes with that ending right.”
The vulnerable, unguarded face that the Duchess turned toward me caught me totally off-guard. In that moment I thought I glimpsed the shadow of an enormous loss and a grief that lay beyond words for both the Duchess and me.
The moment passed as quickly as it had come.
“That is quite all right,” said the Duchess curtly in her usual no-nonsense voice. “You played enough.” She turned her wheelchair and rolled efficiently through the door back to her room.
When I returned to my room I thought about what I had seen, or thought I had seen. I briefly entertained a silly impulse to imagine a romantic story as a context for my experience, but the memory of the Duchess on a daily basis quickly made that process appear ridiculous (which, of course, it was).
What I more sensibly concluded had little romance in it, but, I trust, some wisdom. I thought: “I do not know the Duchess. What I see is the protective mask she wears. I cannot know what lies within, and guesses are highly dangerous, almost certain to be wrong."
I do not like my occasional willingness to draw conclusions about people on the basis of unreliable and potentially misleading appearances. I suspect that at times I do not want data about others because I fear it will call me to costly compassion and generous patience.
Trying with you to be open to knowledge of others that leads me to love mercy and to do justice with patience and compassion.
See you next week.