Sunday, July 12, 2020

Sounds of the symphony

Tonight I'm going to go back in time four years.

In 2016 I was diagnosed with cancer. This happened shortly before a required move to Pittsburgh, and so, during the time I was undergoing chemotherapy and in and out of the hospital we were also getting ready to leave Illinois and move to a new city. 

It was during the second week of the fourth cycle of chemo that I sat in the rickety rocking chair, in a new house that was too warm, trying to keep my food down, listening to the Pittsburgh Symphony. They were playing the Mahler Fifth Symphony. 

With Mahler, a symphony encompasses "the world" and it frequently takes up the entire concert program. It is an emotional and spiritual journey. During my time with cancer there had been many long nights with classical music. Sometimes having only the endless parade of the same hackneyed selections for company got really old. Other times, they spoke to me in a way they hadn't before and probably never will again. For example, You can hear the Shostakovich Fifth Symphony differently when you think you are dying. Music which is often the expression of the deepest parts of human beings can sound forth with supreme clarity when you really are ready to listen. Many times we save these profound utterances for the background.

On this evening, four years ago, I wasn't listening very well. I was just exhausted. The journey was nearly at an end, we hoped. A positive prognosis had ushered in a time of aggressive but helpful treatment for a rare but treatable form of the disease. But it was still the second week of a three week cycle, the week when every day is very long and very ugly and you can't tell if you are hungry or thirsty and you just hurt everywhere and there is no way to spend your time well because you can't concentrate on anything. Mahler in particular.

So tonight I will sit in the same chair and focus on what I can now focus on. Back then the applause at the end sounded like distorted sonic junk because my ears were unable to hear clearly. I wondered at the time whether my hearing was going to be affected permanently. It wasn't, mostly.

Tonight I will sit in a chair and listen to music. Maybe not with the same life and death intensity. Although when I think about it, what will be gone will mainly be the discomfort. The intensity is still there. The music still matters.

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