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During past visits to your mother’s elder care community, you’ve passed by this big dining room dozens of times. On occasion, you’ve eaten here, too. But never before today have you glimpsed the piano, stowed in one corner of the room.

The piano is easy to miss from here in the lobby. Somehow, though, your gaze falls on it through a window. Its keylid is folded down—a clear sign that the piano isn’t meant to be played by just anyone.

“Come,” the piano says to you. “Sit down and play me.”

I don’t have permission, you protest inwardly.

The piano ignores your objection. “Maybe you could play while people are dining?”

I don’t like to perform solo, you say.

“So why do you have solo piano music in that bag?”

You glance down at the satchel in your hand. To play for my mother, you say. In private.

Twice a year, you travel across the country to be with your mother. Twice a year, you play piano for her. That makes her happy. It makes you happy, too—especially since the end of the pandemic. You no longer play for her as reluctantly as you once did, out of obligation. To satisfy her expectations. Weighed down by her pride. Burdened by your own fear of making mistakes and disappointing her . . .

The pandemic had impressed upon you the importance of loving more freely, more simply, more lightly.

You’re still learning how to love. You’ll always be learning how to love.

“So why play only for your mother?” the piano asks you now.

* * *

At dinnertime, you accompany your mother back to the dining room. She seats herself at her table for four, halfway across the room from the piano.

Over the next hour, you quietly play arrangements of old standards: “Someone to Watch Over Me.” “Embraceable You.” “On the Street Where You Live.” “I Get a Kick Out of You.” “Make Someone Happy”. . .

As you play, your mother’s over there telling happy lies about you and your music-making to anyone who will listen.

* * *

Again the next evening, you play dinner music for the residents.

The evening after that, too.

The last day of your visit, your mother says, “I think you should play for both dinner seatings, so everybody has a chance to hear you.”

Two seatings. Two separate groups of residents. Two hours at the piano, with no break.

Well . . . why not? 

Over these past few days, the music has been unlocking palpable joy in this place. Residents have been tapping their toes in rhythm. They’ve been humming and singing along. After eating, they’ve been hanging around to tell one another stories about former music teachers, instruments they used to play, choirs they once belonged to, and what this particular song reminds them of . . .

Tonight, men and women are congregating around tables nearest the piano. They push their walkers close. They roll up in their wheelchairs.

You can’t help overhearing their conversations as you play.

“The moment this piano music started, I felt twenty pounds lighter.”

“Why can I remember my first-grade music lessons when I can’t remember so many other things?”

“I used to play the bassoon. And my twin sister, she played the violin so beautifully! I don’t know why she ever stopped.”

“Bernie—he’s sitting right over there—he used to be a band leader! He had two jazz bands! And his wife was the lead singer!”

“Don’t you play the piano, Mary? I thought so! Why don’t you play for us like this sometime?”

* * *

You’re still playing for the first seating when one frail fellow approaches you. His name is Paul. He tells you with a huge, crooked smile how much he loves to sing. You reach out to shake his hand.

A few minutes after Paul departs, the sound of choral music wafts into the dining room. You stop playing the piano to listen.

Somewhere people are singing. In harmony.

You turn around on the piano bench. “Where’s that music coming from?” you ask the gathered residents.

“People waiting for the second seating,” they tell you. “Paul’s got them singing a hymn!”

“Does that happen often?”

They laugh. You don’t know what the laughter means.

“How many of you like to sing?” you ask.

Timid hands rise all around you.

“And how many of you play the piano, or another instrument?”

More hands, still shy. “Or at least, we used to play!” several people say then.

“Why’d you stop?” you ask.

“We’re just no good anymore.”

“But it’s not about being good! It’s about joy! Doesn’t music help you feel joy?”

“When you play for us,” they say, “there’s such feeling in the music.”

“And does that make you feel more alive?”

“Oh, yes!”

“Do you want to have more live music performed in this place?”

“Oh, yes!” Hands clap in delight.

“Then,” you say, “you must ask for it, and you must keep asking! Don’t take no for an answer! And those of you who still love to sing or play piano—somehow you must make music! Look how it makes you feel! Look how it sparks your memories and stories! Look how it brings you all together! . . .”

By now, in this shared love of music, you have totally forgotten yourself. The moment is all about them.

And that, my friend, is the undeniable power of a talking piano.

Photo by Jeff Hendricks on Unsplash
Phyllis Cole-Dai

Phyllis Cole-Dai has authored or edited eleven books in multiple genres, including historical fiction, spiritual nonfiction and poetry. She lives in Brookings, South Dakota, USA.

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