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It was days after my birthday and I was knee deep in my to-dos. I was in my 30s, I had two kids under five, a career, a husband and the usual day-to-day activities. Finding moments of rest were scarce, the thought of finding moments to play music didn’t seem plausible.
The phone rang but I barely slowed down enough to take the call. I was in the kitchen with my sleeves rolled up, the phone cradled between my neck and ear, performing double duty – meal preparation and listening intently to my preschooler and his latest adventure. I barely shifted my attention when my stepfather said hello.
“Hey, what’s up?”
“I have some news.”
Cancer. Stage four.
Like a car crash, in the following moments, it felt as though the entire Earth stood still, stopped revolving around the sun and came to a complete halt. Everything around me – every last piece of furniture, every sound, even the smell of the simmering soup on the stovetop – faded into a fog of stillness and drifted completely out of my peripheral vision. There was only me, the phone and my stepdad’s voice that existed in that moment.
Chemo Monday. I love you.
The words that were circling in my mind wouldn’t form a sentence. The connection from my mind to mouth was completely severed. A boulder inside my throat prevented any words from forming on my lips.
Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.
I managed to say something remotely comforting; “I’m sorry. I love you. I will support you as best I can…”
As I circled around in the new uncertainty in my life, it felt as though everything had changed.
With no idea where to move next, I relied on my structured nature to make sense of it all. Creating a sense of order among chaos was my survival instinct. Making a list was naturally the first step.
1. Research chemo-friendly foods
2. Make soup and freezer meals
3. Get oil change for two-hour drive to hospital
4. Find babysitter for hospital visits
5. Start guitar lessons
I know, the last item seemed out of the ordinary. But in that moment, my soul reached through my body and wrote the words, “start guitar lessons.” Logically this made no sense, but as the rapid beating of my heart continued, I could not deny the urgency I felt to complete this task. The task that had been sitting on my to-do list for nearly 15 years.
In high school I sang in choirs and always admired the guitar players with their laid-back attitudes and seemingly worry-less existence in the world. My stepfather played guitar his entire life. It was his relaxation tool. After work he would flop on the couch, pick up the guitar and let the stress of the day melt away with each strum. He wasn’t a performer but he did perform once, for me, as a gift at my wedding.
After a quick Google search, I found an instrument rental shop that wasn’t too far from home. One phone call and a prepaid monthly credit card charge later, I was all set for lessons.
The lessons themselves were mediocre. I was a novice and didn’t really know why I was doing this. True to my disciplined nature, I turned up week after week to that dingy little practice room for 30 minutes and strummed away with my teacher. But in truth, I lacked focus and a true passion to get much benefit.
When my stepfather was discharged from the hospital, I brought over my rented guitar. In a makeshift hospital bed in the spare room, I’d show him the chords I’d learned and play my beat-up version of Sweet Home Alabama. But no matter how rough I sounded, the pure joy that emanated from his body during this time was obvious. Beneath the blue terrycloth housecoat, his enormous feet tapped to the beat and his eyes moved rhythmically with the song. It was as if the music was breathing life back into him.
Some days he’d find the strength to sit up in his chair and asked me to play. At times, I would “conveniently” leave my rental guitar at home in the hopes of being able to play his beautiful Martin & Co. guitar. The sound that radiated from this instrument was far richer and more soulful than any rental. We listened to oldies, shared chord short cuts and he helped me master the awkward F# chord.
He died five months after his diagnosis.
He left me his Martin & Co. guitar.
It was a long while before I could pick up that guitar and not cry. All the memories of playing together would flood into my brain and the regrets I had for waiting so long to start lessons haunted me for weeks. If only I had started earlier, if only we had longer to play music together. If only.
And then something changed. I would pick up the guitar and a calm and magical feeling of stillness fell over me, and I just started playing. I clunked out chords from the favourites we had played together. I moved swiftly and effortlessly from D and C to G chords. My heart warmed and my hands became piping hot as I confidently played our songs. He was with me, reassuring me that all was not lost, that the connection was made, however short, it was alive.
In the moments of pure stillness and the echo of the strings, I know that he is present. I am not lost. I am not alone. It is in the stillness of music that I am found.
Jennifer Ross lives in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont.