39: The Strings that Pulled Me Through

39: The Strings that Pulled Me Through

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Count Your Blessings

The Strings that Pulled Me Through

Happiness is a thing to be practiced, like the violin.
~John Lubbock

The words rang in my ears for days. With her arms around me as I fell apart and my world drowned in black, my surgeon whispered to me, “Leah, thousands of women have been where you are and thought it was the end. They are still here.” She was right. Those words didn’t mean anything to me then. I only remember I never cried so hard. I couldn’t stop.

I was like a zombie. My feet moved, I continued breathing, but I couldn’t think. When I saw her face as I walked into her office, I knew immediately it was cancer.

My mother and sister had jumped on a plane to be with me. They tried to distract me with jokes, luncheons, and outings to the movies. Their lightheartedness would make me forget … for awhile, but a lengthy operation involving the removal and reconstruction of my left breast awaited me and I began to wonder what I had done wrong in my life to deserve such a sentence.

The night before my operation, I was quiet on the outside, but inside I was screaming, I was on my knees begging the sun to remain, the night to stay away and the clock to stop ticking the hours away, counting the minutes down to the second I would be wheeled into that operating room. It was then that I came to grips with the possibility of my death.

I had been on the operating table for nearly ten hours and I knew my body would never be the same.

The day came when we all went to the oncologist to talk about the plan for the dreaded chemotherapy. I was prepared to hear that I would have to endure six months, which was the standard treatment at that time. When my doctor informed us I was to have a year of chemotherapy, the nightmare seemed to begin all over again.

My sister, mother and I huddled with our arms around one another, praying for the strength to accept this new sentence. My tears had begun again and the world seemed to go silent.

It was at this time I finally began to see that I had a mental strength, a positive attitude my mother had ingrained in me. My sister reminded me of this. She calmly sat down at a table with a piece of paper and folded it down the middle.

In one column, she explained, were the difficulties I would have to endure. In the second column, all the things I was grateful for. This was a technique my mother (who, ironically, was outside pacing and smoking) had taught us. I always knew what the outcome would be. The column for things I needed to be grateful for: my grown son, my completed education, a supportive family, good insurance coverage, a good job and a difficult divorce behind me, would always outweigh the other. As the year of chemo and radiation jumped out at me, it became clear. I had so much to be thankful for.

If you have never experienced that cold poison introduced into your system, it’s very difficult to explain the sensation. I would try to think of other things as I looked away and my doctor would put the needle in me. The feeling was chilling, like ice flowing through you instead of blood. Having been informed it was the strongest kind of chemo at the time, I had prepared myself for the vomiting, the nausea and the sleepless nights hovering over the toilet. I braced myself that day. I had my vomit bag beside me. I was ready. I waited and waited, but the nausea, the vomiting never came … not that day or any other.

Sitting quietly alone in my room one day, I thought about my year off from work and my year of treatment. The way I saw it, I had two ways to look at my situation. It all came down to this: Either I could tell myself that I was losing a year of my life, taken by cancer, or I could tell myself that since I would be at home and undergoing treatment without the reaction to chemo others had, I would actually be given a gift of a year. Then I saw it. Even though it had been leaning against the wall for the past three years gathering dust, there it was … my violin, one I had yet to learn to play. It seemed to scream at me, “Here I am! Look at me!”

It was a gift, given to me for my birthday one year by a good friend. The old violin, in a case nearly as worn, had been restrung and was waiting for me to fulfill a dream I never had time to pursue. For me, the sound of a violin was the closest sound to angels singing. I told myself I would finally be given the time to make mine sing.

I began to pursue this goal in earnest as I signed up for the beginning strings class at the local community college. But the rounded, smooth notes I planned to produce emerged in abrupt, stop and start screeching of unrecognizable “melody.”

As I mastered each song, I would go on to other simple songs on my old but angelic instrument, always with the impending orchestra performance a few months away at the forefront of my mind. The role of our beginning strings class was to accompany the more advanced class in the playing of the “William Tell Overture.” What a lofty undertaking I had set for myself!

In a few weeks, I knew my hair would begin to fall out. So, I had it shaved off before I could see long strands of hair lying on my pillow. Meanwhile, I would imagine the voice of the violin speaking to me to encourage me to keep practicing, to work to make my dream come true. Soon, those sharp, shrill screeches began to glide into smooth, buttery notes, responding to the touch of my fingers, propelling me forward to reach my goal.

Now, I had something meaningful to do with my fingers, with my mind, something that made my heart soar when I felt the strings vibrate under my fingertips. It was as if they were calling me. After years of silence, the strings awakened my spirit again, the way it had been awakened when I was a child and first learned to play piano and when I was an adolescent and learned to play guitar. The violin, however, was more intense. It was medicine for my soul and spirit, literally counteracting the dark liquid flowing through me. It lightened my fear, replacing it with hope.

A few months later, as I sat in the strings section of the college orchestra, my dream became a reality. Though I was bald under my scratchy wig, it didn’t matter. Those angelic chords were being played by me, by my fingers, as I was surrounded by my musician friends. I knew deep inside me that there was a light and an end to this journey. The strings of my violin had pulled me through.

~Leah M. Cano

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