82: Maestro

82: Maestro

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People


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

~John Lubbock

I kept seeing my father, suitcase in hand, his back towards me as he left through the front door. He left as though it were just another day and he would be back in a few minutes. But, he wouldn’t be back. It amazed me how he had left us so easily, without a thought, without so much as a backward glance.

Where do you go to fix a heart that has been so ruthlessly destroyed? Now, I understood all those songs that asked that eternal question about how to mend a broken heart. According to them, the answer was time.

We had decided on a little diversion, a little Christmas holiday to speed up the healing. We went to Mexico to visit some of my mother’s cousins, Catalina and Raymundo, who she hadn’t seen since she was a teenager.

I can’t remember what I was doing before I saw Cousin Manuel. I just remember that when I did see him, I was horrified.

They brought him into the house on a slab of wood pulled by a rope. I can still hear the squeaking sound the metal wheels made as Raymundo pulled him carefully over the threshold. Manuel wore a plaid shirt under a plain, dark brown vest. His back was supported by a manmade prop, much like the ones behind picture frames, only much larger because it was made to support the weight of a human being.

Cousin Manuel had no legs. His trousers were folded under his body. His shirt was cut away at the armholes to reveal stumps projecting about four inches from his shoulders with a few fingers protruding from them. This is the way he had come into the world.

My eyes were wide with disbelief. I wasn’t ready to see anything like this. I wanted to close them and run. And he was smiling. How could a person who was cursed with such a deformity be smiling?

As I tried to sleep that night, questions about Cousin Manuel filled my mind. Did he live with Catalina and Raymundo? Did he have his own room? How did he eat? Who dressed him? How does a person who is half a person live from day to day? Curiosity began to replace the pain I was carrying around inside. There was something about his presence that had nothing to do with his physical condition.

The next morning, I was rubbing the sleep from my eyes when I heard the most lovely sound. I immediately thought of angels and heaven. It was the sound of violins.

I heard voices and the slight shuffling of feet. Then the noises stopped. There was a pause. I tiptoed to the shutters, the morning sunlight streaming in through the slats, and opened one side very slowly, just a crack.

Outside our room was a large patio. I could see the backs of students, approximately ten to sixteen years of age, standing with their violins tucked under their chins. Poised. Ready.

The sound that came from their instruments transported me. For the first time since my father walked out that door, I forgot the pain. I felt as though someone was caressing my soul, as though my heart was being embraced by something from another world.

As I listened, I strained to see the face at the podium. The instructor’s voice was soft, serene. The students would stop and start at his command. I saw a sea of long and short hair, hands lovingly holding their fragile instruments, their attention completely captivated by that voice, faces focused on him.

Then, I saw two young men come forward and say something to him, ending with the word “maestro.” I heard the squeak of the wheels and saw the empty slab of wood before I saw them lowering the maestro onto his makeshift cart. The tenderness with which they did this left a lump in my throat.

When the mind questions what the eyes see, it searches for a logical explanation for it. My mind could find no logic for this, for a man without arms or legs coaxing such sweet sounds from these budding musicians, a man many people would consider useless, an invalid, a cripple.

My mother was awake. She put her hand on my shoulder. She said nothing. I knew she was in awe too. We watched the maestro smiling up at the young students who had lowered him. Each student thanked the maestro with a quiet, reverent bow, violin case at his side. One of the young men began to pull his cart, the metal wheels clacking against the cement.

Suddenly, I was ashamed of myself. I hadn’t seen him. My eyes had seen him, but my heart hadn’t. Now, I was forced to see who this man truly was.

The day we left, Cousin Manuel came to say goodbye. He was smiling as always. And he was sorry to see us leave because he had a special invitation for us to attend his wedding the following week.

He was the same person coming through the same door in the same way he had the first time I had met him, but now, I was the one who had changed. My heart embraced him. I knew why his students had such a deep respect for him. He may have been half a person physically, but he was a towering example of the strength of the human spirit. He was a testimony to overcoming adversity, transforming it into something he shared with others, something they would remember throughout their lives. He had literally turned his misfortune into music.

As we left, I felt within me the assurance that, with time, my mother and I would indeed be whole again. I knew this because the maestro had unknowingly taught me a lesson. This time, as I boarded the bus for home, I returned with the maestro’s smile in my mind and his music in my heart.

~Leah M. Cano

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