Even unpremeditated consideration of life in mid-January in Canada must inevitably include an allusion to the misery of the weather, the sodden grey clouds, dirty yellow light and blackened urban snow. I supplemented the trial by visiting my aging father at his “retirement” institution on Sunday morning. It is of course ridiculous to label the singular feature of his residence as one of retirement. He is almost 96 years of age and has been retired for over 30 years. His room (hardly up to the elevated nomination of a “residence”) is in the Alzheimer wing of the hospital. It is impossible to escape the babbling and occasional wails of the surrounding “residents” (another nicety). The drably clad nurses and service staff perform their duties with practiced distance from the disheartening surroundings. It is useless to glamourize the scene. It’s not a home or a residence; it’s an asylum, a last stop, a safe haven for the frail and failing from the methods of the outside world.
Remarkably I am not persuaded by the gloom of the place. In fact I make an effort to look into the eyes of the people whom I pass in the hallway. The ones who still have life in their eyes are eager for communication even if it is nothing more than a silent regard accompanied perhaps by a polite “Good morning!” They have something to say, I know; they have a story to tell if only I had a moment to enquire. But I have my own relative to attend upon and I mustn’t erode the few moments allotted for the weekly visit before my father falls asleep mid-conversation.
On my way back from collecting a parking pass from the Commissionaire’s desk – a lengthy walk down exceptionally wide corridors flanked by empty rooms with chairs and a chapel set up for what might in any other circumstance be a wedding – I spy a piano in the dining room where some downcast residents have already set their wheelchairs at small square tables in preparation for the mid-day meal. I cannot resist a piano, it begs to be played. I redirect my objective and march with purpose into the dining room, past the several people waiting at their tables, tossing a careless Hello! They can’t imagine what I am about.
As usual the piano (which bears a sticker proclaiming who donated it) is hopelessly out of tune and many of the keys do not function properly. Nonetheless I play on. Even without turning around to examine my audience I can tell they are captive, awakening to the private sentiments which a chord here and a chord there has struck within their weary souls. Music always does that, lifting people from their forlorn thoughts. I know too the congregation is increasing, not just because it is lunch time but because I am the Pied Piper leading them to fields they haven’t contemplated for a long time. Because I have played these ancient pianos in similar circumstances more than once I even have a repertoire with a crescendo. I know the introductory pieces which pull on their heart strings. I know the violence of the last piece which will lay before them the power they no longer have in themselves but which they still can feel in the music.
With a flourish I hit the last bass note to punctuate the finale of the piece and stand up from the bench, nourished by immediate applause from the people in the room. The performance is at an end. As I prepare to leave the room I greet my humble admirers, discovering as so often is the case that more than one of them once played the piano or taught it. There is always one gentleman sitting alone who refuses to look at me as I search his face. He doesn’t want to admit to sentimentality, nothing will improve his day. It is for him a bleak winter day.