Imperfect Instruments: A Three-Part Harmony

· Winner of the 2015 “Segullah Award for Excellence in Creative Nonfiction” ·

April 15, 2015

This is going to be your only helicopter ride. Too bad you can’t look out the window.”

I didn’t understand why the guy thought I’d never go on another helicopter. Of course, I also wasn’t sure why I was on this one. My head was strapped to a backboard, and I had a hazy memory of trying to unbuckle my seatbelt and not being able to move my arm. Of firemen peeling the top of my car open like a tin can. Otherwise, the day was black.

I opened my eyes again. The room looked like a hospital—white walls and fluorescent lights—but I couldn’t remember how I got there. A blond nurse leaned over me.

“Have you ever had a back injury?”

“Yes,” I mumbled. “I might be lying.” I couldn’t find the energy to explain that I’d been thrown from a horse and hurt my back a few years ago, when I was still in high school, but the injury hadn’t been serious.

“We’re going to do an MRI. It may take a while.”

“Can I sleep?” I had a vague memory of being told that people with head injuries shouldn’t sleep, and my head didn’t seem right.

“You can sleep.” They moved me into the glowing metal tube, and I slipped out again.

I hung in a drug-induced slumber while the doctors tracked down my parents and told them to expect the worst. My neck and back were broken in three places, and my brain was bleeding. I probably wouldn’t pull through. If I did, I might be in a vegetative state. I almost certainly wouldn’t walk again.

One of my only waking memories was of the missionaries giving me a blessing. I don’t know how they found me. Maybe it was because of the CTR ring the nurse cut off my swelling finger. I also don’t recall much of what they said, except for two things:

You will recover completely.

Don’t give up your musical pursuits.

*

I sit at the piano, my hands hovering over the keys. I know the song. I’ve had it memorized for years. This isn’t to say I’m a talented musician, but I love music. There’s something satisfying about pounding your happiness or frustration into a keyboard. Now, my fingers curl into my palm, the muscles wasted, my hands almost skeletal. Muscle memory lingers. My fingers twitch, wanting to reach out, but they feel like they’re tied with rubber bands. The song is still there, but I can’t give it voice. I slam the lid closed and limp away.

*

There are times I’m angry with God. Times I want to shout and cry and throw things. I feel deserted. But no matter how angry or lonely I feel, I never quite stop believing in Him.

*

The neurosurgeon picked tiny fragments of splintered bone out of my spinal cord. He took bone from my hip, shaped it, and replaced the broken vertebrae, joining the pieces with titanium plates and screws.

I was conscious more often after the surgery. Bruises purpled my face and abdomen, and my nose and throat were burned raw and bloody from the chemicals in the air bag. I thought I couldn’t move my leg because of the surgery on my hip. I thought I’d be able to move my hands again when I got my strength back. I had faith in that blessing.

About a week after the surgery, I asked for crackers and juice—the first thing I’d eaten since the pancake breakfast before the accident. The doctor and therapists came to talk about what would happen next.

“I’m going to walk in my graduation at BYU, then my best friend and I are going to Europe,” I rasped out in a faint whisper.

“We’ll see,” the doctor said. I didn’t understand her uncertainty.

They fitted me for a body brace—a contraption of metal bars, straps, and padding that locked my spine into alignment—and made arrangements for physical rehabilitation.

*

I’ve often thought, if I could go back to the morning before my accident and do one thing (other than warn myself to watch out for the soft shoulder on the highway), I’d play the piano one more time. Piano isn’t my favorite instrument, though. Violin is. Unfortunately, I never got past “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and other classics of the screeching-cat school of beginner violin. It might be just as well, because I can’t imagine how much losing that would have hurt.

Each Christmastime, I dust off my violin and scratch out “O Holy Night,” my favorite carol—the one song I’m determined to learn, no matter how bad I sound. One year, perhaps a decade after the accident, my husband congratulated my efforts by saying, “That’s getting a lot better. I could tell what song it was.”

*

The Book of Mormon talks about being an instrument in the hands of the Lord, a force for good in the world. I try. But if God wants me—any of us—to do His work, I sometimes wonder why He doesn’t give us better tools. It’s hard to make beautiful music with a broken instrument.

*

One of the nurses checking me into rehab laughed good-naturedly at my wispy voice. “Sounds like your singing career is over.”

I smiled and pretended it didn’t hurt my feelings. My singing career, which involved a bit of musical theater and church choir, was sinking like a rock. To protect my spine, the neurosurgeon went in through the front of my neck for the surgery, and in the process he accidentally cut the nerve that controlled my right vocal chord. My throat would heal from the air bag’s chemical burns, but my voice, supported by just one functioning vocal chord, was an airy whisper, and I didn’t know when it would recover.

My rehab neurologist introduced herself and did some tests, gently poking my skin with a pin, using both the sharp and dull ends to see how sensitive my nerves were.

Left side first. Sharp. Dull. Dull. Sharp. Dull.

Then she did the right side.

“I can’t feel that,” I whispered.

Her smile faded. “What about this?”

“Maybe a little pressure.”

“Sharp or dull?”

“I don’t know.”

She had to do some reading, but she came back with the diagnosis: Brown-Sequard Syndrome. The shards of bone that had sliced my spine didn’t sever my nerves completely, but they’d shotgunned my spinal cord. I had spots all over my right side—mostly in my abdomen and leg—where I couldn’t feel anything, and muscles in my left side—especially in my hand, arm, and back—that would waste away to almost nothing. Because the patches of paralysis affected all four of my limbs, the neurosurgeon handed down the verdict of quadriplegic. I was stunned. Cold. But God promised I would recover completely. The doctor had to be wrong.

*

I need a musical outlet, and I believe God means for it to be part of my recovery. Music has a healing power that sometimes transcends even the abilities of drugs and other therapies. It can’t heal a broken spinal cord, though.

Still, I’m drawn to the idea of music therapy. The harp is considered the ideal instrument for therapy work. Therapy harps are not the stately instruments you see playing with the Tabernacle Choir. They fit in your lap and weigh under ten pounds.

The deep notes resonate in my chest as I cradle the instrument against me, and even my wasted fingers can pluck the strings. Best of all, there’s nothing to compare it to. I never considered playing the harp before, so every note is a new triumph.

*

Plagued by self doubt and hungry for hope, I devour writings that help me feel like God hasn’t forgotten me. An article in the 2005 Ensign by Elder Glenn L. Pace, “Confidence and Self Worth,” gave me a jolt. He wrote that the Lord can use our weaknesses to bless us and bring about good in our lives. I had thought of weaknesses as something to overcome or be ashamed of, but I had never considered that what I think of as weaknesses and shortcomings may simply be those circumstances that put me where I was supposed to be—the place where I can play my part in the symphony of life. I don’t know if that’s always true, but it’s a reassuring thought, especially when my burdens weigh me down, and I pray for them to be lifted, and the only answer seems to be silence.

*

The days in rehab were brutal and boring, sometimes at the same time. Physical therapy is abbreviated PT. That really stands for Pain and Torture. The therapists worked us until we cried, until we threw up. Not only girls cracked under the torment. Grown men and teenage boys sobbed unabashedly. Once, while I was sitting on a mat with tears running down my face, a man in a wheelchair rolled by and said, “At least you can still feel it.”

Speech therapists ran endless tests and computer simulations on my voice, which registered almost too high for the human ear. My voice had been replaced by a dog whistle.

The worst day of the week was when I had to go in for counseling. The psychologist never smiled.

“You need to set new goals for when you leave,” she said.

“I’m going to get back into music.” I’d gotten a refund on my tickets to Europe. I didn’t consider it a betrayal of my faith, just an acknowledgment that God doesn’t always work on my time frame.

“You need to accept that you can’t do the things you used to do.”

“I’m going to play music. Play the piano again.”

“I had a patient who loved music. After his spinal cord injury, he had someone tape drumsticks to his arms so he could tap on the drum.”

I was horrified on the kid’s behalf, though maybe he didn’t feel sorry for himself. “I don’t want to play drums.”

The best part of the week was when volunteers came to sing and play guitar for us in the evening, the music soothing away every other thought.

*

The only problem I have with the harp is that it’s so sedate. The remaining muscles in my hands are stronger from plucking the strings, but no matter how hard I pull on them, I still get a gentle, mellow sound. There are times I need to be loud, to jam my frustrations away, especially when my body won’t do what I need it to.

*

One of my favorite scripture verses is Isaiah 40:31: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.” Sometimes I feel like I’ve run as far as I can, and then I spend a lot of time waiting.

*

The doctors oohed and aahed over my recovery, but I wasn’t satisfied. My left foot still hung lifelessly, and I couldn’t move my left hand. My therapists talked about making adjustments. They ignored my insistence that I was going to get better. I was grateful for what I had, but I believed God when he told me there was more to come. I had a feeling that on a particular day coming up, my fingers would move again. It was my lifeline. I clung to it.

When the occupational therapist came that day, all businesslike, I couldn’t stop grinning.

“I moved my thumb.”

“What?” He gave me a skeptical look, maybe thinking he’d misunderstood my whisper.

“Look.” I held up my wasted hand and moved my thumb up and down. It was a tiny movement, hardly more than a twitch, but it happened under my control. The therapists warned me that once muscles are paralyzed, even temporarily, they never recover completely, but I rode on a spiritual high. God hadn’t forgotten me.

I told them that my foot was going to regain movement, too—I was going to recover completely—but they still fitted me for a brace to support my paralyzed foot so I could learn to walk again. The day they brought my new brace in, I wiggled my big toe. I think they were actually a bit annoyed, after all the work they’d put into making the contraption I would no longer need. By the time I left the hospital, I was able to walk a little, and I even made it to my graduation, clutching my cane and terrified the whole time that I was going to fall and get trampled by the hundreds of other graduates. But I walked. Things were going to keep getting better.

*

The harp is a great step for me, but it’s not taking me all the way to my goal. I start looking at other instruments—delving deeper into the world of folk music with its array of beautiful, unusual sounds—and discover the hammered dulcimer. It consists of paired strings laid out across a soundboard and struck with wooden hammers. Like the piano, it’s a percussive string instrument, suited to bluegrass music and folk tunes.

My husband, a talented woodworker, builds one for me. It’s hard to remember when I’ve had more fun making music. One of the tricks to playing it is to have a loose hold on the hammers so they have some bounce to them. My fingers can’t grip anything tightly anyway, so I pound away at those strings, getting some great bounce, and the harder I hit the notes, the more energy goes into the song.

It’s even better than piano. Not as pretty as violin, but more loose and fun. I’ve wondered if I ever would have discovered it if I hadn’t lost those other instruments.

*

A story in The Book of Mormon has gained new significance to me since my accident. In it, the prophet Nephi and his family are traveling through the wilderness, dependent on hunting for their survival. Their bows wear out, and Nephi’s bow—the best one they have—breaks. Everyone’s upset with Nephi and with God. But Nephi makes a new bow and prays. God shows him where to find food, and the family is happy again. The thing that stands out to me is that Nephi didn’t feed his family with his best bow. He did it with one he made himself in the wilderness. He didn’t need the best instrument. He just needed persistence and faith.

*

Free from the watchful eyes of nurses, I practiced walking at home. First from one couch to another. Then down the hall. Then around the house. I still limped, but I gave up my cane.

The worst problem was my voice. People could hardly stand talking to me because it was so airy and squeaky. When I told the specialist I’d planned to be a teacher, he winced and described adaptations that would allow me to speak, though I’d never have a normal voice. I walked out with my weak foot dragging, wondering if I needed to find a new direction in life.

The bishop of my singles ward asked if I would be the chorister.

“Really?” I squeaked. “I can’t sing. I can’t even talk.”

“I know,” he said. “Will you do it?”

I was already embarrassed by all the attention I got because of my body brace. The idea of standing in front of a congregation of my peers and showing off my weaknesses—my inability to talk or sing—made me cringe. But my mother had raised me with the idea that you don’t turn down a calling, so I agreed.

Picking out the songs gave me something to do. I wished I had a more complex calling, something to fill my hours besides PT exercises. There wouldn’t be much to the calling until Sunday came around.

The night before, I took one of my walks around the yard. It was cool, pleasant, and stars were bright overhead—a perfect evening. It reminded me of one of the songs we were singing for church the next day, “How Great Thou Art.” I took a deep breath and sang, “O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made …”

The notes came out perfectly, not even a little bit squeaky. I stopped and stared up at the sky, wondering if I’d imagined it. I tried another song: “How firm a foundation, ye Saints of the Lord, is laid for your faith in his excellent word.” Strong and clear. I went inside and said something—I don’t remember what. My family stared then laughed and asked a million questions. I could only attribute it to God. The doctors were certain that my voice would not come back, but I agreed to do what the Lord asked of me, and He gave me the instrument I needed accomplish it.

I was doing physical therapy at an outpatient facility, but my progress plateaued. I limped badly. My left hand was so weak I could barely hold anything, and my good hand wasn’t much better. I broke a lot of dishes. The therapists declared me healed, but this wasn’t my idea of a complete recovery.

*

I haven’t forgotten my desire to play therapy harp, especially given how much I appreciate the people who sang to us in the hospital, but my harp skills will never be more than marginal. Still, when they open a new rest home just down the street from my house and reach out to the neighborhood, asking us to come visit, play the piano, anything to help the people with dementia make it through the difficult evening hours, I volunteer. It’s a perfect audience, really. Even if I do terribly, they’ll forget by tomorrow.

So I play my little collection of songs. My left hand seizes up, as it often does when I’m nervous, and I end up mostly playing the right hand melody. My audience squirms, fidgets, mumbles.

They’re all LDS. I grab the hymnal from the piano and look for something in a key I can play. I haven’t practiced these, but I know the tunes. I pluck out the simple melodies, and the residents grow calm. Some close their eyes. One gentleman leans forward, calling out requests.

“You’re playing it too slow!” he shouts.

My face burns, but I can’t go any faster. When I’m done, my critic is still frowning, but he’s sitting back in his chair, his posture relaxed.

“Thank you!” one of the nurses says. She glances at the critic. “I hope you’ll come back?”

I look at my audience’s peaceful expressions. “Yes, I will.”

*

I’m fortunate to be as functional as I am. A statistical anomaly. A miracle. But I believed I would heal completely. I still hope for it and work for it. I can walk, but because of the imbalance of my muscles, I’m always in pain, except for the spots where I feel nothing at all. Once, I stepped on a toothpick and it went all the way into my foot. I didn’t realize it until I noticed the trail of blood on the carpet.

The thing that stings the most is not understanding why my healing came this far and stopped. I got my voice back against all probability, so why not my hands or my foot? Some days my faith feels worn pretty thin. Did I make a mistake and push God away? Did He forget I was here?

I try to have faith that this is for the best. After all, there are things I wouldn’t have discovered, wouldn’t have done, if my body was whole. When I pray and listen, I feel reassured that there is a reason behind my trials, even if I can’t understand it yet. Waiting is more exhausting than running, but maybe only in the times when we are still can we hear the strains of the heavenly music playing all around us. It’s a great swell of voices, each as different as piano, violin, drums, harp, or hammered dulcimer, but capable of coming together in beautiful harmonies. I like to think, if I listen closely enough, I’ll understand my part in it a little better.

*

My two pregnancies were nightmares. The stress pushed my muscles and nerves past their endurance, and I spent nearly the full nine months of each on bed rest, throwing up and in excruciating pain every time I got to my feet. But I love my daughters more than I could have imagined—worth every moment of misery.

My second child was a fussy baby, and often the only thing that soothed her was my singing. My vocal range is much less than it once was, my sense of pitch a bit off-key, but she doesn’t care. Even now, as a toddler, whenever she’s upset, she runs to my arms and asks me to sing. She doesn’t demand that my voice be perfect. She’s satisfied with my imperfections. I strive for the faith to accept them as well, to trust that God, the Great Conductor, knows how to arrange His orchestra and make beautiful music using imperfect instruments.

April 15, 2015
April 15, 2015

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