When the Piano Player Dies
By Brenda Starr
It was too warm of a day for a job interview. My comfortable-fit slacks weren’t living up to their name and my long blond, loosely curled hair lost all of its blow dried fluff during the drive.
The medical profession was new to me. I had no training or college degrees in even a semi-related field. I just needed a job like yesterday.
I gave my face one last check in the rearview mirror before getting out of the car. “God, it was just too damn hot out!”
Like a squirrel harboring the only nut in the forest I scurried up the front steps of the care facility before the heat sent my lip gloss down my chin. However, an elderly woman in a wheelchair was trying to get out of the door as I was going in. Forgetting about my nut and the status of my lip gloss I stood patiently holding the door open for her until she was completely out.
“Thank you, Honey” she said with a wavering voice. Looking deep into her tender eyes for only a second it turned out that my heart was the only thing melting.
“Mom is picking me up on her motorcycle and I don’t want to miss her. You didn’t see her in the parking lot did you?”
Quickly I transitioned from melting heart status to confused cranium and as I entered the building I heard someone call my name.
The interview went pretty smooth. No stranger ever embraced me like Activity Director JuliAnne Marx did. She was a tiny woman, maybe in her 70’s and so petite I thought she must do steroids to hug me with the grip she did. But her happy head of gray short curls smelled like pears…a trusting sign I thought. I may not be the sharpest needle in the knitting bag but I am quite observant. I do notice and believe in signs, underlying messages we may otherwise be blind to that sometimes are big as billboards, loud as brass bands and rowdy as bulls at a clown jamboree.
Yes, from the get go Ms. JuliAnne Marx was a precious California pear, ripe with as much anxiety to hire someone as I was to smell a paycheck with my name on it.
As Ms.Marx explained, she had witnessed me holding the door open for the woman in the wheelchair and had decided at that moment I was hired. My lack of experience as an Activity Director’s Assistant didn’t seem to matter much. But respect for elderly people and a caring heart did. And it helped that I was artistic, as it was a job requirement to offer creative mind stimulation for the elderly, the sick and the dying on a daily basis.
Two days later I found myself driving to the facility again to start my first day, again, as one of the working class. At 37 years of age with two kids, a mortgage and a much younger husband who cared only about sex and tuning his guitar, I had to make my new gig work.
I had chosen to wear a sleeveless cotton, strawberry/banana print dress with a conservative v-neck. My accessories consisted of a thin white fabric textured belt and white loop wire earrings to match. I was about 5 ft. 7 inches tall last time I checked and the dress went to just above my knees adequately covering my slightly tan, 145 lb. physique quite comfortably. I topped off the outfit with low heel, simply designed red strap sandals so trendy for the mid 90’s.
This time during the drive it wasn’t the summer heat or my strawberry flavored lip gloss application that concerned me. It was that question in my mind repeatedly bouncing back and forth like a love-love tennis match: Could I handle elderly people every day, most of which didn’t have much time left?
As I had shared with Ms. Marx during the interview, I was close enough to my grandparents. In fact they were my stability growing up. But would a thriving relationship with close relatives that had developed over a period of many decades compare to being thrown into daily close encounters with these mature kind? Could I care for them like old friends, creatively stimulate their challenged minds or harder yet, could I grow to love them and then watch them die?
I opened all the windows in the car suddenly aching for a breeze. At least the facility was located pretty close to the beach. Maybe I could grab some fast food and head to the ocean at lunch time. How I loved living on the central coast. I had been a local beach resident for over 12 years. The sound of a few passing seagulls overhead calmed and welcomed me as I pulled into the parking lot.
I didn’t see much of Ms. Marx when I first arrived at my new place of employment. She shoved a basket of hot cocoa mix at me, pointed to the coffeemaker and said, “ Give them their morning hot cocoa and suggest something creative to do for about an hour and a half.”
As I watched her small body swiftly move away from me down a long corridor I heard her add, “And we don’t wear sandals here.”
Then she was gone…In my strawberry/banana dress and inappropriate shoes I stood there for an awkwardly long time clinging to the smell of pears. Other aromas had slyly begun to invade my sense of smell and they were not all that pleasant.
Finally, I took the cocoa basket and the coffeemaker into a large multi-purpose type room where I was directed to go. About 50 to 60 people occupied this space, some in wheelchairs near the front of the room, some seated at short tables sporadically placed and some were lying on gurneys against the walls, in a totally catatonic state. Some were drooling heavily.
I also noticed there were more women than men. On the walls were several sheets of colored paper, mostly copies of the daily food menus for the month, some semi-festive photographs of the patients, but no art.
A half an hour went by. After fumbling but finally getting cocoa served to those who would accept it I moved to the front of the room and began to panic inside. Anguish started to crawl inside me like a greedy vine when I looked at the majority of aging and lonely faces in the room. I took a deep breath, silently asked God to help me and then I opened my mouth.
“Who wants to have a spelling bee!?” I shouted with slow inflating enthusiasm.
A towering, thin, unshaven man slowly stood to his feet from his wheel chair. Hope embraced me. He was about 6 ft. 4 inches tall and he struggled some to steady himself until he found his balance. He was in desperate need of a haircut, his blue plaid flannel shirt was too many X’s large for him and it showed. A pair of stretched out gray sweat pants hung loosely from his narrow hips.
With anticipation I focused on his facial expression. He winced and I assumed this wise old soul was thinking of a word to spell or perhaps he would recite a profound quotation.
I felt my expectation climb! He winced harder and my focus on his face grew more intent, so intent that I failed to notice that he was actually trying to expose his penis. Success! It was out there now and so was the urine he shared with us all, a genuinely steady stream of nearly neon yellow pee splattered onto the linoleum floor as if from a firehouse hose. Good to the last lingering drop… I finally said,
“Ok, who can spell trouble shooter?”
That night at home I tried to share the emotional roller coaster I experienced my first day on the new job with my husband, Tyler.
“Couldn’t you have gotten work at Denny’s or something? How can you work at an old folk’s home?”
Close to midnight I knew I had stressed far too long over preparing what to wear to work the next day, but the sandals were out and the white tennies were in.
I checked in on my sleeping 8 yr. old boy, Max and my 13 yr. old daughter, Katie in their separate rooms, well… Katie required frequent goodnights and a triple check to make sure she was off the damn phone. Teenagers are scary entities. I reminded myself not to skip down memory lane of when I was a teenager, especially right before bedtime. From the wars of experience I knew that was a definite pin puller on the hand grenade of a sure fire nightmare.
My mind all too tired then to fear even what the next day would hold for me at “the old folk’s home” I brushed my teeth and headed into the bedroom. It wasn’t the first time I had caught Tyler looking at porn on the internet but the sickness that suddenly entered the pit of my stomach like a sword quickly reminded me how I wished it would be the last time. Searching for comfort only in the blankets that gently caressed me in bed, I knew different.
Weeks at my new job had turned into a couple of months and surprisingly I had grown quite comfortable in my position as Activities Assistant. Yes, it had been extremely difficult the first few days. But I realized early on I must either come to terms with what was needed of me or turn around and run out of the building screaming and never come back.
Today was special. A man named George Redfox was scheduled to show up after lunch to entertain the patients. He was a multi-talented man ranging from magician, piano player to stand up comedian. No matter what he chose to share with our crowd he was dearly loved and appreciated.
A woman named Betty Tilford especially anticipated George’s visits. He flirted with her shamelessly. Her gentle face still showed evidence of beauty, though now she was wheelchair bound, suffered from dementia and had lost a breast to cancer. However, she managed to remember George Redfox and responded to him as if she were a young healthy girl. This was a woman who definitely loved how the piano man made her feel!
Betty’s voice was still quite good and she sang like a bird when he played the piano. I had helped her to get dressed that morning as per her request. Nothing would do but her moo moo her daughter had sent her from Hawaii with the pink flamingos on it. We even added a touch of flamingo pink lipstick!
George was in rare form. He wore a dark pinstripe suit with a matching dark hat that complimented his savvy good looks. He was in his late 50’s, wasn’t a tall man or that slim, but he wore a suit well. He made sure he greeted Betty first and foremost with a kiss to the forehead and a smile that caused her to beam and blush a shade of flamingo pink all her own.
“Can you play Unforgettable by Nat King Cole next, Georgie?” Betty asked.
It would be the third song since he had arrived and it was his usual break time when he would mingle with the crowd for a few moments…however, he kept at it and started in with Unforgettable”.
Betty started to sing like the beautiful bird she was, just glowing and I thought I might shed a tear it was so cute. I left the room and stood just outside the closed multi-purpose doors rechecking the schedule of the day on my clipboard, still in listening range of the music until I noticed it all came to an abrupt halt. In fact something had pounded the piano keys with a forceful thud that was definitely not part of the song.
Quite ungracefully I forged through the doors into the room where I heard only gasps and whimpers. George had dived face down onto the keys and was motionless.
Nothing I had done or told myself had prepared me for the initial days that followed George’s death. My prepared focus had been on the probable loss of the patients, not the treasured man that entertained them, the relatively young man that was regularly the main source of their joy and happiness. A new question then wrestled with my mind and heart. How was I supposed to help the patients, my dear close friends, deal with the death of their beloved piano man?
Betty was a clam. She retreated into silence and acted oblivious to the mention of what had happened to George Redfox. It pulled at me, but I honestly did not know if her behavior was from her sadness or from the dementia.
On a late August afternoon, six days after tragedy had struck the care facility smack in the music section I visited Betty in her private room. While in her wheelchair she had managed to ransack through every drawer she could reach. Her clothes were strewn everywhere, the moo moo with the flamingos on it tossed in a corner like a forgotten rag doll. Betty just stared out the window of a closed sliding glass door that lead to a private patio. I pulled up a chair next to her.
“What happened to your room, Betty?”
With obvious irritation she finally looked me hard in the eyes.
“I can’t find it.”
“You can’t find what?” I asked.
Her stare intensified. She moved her hands to her shoulders and pulled down a thin cotton robe she wore and exposed her one breast and the scarred vacancy of the other one she had lost to cancer some years ago.
“My breast, of course. I can’t for the life of me remember where I put it!”
That evening, a quiet Friday I found myself alone at home. The kids were with their father who lived in L.A. and my husband, Tyler was practicing with his band as he usually did.
The phone rang. It was Tyler.
“Hey, Baby. We’re taking a smoke break. The band loves my new song! What are you up to?”
“Oh, I was just sitting here getting kind of excited about a new art project I came up with for the old folks. I’ve discovered that Art is quite healing for my patients and myself too. I can’t believe how powerful it can be…really rewarding. Sometimes I swear I see a new light in their eyes when they create something cool. That feeling never gets old!” I said giggling.
He cut me off.
“Are you serious?! When are you going to move on to a job less embarrassing, Dana?”
After a sharp silence he cleared his throat and I heard him spit.
“Jesus… Listen, next weekend there’s a big picnic at that park in town and it’s gonna’ rock! I can’t wait!”
Choking back the tears I said, “Oh, cool! The kids and I love that park. It has something for everybody. Is the picnic Sat –“
He cut me off again. “No, it’s only a picnic for me and the guys in the band, Baby.”
I heard him exhale hard as he emptied his lungs of cigarette smoke.
“Look, I gotta’ get back in there with the boys. They’re getting restless. We have to kill the new guy on keyboards. He sucks.”