One of those sudden Chicago spring thunderstorms caught me by surprise one day as I walked downtown. I ducked into the Chicago Cultural Center.
The Chicago Cultural Center is my favorite building in the city. Its architecture is a majestic combination of Greek and Roman. It houses multiple concert halls, art exhibition halls, and stage theaters, plus a dance studio. I’ve performed in several plays in its theaters. I was glad to take refuge in that familiar building.
As I wandered inside, I heard the chords of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue resonating from the concert hall upstairs.
Rhapsody in Blue was the piece I was working on several years ago when my piano-playing career abruptly ended.
I had abandoned a successful career in accounting and taken on a series of low-paying jobs, hoping to build a career as a musician and stand-up comic. Soon I performed my first two paid out-of-town gigs.
Then the pain began.
I have heard it said that if you drop a frog into a pot of boiling water he will immediately leap out. But if you place a frog into a pot of room-temperature water, and then slowly bring the water to a boil, he will remain in the pot and get boiled to death.
I now believe this could be true. Because the pain came on gradually, day by day, week by week; and I paid little attention to it, until one night when I sat down at my piano to practice the Rhapsody in Blue and I could not play a single note.
The pain in my arms, wrists, hands, and fingers was so severe that I could not play a single note. I also found that I could not lift a cup, or turn a doorknob. But I hardly cared about these things. What I really cared about was music, and I could no longer play.
Everything that I had worked so hard to build was now ruined. Even my stand-up comedy act was anchored by my piano- and guitar-playing. Just when my work was beginning to find success, its foundation was destroyed.
I spent that night prostrate on my living room carpet, crying and praying.
Over the next few months, I languished in a near-suicidal depression. If I could not play music, I could hardly see the point in living.
I also embarked on a desperate search for healing. I prayed prodigiously. I tried physical therapy, drug therapy, acupuncture, acupressure, reflexology, and reiki massage. I went to different doctors and none of them could find a straight answer. I got tested for carpal tunnel syndrome and the test came back negative.
Finally my doctor told me that I simply had the most severe case of tendonitis she’d ever seen.
Through the multiple therapies, I gradually regained much of the day-to-day functionality in my hands. I could perform daily tasks now. But I could only play the piano for a few minutes before the pain would return. I could no longer sit and play for hours as I had been able to before. And I could not play the guitar at all.
My hands still understood the music, but they could no longer play it.
As the Rhapsody in Blue reverberated throughout the Chicago Cultural Center, I was drawn to the sound. I knew the piece intimately since I had learned it so painstakingly, note by note, chord by chord, in another life.
I approached the concert hall. The doors were open. The only person inside was a lovely Korean woman in her 20s, playing the masterpiece. She was dwarfed by the Steinway grand that she played.
I entered and sat in one of the hundreds of chairs that were set up. I watched her long fingers float over the keys. I listened. And I remembered.
As I remembered, I began to weep.
I wept for the music that George Gershwin might have made if he had lived past the age of 38. I wept for the beauty of a beautiful woman playing a beautiful composition on a beautiful piano. And I wept for the priceless gift that I had once held in my hands, that I might never hold again.
As I wept, I began to remember other pieces I have played. Soon they came flooding back into my consciousness: Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C-sharp Minor. Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. Bartok’s Allegro Barbaro. Haydn’s Organ Concerto in C Major. Even the simple pieces I’d played as a child: Beethoven’s Fur Elise. Schumann’s The Merry Farmer. The Bach Inventions.
As I remembered these pieces, I realized for the first time that these and all the other pieces I’d ever played still lived inside me. They were not lost forever, as I had long assumed.
As long as I could still hear them, treasure them, and be moved by them, these pieces of music would have life inside me.
I wish I could say that when I left the Chicago Cultural Center that day, the rain had stopped and the sun had emerged. However, that would be a lie.
It was still overcast and raining when I left.
But inside me, the clouds were starting to clear. What had been frozen was starting to melt.
A new season was beginning.
Ranjit Souri ([email protected]) manages a theater school and teaches writing classes in Chicago.