I wake up in my sleeping bag on the floor: What, Mom?
She says: I’m sorry to wake you—
It’s okay, Mom, what do you need?
Will you give me a drink of water and then move me onto my tummy?
I say: Okay.
The year is 1991. I am a college student. It is spring break. Most of my friends have gone to Florida or other parts south. I’ve come home, to Barnesville, Ohio, to be with my mom—who is in her mid-40s and suffers from a debilitating and disfiguring form of rheumatoid arthritis—while my dad is away on business.
It is three o’clock in the morning.
I rise from my sleeping bag and pick up a stainless steel cup of water from the end-table next to Mom’s bed. I use my right hand to gently prop her head off her pillow. As I bring the cup toward her lips, her gnarled hands join my left hand on the cup. Her arthritic fingers are permanently bent, forever splayed at erratic angles. I’m thinking about how terrible it must be for her to know that she can never ever stretch her fingers again and while I’m thinking this we carefully pour the tepid water sip by sip into her mouth.
Mom says: Thanks. Okay, now I want you to move me onto my side, but you have to do it very slowly and very carefully.
I slowly lift the bed sheets away from Mom’s body. I recall that in her wedding pictures from 1964, she is the most beautiful woman in the world, and you would think she’s a movie star. Today, 27 years later, her body is scarred and weak and racked with pain. She weighs 90 pounds. As I remove the sheets, her night-dress doesn’t seem to be filled by her body; rather, it seems to lie carelessly on top of it.
I carefully begin to move her onto her side, when she screams and begins to cry.
I stop and let her back down: I’m sorry, Mom.
She says: It’s okay, just please be more careful … Here … I’m in a lot of pain … do this very slowly and carefully … do exactly what I say. First support my back with your right arm … now use your left arm to support my legs … now very gently roll me onto my side … AAAAAAAHH! STOP!
I stop again, releasing Mom back into her original position on her back. She is now openly weeping and is breathing heavily.
I say: I’m so sorry, Mom.
She says: It’s okay, you are doing it right. This time you have to do it the same way, but keep going no matter what I say. I will scream but you have to move me onto my tummy anyway. Okay?
Okay, go ahead. Keep doing it no matter what I say. AAAAAAAHH!!! AAAAAAAHH!!!
Despite Mom’s screaming, I continue the motion until she is on her tummy. I kneel and gently hug her.
Through my tears, a question occurs to me—one that has occurred to me occasionally in the years since my mom’s ordeal began. But in this moment, my lips will not allow the question to pass through them.
The next day, I did ask Mom the question: “Do you ever think about suicide?” (This sounds horrifyingly crass when I write it now. It wasn’t.)
She told me that the timing of her death would rightfully be God’s decision, not hers. She said that she believed that suicide was an unforgivable sin.
My mom was 45 years old at the time. She died five years later, just a few weeks after her 50th birthday.
I was in my late 20s when my mom died, and my life changed dramatically after her death. I left a promising career in accounting and took on a series of low-paying jobs while attempting to build a career as a musician and stand-up comedian. After working a lot of unpaid and/or local gigs, I finally performed my first couple of paid out-of-town gigs as a comedian. Music was essential to my stand-up act. I had been playing the piano and singing since I was 8, and now my piano- and guitar-playing and singing were what set me apart from most other comics.
It was at this time that the tendonitis 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 that this could be true. Because the tendonitis came on so gradually over a several-week period that I did not think anything of it, until one night when I sat down at my piano and I could not play a single note.
The pain in both hands and arms was so severe that I could not play a single note. I also could not lift a cup, or turn a doorknob. But I cared little 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 gone. Even my stand-up comedy act was centered on my piano- and guitar-playing. Just when my work was beginning to find success, its foundation was destroyed.
I spent the next few months in a near-suicidal depression. If I could not play music, I could hardly see the point of living. I devised an elaborate (and, in retrospect, embarrassingly melodramatic) plan for how I might commit suicide: I would purchase a hose, some duct tape, and a tape of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”—the piece I’d most recently been working on. I would drive my car out into the country, across the state line from Dayton, Ohio, into rural Indiana. I would park in an unpopulated area, and breathe in the beautiful carbon monoxide while listening to the music that I could no longer play.
But every time I contemplated this irrevocable act, I thought about my late mom and what she’d said about suicide. And I thought about how much more difficult her circumstances had been than mine were.
While I was unsure of my own position on the religio-ethics of suicide, I knew that my mom had endured much worse, and that out of respect for her, I had to fight through this.
I soon entered psychotherapy and physical therapy, and over the next year I gradually regained most of the functionality in my hands. And I slowly began to play the piano again.
But the ability of my hands was much more limited now. I could no longer play Beethoven, or Rachmaninov, or Gershwin. So I began to play Souri. I spent the next year creating my own music. Creating music that my injured hands could play. That first year I composed only for myself. I wrote music that I enjoyed, and that I thought nobody else would ever hear. My music was simple and light and melodic with lots of arpeggios and pedal.
The first time I played one of my compositions for a friend, she said, “That is beautiful.” Those simple words encouraged me. I began to spend more time writing music.
Soon I moved to Chicago, and improvisation and writing classes changed my life. Today I am thriving as a writer, composer, and comedian, and today I teach those same writing and improvisation classes that changed my life.
Though I still cannot play the piano music I used to play, and though I can no longer play the guitar for more than a few minutes at a time, I am once again experiencing the joy of creating.
And on this Mother’s Day, as I meditate upon the tragic final decade of my mother’s life, I inevitably feel a vast sadness at the amount of suffering she endured.
However, I also feel a profound sense of gratitude. Because I am an uncommonly blessed son: My mother gave me the gift of life not once, but twice.
|Ranjit Souri (rjsouri [at] gmail [dot] com) teaches classes in improvisation, comedy writing, and creative non-fiction in Chicago.|