Friday, January 25, 2008


She was almost seventy years old. Secondary to diabetes she'd had a below-the-knee amputaion of her right leg many years ago. A stroke had left her dysphagic so she was fed via a PEG tube though sometimes she could tolerate oral fluids if we thickened these to nectar consistency.

Because of Alzheimer's disease she was unable to say where she was. She knew her name and could sometimes speak accurately about family members. She had great grandchildren of whom she was very proud and quite fond, but she could not always remember their names. If you asked her something like "Muriel, who is the president?" she might name one of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren.

I thought it was best to ask her about some of the antics of her younger family members: getting into things, climbing, tormenting their lovable old Labrador retriever, and such. Her smile, though toothless, was infectious and sweet.

Though she would never walk again, her mind was bound by dementia, the taste of foods were mostly unavailable to her, and she was poor and uninsured, she was recovering from a four-vessel cardiac-artery-bypass-graft surgery. We call these "cabbages," for the acronym CABG.

We'd lift her fully, against her lazy protestations, to get her up to a chair.

At the nurse's station sometimes I'd hear people wondering aloud why this woman had undergone the surgery. With her comorbidities of diabetes, stroke, and Alzheimer's it seemed to many that the costly surgery would not prolong her life nor even provide comfort. So why was it even performed in the first place?


I began to study classical guitar many years ago when, as a teen, my family moved. I had been playing bass guitar in a nascent blues band which we called, somewhat energetically, "True Acid." Like we knew. We didn't.

Back then my junior-high friend Mike was our lead guitarist. He went on to assume an important voice in the Woodstock jazz guitar world. That's something else.

Anyways, suddenly I found myself without band-mates and I was forced to do music by myself. Then the window to the world of solo guitar music was opened to me. I guess I had no choice.

I had no real classical guitar. When I auditioned for music school at Crane, I played a Mexican twelve-string guitar my grandmother had bought used in Nogales for twenty dollars. I'd sanded the crummy refinish off it and fitted it with six nylon strings. It was awful. A joke really. I have no idea how I passed the audition. They accepted only one guitarist that semester.

But I made it.

Later I got a guitar made by a local jazz guitar luthier. It had a jazz-narrow neck unlike a real classical instrument. But at least it was made from good woods and it had the proper number of strings! Decades afterwards I bought two nice classical guitars. We couldn't afford these things when I was younger. As a nurse at least sometimes I have some extra income. I'd saved for decades.

For my audition I played Tarrega's "La Cajita de Musica" which has a wonderful sequence of harmonics which I'd sound with my right-hand pinky finger and thumb while my left hand slurred a descending passage. My parents had an old Chet Atkins LP on which he played this and the famous little "Lagrima." Tarrega was the "Chopin of the guitar." I love his music deeply.

I didn't get the practice of scales back then. It wasn't until much later that I added these to my routine. It's not about playing the notes of the scale. It's about relaxing. Well...not even that. It's about noting the jaw, the legs, the shoulders and fingers. It's about letting your mind roam while your fingers go up and down, or not. Sometimes it's about concentrating. It's about listening to yourself. Or dreaming. Tone. Shifting.

Anyways, it's not about playing scales, even though that is exactly what you are doing.

And I suspect that is why Muriel got her cardiac-artery-bypass-grafts.


Paid for by your insurance premiums and tax dollars. Thank you. Thank you very much.


wunelle said...

I think I'm not wired to play a monodic instrument--sax or trumpet or trombone, say--both because I have a bridge for my front upper six teeth, and, more to the point, I think it's harmony that sits at the core of my love of music, more than phrasing or a melodic line or even than contrapuntal interplay or thematic development. I love all these things, but without harmony I think I'd immerse myself in something else.

This is the piano's great strength (and the organ's, of course): it is self-contained for a full range of musical expression. And so is the guitar, and I'm intrigued by it for this. I've toyed with studying it before, and a few pilots I've flown with have carried around practice necks. I love that the guitar makes fundamental tone production demands on the player, like the violin or clarinet; this is something the piano does only tangentially (it's one of the reasons I hate electronic drums: the business of making your own sound is taken out of the mix!).

Alas, I ramble.

Do you play other things than guitar and lute (not that that's not plenty!)?

Eli Blake said...

My daughters play two instruments each-- one plays the harp and the flute, and the other the drums and the violin.

I wish I still had my cello (I lent it out to someone and they ruined it, and I've not had the means to buy another one.) We could make some very nice music.

As for 'Muriel,' I'm glad that she got her surgery. Because she is a human being, and I fear for the day when our bottom-line driven society degenerates to the point where we arbitrarily decide, in the absence of a living will or decision by a relative acting as a responsible advocate, that anyone's life is not worth living, not worth saving or not worth making as good as we can.

I'd far rather pay a few more dollars in taxes or for my premium than to let some anonymous bean counter decide that it is time for her to die.

shrimplate said...

I would never advocate the denial of surgery or other forms of healthcare based on financial limitations. But sometimes I wonder if what we do really helps people... or does it just prolong unwanted suffering?

Having said that, I am somewhat generous with things like as-needed pain relievers, anti-anxietals, and other medical comfort measures.

Sorry 'bout the cello, Eli. It's sad to see any instrument get disrespected.

Wunelle, in school I was in the orchestra and band percussion section. Tympani, because I could tune them properly.