Wendy Woolfson

The Piano

There was a time when I could be reduced to tears just by hearing someone play the piano, say at a party or an event or one of those ones they sometimes leave in train stations. I would be stopped in my tracks at the sound of it and often just have to leave the room or walk away, the strength of emotion it awoke in me was too much to bear. I didn’t understand where it came from for a long time. My son started playing the piano when he was ten years old and I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught of emotion and memory that it would bring.

When I was growing up my eldest brother played the piano. I think he must have enjoyed it as it seemed to me like he played almost every night for hours. I loved the sound of him playing the piano, he was good, and it was comforting. I particularly remember when he was learning how to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It was a dreamy and evocative piece and I never tired of listening to it. Now and again, I would sit beside him on the piano stool and watch him, I loved being near him, my big brother. I looked up to him and admired him. I tried to emulate him and took an interest in the things he was interested in, so his favourite bands became mine; Deep Purple, Queen, The Eagles, and I would sneak into his room when he wasn’t there and steal his books to read; All Quiet on the Western Front and The Hobbit. He never got his copy of The Hobbit back, even though it had been given to him by our grandma and signed with a loving message for his birthday. I confessed to him thirty years later and he let me keep it. But the piano, it brought a warmth to the house and was comforting, it cut through silence, harsh words, the cold, and it stirred my imagination.

Hearing the piano in my own home decades later was a huge surprise as it came out of nowhere. There had been no indication that either of my children would want to play the piano, and we didn’t even have one in our flat at the time. I mean, I loved it, I just never expected the reel of emotions that it brought up. He would play Chopin, and I was compelled to stop what I was doing and would become transfixed. I froze, and was transported to a time when I was not happy at all, and yet the piano was a happy moment within that turmoil. The confusion was great and I often had to hide my tears as a well of emotion rose up with no explanation. When he eventually learnt how to play Moonlight Sonata it was like a tsunami, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.

When I was fifteen I wanted to kill myself. It was not the first time I felt that way. I went to our bathroom and I took out some paracetamol and I started to swallow them. I got to five and I stopped. I’m really not sure why but I did, and then I went downstairs to my brother who was, as usual, playing the piano. I sat next to him on the stool and I told him I needed to talk to him. I had never talked to him in this way before, neither him nor my other brothers. None of us talked to each other ever, there was little to no emotional connection built between any of us. He stopped playing the piano and turned to listen to me. I told him I had just taken too many paracetamols but not enough to kill myself but I told him that was what I wanted to do. Then I started to spill about how I was feeling and a lot of emotion began to tumble out, and he sat there not knowing what to do with it all. I don’t know how long we sat there with me talking but suddenly my mum stormed in like a volcano erupting, and demanded to know what was going on. She had been listening at the door to our conversation and started ranting about how ungrateful I was and how she had given me everything: food, clothes, a lovely house, and I cried and tried to explain to her how I was feeling. I tried to deflect it away from her even though she was the root cause of it all and instead just explain how bad I was feeling and that I wanted help. We were both crying and our voices got louder and louder, and quickly we were screaming at each other until it reached a crescendo which is how all our arguments ended up, when eventually it stopped because I got a nosebleed. I always got a nosebleed when I got too upset. These were no ordinary nosebleeds, they could last for up to an hour with a strong, steady flow of blood. This was usually how things ended, and with the issue at hand left completely unresolved.

And there I was listening to my son play the piano and I’m crumbling away inside with every note played, sinking farther into the past. It seems like the light has dimmed and I’m watching him play as if from outside of my body and I’m not really present in the room. I want him to stop and I also want him to play endlessly. The bittersweetness of being trapped in a moment from the past where I am safe and yet unsafe. I know everything and yet I know nothing. It is a place of limbo and purgatory where I can tell my younger self what she should do and I can see all sides of the story, even if I don’t want to.

Eventually, I took the story to my therapist who helped me to unpick and unravel all the threads and reweave them into a new story, one where I could see the beauty of my child playing without me drifting away and instead experience the pleasure of being in the moment, witnessing his talent and the joy of him playing without melancholy or sadness rising from the past. Now and again, I will visit that old childhood piano stool and remember this story, not so much with sadness but rather to sit in companionship with it, and know that none of it is real now, and instead see that the piano now brings me a pleasure and happiness I never thought possible, and that is a real gift.