Painting of piano
"It had been weeks since I had played any music..."

Painting 1970 Phillip Schreibman

The Wall

There was another layer to my situation, an attitude of mind which had come over me so gradually and subtly that I was ignorant of its presence, and which now hampered my attempts to connect back into the world. It was a condition made all the more insidious because I had invited it.

When my mother was suffering from her long illness -- she was eleven months in hospital -- I would receive phone calls almost daily from doctors reporting the results of her medical tests, discussing her prognosis, or alerting me to a new crisis in her disease. At that time I was writing music for episodes of a television show on a tight schedule. The phone would ring and it was usually bad news. Many times I was required to make instant decisions regarding the course of my mother's treatment: matters of life and death. After these calls, I had to continue writing in order to meet my deadlines. Each evening I visited her and saw her pain and terror first hand. Then I returned home to come up with some more music for this comedy series.

The particularly leaden atmosphere of hospitals was familiar to me. My mother had been in them often; and when I was eighteen, I myself had spent a month in one. I remember that New Year's Eve occurred during my stay, and my mother came to spend it with me in that pale green room. She asked if there were something she could get me and I couldn't think of anything but that she should get me out of there. Then I recalled how it had been weeks since I had played any music. Without imagining that it was even remotely possible, I said that I would like nothing better at that moment than to play a piano.

She never questioned my request though it must have been a bizarre one to the nurses on duty. Instead, she left me the nail clippers from her purse to ready my fingers, and searched the darkened and semi-deserted hospital for over an hour. Finally, after trudging out through the snow, she found a piano in a nearby nurses' residence.

Of course, they wouldn't let me play it. The only music my mother and I heard that night was the distant bell of the town clock striking midnight. But my mother had understood what I needed and she had spared no energy to try and help me.

It was typical of her. She had the most kind and compassionate nature I have ever known. Her generosity was legendary. She ran her own ladies' wear business in our town, and newly arrived Polish immigrants would come to her store and leave not only with bags of free clothing but with gifts of money as well. As busy as she was, there was always time to hear any hard luck story that came her way and to help however she could.

Now I was witnessing the reward for a lifetime of kindness: a slow death in a stark room filled with the tubing and medical paraphernalia of a science that could neither seem to heal her nor let her go. I desperately wanted to help her, save her, get her out of there. But if I were going to be of any use, I needed a clear and calm mind.

To brace myself for the doctors' phone calls and the hospital visits, I began to develop a distancing mechanism which would reduce the shock of whatever new horror was awaiting. Some part of me heard and saw everything, but before it could register emotionally. This allowed me to cope with the doctors and the fear for my mother's life; and to hold down my job by keeping a separate place inside myself from where I could draw out the music.

What began as a mechanism became a reflex and a mindset. Always on high alert, nerves in extreme tension, I waited to ward o: the next blow. The distancing between myself and events as they were occurring was active constantly. Like the time delay on a radio talk show, everything was screened out and censored before it reached me.

And when my mother died, this mechanism did not disappear. If anything, it got worse. No longer aware it was there, I thought this was life. No experience was happening in real time. It was being displayed on a screen for analysis. I had set up a DEW line, an early warning system around myself, which I could not shut off.

An invisible wall surrounded me, impermeable to the world. But a wall has to be pretty high to keep a cat out.

Copyright 1997 by Phillip Schreibman

Chapter 1/ Chapter 2/ Chapter 3/ Chapter 4/ Chapter 5/ Chapter 6/ Chapter 7/ Chapter 8/ Chapter 12/ Chapter 15/ Chapter 22

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