A Doctor, a Piano, and Life*
On a bitterly cold December evening I sat down at the grand piano in the lobby of the Gonda building on the Mayo Clinic campus. My intention was to rehearse some upcoming tunes for a recital. Of course, I was not going to appear at the Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. I was merely practicing some pieces for a music school recital.
Late in life, I took up piano. I built time into my busy schedule as a cancer specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Those long Minnesota winters can be brutal. Piano was a way for me to channel my days of seeing cancer patients into something beautiful and relaxing.
As I began playing a recital piece, I was in the zone, I was focused on that tricky passage in the second verse.
A middle-aged woman asked if she could sing along with me. I explained that the pressure was on. My time was limited and would she excuse me while I went through my repertoire. The piano is situated in the bright and sunny center of the open lower level of a busy building that houses Mayo doctors’ offices. Patients and their family are hustling through to the coffee shop or gift shop, up and down the many elevators, across the marble-floored lobby, and a brave few took the magnificent marble staircase to the street level.
My admirer politely sat down on one of the upholstered chairs near the piano. She would glance over to me on occasion. As I was finishing up my recital patterns and launched into “Stand by Your Man,” she stood and softly asked, “May I sing with you?”
This particular Carrie Underwood version was in the key of C, which is reasonably straightforward. By the time I hit the third measure I was absolutely overwhelmed and somewhat embarrassed. This woman whom I had never met had the voice of an angel. She could rival any of the current stars on the big stage, and had she been decades younger might have given The Voice contestants a run for their money.
My piano playing occasionally attracted people passing by on their fateful mission with the medical world (mostly not). But when this angel’s voice began to sing, people stopped and were mesmerized by her range and her total professional showmanship.
But now for the rest of the story.
She had talent and charisma, and we certainly could rival any Vegas lounge act. Polite applause, smiles for those whose day was not going to be a good one.
We talked. She told me that when her husband left her in her late thirties, this “took the wind out of my sails,” and she went into a tailspin. “But I am a tough cookie,” she said. “I bounce back and was ready to take the show on the road. But then as an only child I became responsible for my ailing parents—through endless surgeries, complications, hospitalizations, and doctor visits.”
But, she acknowledged, “I could not do it all,” so she put her career on hold attending to the needs of her parents. As anticipated, her parents died and she told me when she buried her parents she buried her career, she buried her skills, and neither her parents nor her career could ever be resurrected.
So what can we learn? We make decisions, we make choices based on the best information that we have. Sometimes things turn out well and sometimes they do not, and we need to accept and embrace each of these avenues.
Without any embellishment she was clearly on her way to a singing career but experienced personal setbacks and some financial misadventures. My lobby singer lost some traction in the performing industry as she stopped touring and dropped everything else after a failed marriage and was consumed caring for her elderly parents in another state. She tried to juggle multiple roles, and nothing worked out.
She didn’t have the courage or the energy to get back on the horse, once her parents had died. She was consumed with a sense of bitterness and remorse and regret.
The lesson of this encounter comes from John Greenleaf Whittier: “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’”
Edward T. Creagan, MD, a cancer specialist, is the first Mayo Clinic doctor board certified in hospice and palliative medicine. His new book, Farewell: Vital End-of-Life Questions and Candid Answers, is about navigating those precious last days, at the bedside, and saying farewell with hope, love, and compassion.
*In the glorious marble lobby of the soaring, sun-filled Gonda building on the campus of the famous Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, sits a concert-quality grand piano. The diminutive figure in a black suit often found playing this magnificent instrument may often be Dr. Edward Creagan. These blog posts are written from his encounters with patients and others who are drawn to his music and compelled to tell their stories. He listens. He plays. And he writes stories about people others don’t take time to get to know.