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Strangers in the Night

A piano recital can be nerve-racking. My piano teacher typically orchestrates one winter recital. Each of us would play three songs, about three minutes in length. This hardly rises to the pressure of an audition for American Idol, but none of us wants to tank in front of peers, so we take the event somewhat seriously.

My three selections were familiar Frank Sinatra hits: All the Way, Strangers in the Night, and My Way.

One evening after clinic, I sat down at the grand piano and was dialed in, really in the zone, totally absorbed in these renditions. Yet I sensed someone standing behind my right shoulder, and I felt distracted and unnerved.

He started to sing.

When I turned around, I saw a gentleman who had a lot of hard miles on a well-worn chassis. His hair had not seen a comb and his stubble beard had not seen a razor in weeks. Interestingly, no belt or shoelaces in his sneakers.

He emitted a smell that brought back memories of my stepfather’s bar on a Sunday morning—a nauseating combination of stale beer, cigarettes, and cheap cigars as well as potato chips, popcorn, and hard-boiled eggs.

After a few notes, I stopped playing and explained my mission to practice for my upcoming recital and asked him if we could meet at some other time and I would accompany him. He sheepishly said, “Okay. See you later,” and shuffled off into the winter night.

About two weeks later I was stopped in my tracks when I saw him after a Sunday church service. He looked exactly the same. He was at a meet-and-greet coffee for parishioners. He sat forlornly by himself gently cradling a Styrofoam cup of cold coffee. He told several parishioners that he needed money for a bus ticket to see his dying father. This was an obviously contrived excuse for a coffee in a church setting. I handed him a couple of bucks, and then he disappeared.

I next saw him on a downtown street corner on a brutally cold afternoon with a crudely scrawled cardboard sign: Vietnam vet. Disabled. Please help. God bless. We said hello. I gave him a few dollars and perhaps I should not have, but so be it.

A few days later he reappeared at my piano. I acknowledged his presence, nodded my head, and began to play Sinatra’s My Way, the tune he had started to sing that first night.

If I had closed my eyes and with a little imagination, I was at the Bellagio, and I was listening to Andrea Bocelli. The few bystanders were frozen in space and time enraptured by this performance. We finished together, we had a high-five, and then he disappeared. I have not seen him again.

The message is a simple one: There but for the grace of a Higher Power goes any one of us. Another shattered soul embedded on the boulevard of broken dreams because of poor choices, bad decisions, and an element of bad luck. We cannot control the hand that we are dealt, but we certainly can control how we play that hand.


Edward T. Creagan, MD, FAAHPM, 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. Ed. 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.

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