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Whose Life Is It?

For several years I worked on a weekly basis with a very efficient professional woman in her late forties who was the total quarterback, administrative assistant in a highly challenging area of medicine and curriculum development. She was the real deal who could balance multiple challenges with poise and dignity and a joy to work with.

Late one evening I was finishing up some measures on the piano—my solace, my respite from the rigors of seeing cancer patients all day at the Mayo Clinic. I customarily sit down at the magnificent grand piano in the lobby of the Gonda building, where my medical office is located.

This administrator wistfully stood next to the keyboard. Quietly with reflection and a somber demeanor, she then told me that every time she hears me play, she is enveloped by sadness and remorse. I was not sure if that was due to my lousy playing—for I am relatively new to piano and hardly a prodigy. For once, I learned to be still and quiet, and here’s what she shared with me.

In her late thirties, she was party to a bitter and public divorce and became a single parent. Her one child was a musically precocious daughter who was somewhat bludgeoned into taking piano lessons at about age six or seven. Fortunately, the music teacher recognized an incredible skill set and with appropriate mentoring, psychology, and a little bit of luck, the young pianist became a prominent musician.

The child crushed the other budding pianists in local, regional, and statewide competitions and was clearly on the short list for a possible gold medal and a prestigious statewide music award, which would be held on the campus of a major university.

My colleague then shared with me that approximately two weeks before the final competition at a nationally known auditorium, our young musician put a dagger into the soul of her mother. She basically told her mother she hated the piano, she hated the lessons, she hated the teacher, and she especially hated her mother. She felt like a trinket, a trophy where love and affection were directly related to her musical skills.

The mother was devastated, the teacher was devastated, but the young performer was resolute that she would never sit down at the keyboard again.

My colleague said her pain and her disappointment were not so much in herself but the thought that her daughter could have had incredible opportunities in the musical rodeo but chose to play instead on another stage.

The insight for each of us is this: If our self-worth and our self-image is linked to that of another person, whether music, sports, or marriage, we are destined for a free fall. We cannot live someone else’s life. We need to choose for ourselves.


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.

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