The Recital

October 20, 2011

I am 12 years old and looking for a cello teacher. My mom has been taking me to one potential teacher after another, hoping I will find one that “clicks”. So far, none of them have been very appealing to me. One cello teacher has a house that smelled like cats; another makes me sit and listen to her play a solo before she even introduces herself. Most aggravating, though, is the way they have of talking directly to my mother and not me. What am I, chopped liver?? I am just about ready to give up when I met Pall.
Pall stands out immediately. His thick Icelandic accent and his shock of bushy white hair hint at a non-conformity that I instantly like. Best of all, he speaks to me—to my grimy, gangly, grumpy 12 year-old self. He makes me feel as though my opinions matter; as though I am just as important as any grown-up. He even asks me if I’d prefer to talk without my mother in the room, saying, “Sometimes, for independent children, parents can be embarrassing, no?” He’s so friendly. He’s so European! Right there, I decide that I like this stodgy, devil-may-care figure.
Fast-forward six years. It’s my senior year in high school, and after a tremendous amount of practicing, I am busy preparing for my upcoming senior recital. Everything is on-track. Everything is heading for success.
“You have what?” I jolt forward in my seat. The small room, where I’ve spent one hour per week for what seems like a lifetime, takes on a blackish tinge in my peripheral. I can’t believe this. It’s too much. It isn’t happening; it can’t happen; it is impossible, impossible, impossible. Not Pall. Not Pall. Not Pall.
“Pancreatic cancer. It’s a little late in the game—“ and here he pauses to chuckle, his blue eyes crinkling as if everything were all right—“but I am old anyway, so hey. Small loss, right? I am starting treatment next month. We will see. Don’t worry, Kaeli, I will still be able to get you ready for your senior recital.”
The contrast between what he says and what I feel couldn’t be greater. Who cares about the recital?! Never mind how much attention I’ve given it in the past. This is more important; much more important! In the time I’ve taken lessons from him, I have grown closer to him than I have to any other teacher. He has become more of a father to me than an instructor; someone I can talk to about everything—not only about music theory and bow technique, but about science, and philosophy, and politics and religion and about how I am feeling. And now—? My brain goes silent. I had never, ever thought anything would ever happen to Pall, least of all cancer. This isn’t happening. This can’t happen. And yet despite how much I want it to go away, the cancer isn’t going anywhere. There is nothing I can do.
Once he is diagnosed, his symptoms seem more and more frequent. I go home from every lesson in a worried fog, trying to focus on the upcoming recital only to come back the next week to find him even worse. Each hour brings a fresh wave of observations: he cuts our lessons off earlier; he is short on breath; he loses pound after pound until he seems like a crude model of his earlier self, his pale face all but disappearing into his patchy white beard. “I’m fine,” he tells me. “It’s just the treatment, you know. It takes all my energy. How is your practicing going?” How many people has he reassured? Does he really believe it himself? How long is this going to go on? I’m not sure whether to believe him or not, so I do what any other person would do in the face of a loved one’s disease: I panic. I start bringing cookies to our lessons to “fatten him up”. I make cards and write letters to him, wanting to give him hope. I pray.
And I practice. My senior recital suddenly becomes the most important thing in the world. I get home at four every day and head up to my room where my cello is waiting. I spend three hours a day, door closed, metronome ticking, in order to perfect a chromatic run, or to nail a three-octave shift. I try and remember everything I’ve ever learned from Pall: “The fastest way to learn to play fast is to play slow.” “Play rule number one: stop. Play rule number two: don’t stop.” “You have a knack for interpretation, Kaeli, but you need to pay more attention to the notes.” “French music? French music is dramatic, and light, and full of rubato! Save the strict tempos for the German music, like the Brahms. I do like the way you play the Brahms sonata, but the Saint-Saens concerto needs more work.” I do as he says, working the sonatas, concertos, scherzos, allegrettos and trios ‘til my fingers are rubbed black from the ebony fingerboard. Everything else fades away. I want nothing more than to give a top-notch performance for Pall, as though the music I make will erase the cancer growing inside him.
But not even the most piercing high note or the best treatment can eradicate it. The doctors caught the cancer too late. It has become metastatic, spreading throughout his lymphatic system and making a full recovery impossible. That much I know for certain; Pall won’t tell me exactly how much longer he has because he doesn’t want me to worry. In some ways, though, I worry more because that way I can only guess how he’s doing. He starts using a wheelchair, telling me that it’s “only because of the treatment”. We skip lessons on days when he has to go to the hospital, and on days when we do have lessons they become shorter and shorter. He struggles to catch his breathe sometimes, and I wonder if the cancer has spread to his lungs. I don’t know anything. I don’t know anything.
I can’t know anything; I am utterly in the dark, I am helpless, I cannot prevent this from happening to Pall, I cannot, I cannot, I cannot. I keep a close eye on him. Some days are better than others, while others—others, oh god, others are worse. I am no longer in denial, that’s for sure. The ugly reality of cancer is right in front of me and there can be no avoiding it.
It is the day of my senior recital.
I am in the concert hall of the local Baptist church, dressed in black and white and greeting friends and family. I am nervous beyond measure. Pall hasn’t shown up yet, and the program starts in 30 minutes. I will be playing pieces by Saint-Saens, Summer, Goens and Brahms; music I’ve worked for months to perfect. The room is buzzing with excitement, growing louder by the minute as more and more people enter—but where is Pall? I see my grandparents over by the door, chatting to themselves, and I am just about to greet them when he wheels in, pushed by his wife, Jane. He is gaunt, his eyes sunken into his white face, yet he breaks into a huge smile when he sees me and I can’t help but smile back. “Congratulations, Kaeli!” he says. “Are you ready for your recital?” I can’t say anything because suddenly there is a huge lump in my throat that is struggling to choke me. I give him a big hug and don’t let go.
The concert is a huge success. I can hardly believe it: I hit the final note of the final piece and let the silence ricochet back and forth throughout the hall, lost in the quiet until the applause starts, small and pattering at first and then growing into an enormous roar of approval. It is deafening. The audience stands up whistling and cheering and yelling. For a moment I am disoriented until a wave of happiness hits me, nearly bowling me over: They liked it. They really liked it! They really, really liked it! The second I step off the stage I am surrounded by well-wishers who want to hug me and shake my hand and tell me how wonderful it was, and as much as I want to stay and absorb the praise, I want to see Pall more.
He is sitting in the back with Jane. They are talking quietly, but when he sees me approach he breaks it off and turns toward me. His smile is bigger than ever, stretching into his beard. His eyes are sunken but bright. His crows’ feet crinkle, making his whole face light up. I don’t even try to speak. What is there to say? Language is irrelevant at this point. There are no words to express how I feel: the passion of the music, the exhilaration of the applause, the gratitude I feel for Pall and the stinging sadness I feel at Pall’s cancer. I am his musician. I am his student. I am his daughter.
“I’m proud of you, Kaeli,” he tells me, “I am so proud of you.” I cannot hold it in this time: I cry.
Kaeli Earle