In the Key of Tears

“The tall clock / kept on demolishing young root, old rock.

– Nabokov, Pale Fire


Piano practice was going well yesterday. I had left The Boy downstairs for his independent study time, for which he was reading Old Yeller. They’ve been working that book over for the past few weeks, writing character sketches and setting descriptions and summaries, chapter by chapter. He was starting on chapter 10 today.

For my part, I was trying to play a D major scale on both hands simultaneously, with as few mishaps as possible. There’s a lot of confusion in the brain of a 45-year-old man trying to learn the piano. Too many pathways are a little overworn in the mind, and playing the piano can feel kind of like trying to pedal two separate bikes at the same time. The scales are tricky enough, and that’s a case of both hands making (almost) the same moves. Synchrony. That’s the easy part. It’s the songs – chords changing up on one hand while notes are rolling along with the other, rests sneaking in there, all the movements. I have nothing in my experience to which I can reach for any guidance, or even the tiniest bit of comfort, when I get all confounded and confused by something as simple as “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” My toolbox is empty.

In the middle of trying to clap out the timing of a triplet, with the metronome set at a rather cold-syrupy 63, there was a knock at the door. Our piano is a cheap electric Casio, bought when The Girl started taking lessons as a 6 or 7 year old. She lasted a few years and occasionally really impressed us, but she hated it and we eventually allowed her to quit. There was a solid year of the hoping she would change her mind, with us always uttering the ever-trite platitude that “you’ll thank us later,” before we finally closed the (fully figurative) lid on that keyboard and set her free from her daily torture. Eventually The Boy said he’d give it a shot, but his incompatibility with the ivories was evident from the very beginning, and he is not the sort of boy to spend a few years working through the struggles in the hopes of eventually having some success. We did not push him for long. I took over his lessons earlier this year, as COVID-19 was just wrapping up its own opening movement, and have been making slow progress ever since.

The piano sits in the corner of our bedroom now, as far away as possible from anyone’s sensitive ears. It’s no shrieking violin (I did that in grade school, Lord Hammersea), but listening to “Happy Birthday,” replete with mistakes and re-starts, for 20 minutes straight will chew the last nerve of the saintliest temperaments. Never mind me banging a single key in apoplectic arrhythmia as I try to find the subtle shift in timing between a triplet and an eighth note. And that’s right where I was when the knock came, relieving me of my own incompetence for a moment.

“Come on in.” It was The Boy. I hadn’t turned all the way around, so I was just kind of waiting to hear him haltingly communicate whatever special favor he was there to ask for, being far too early to have ended his independent study time. He was probably going to ask for some ice cream, claiming reparations for inhumane levels of boredom and a general misapplication of his talents. I was prepared to acquiesce take a firm stance. But I turned the rest of the way around to meet the challenge full-on, and in a matter of seconds I melted faster than a pint of salted caramel in a sauna.

He was holding back tears with so much resolve that they were flowing upwards, and I could see sobs like an angry mob behind his ribs, stretching the hinges and swelling the hasps of his restraint.

“Bud, what is it? My God, what is it?”

“You know how we…” caught breath. “how we had to…” caught breath. “had to read…” caught breath again, and now me, just beginning to put it all together. “read chapter 10 of…” I wasn’t going to make him finish.

“Chapter 10’s when it happens, isn’t it?”

His breath evened out a little bit, and he was able to say , “uh huh. He saved Travis, but the hogs got him!” And now’s when he came all the way in to be held. My shirt got a little wet from his tears. I reached one arm back to turn off the metronome, and the improbable rhythm of a triplet gave entirely away to the long hum of silent consolation.

There’s a lot of confusion in the brain of a nine-year-old boy when he’s trying to process grief. At his age, there hasn’t been enough traffic on the pathways of his mind to make them easy to find. They blend in with the rest of the emotional landscape and he wanders and staggers through this claustrophobic expanse looking for any reason he can find, any encouragement, to just go straight on for a while. Sometimes the best thing he can hope for is to simply collapse from all the effort of trying. He’s so new to this that the only place he can possibly wake up is a little farther along, and rested.

We talked for a while. He’s good about talking. I never was, and from the beginning of family life I swore I’d do everything I could to not instill my kids with my reluctance. The Boy obliges. The Girl slightly less so, but I simply need to know how and when to be quiet enough to let her get started. And then to pay close attention to her because she might not give you much, even though she never leaves out what’s important to her.  The boy wonders out loud, and probes, and questions, and he asked me a very sensible one: “Why do we have to read something like that?”

I said, “I don’t know if it’s really about reading it. Haven’t you been working on a book project since you started? Every time you read a little bit, every time something happens, you have to write about it. And now you have to write about this part.”

“I don’t see why that’s good.”

“Well I think your teacher is very smart, because she’s teaching you how important it can be to talk about or write about your sadness. Gives you a way to understand it, out in the world, instead of just inside you where you’re the only one who gets to say anything about it. That’s why you came here just now to tell me – part of you knew that already.”

“Did you write about Lucy when she died?” Now, Lucy was 15 years old and in the end was so wracked by infirmities that she could barely stand up. We took her to the vet to be euthanized, quietly, in a clean room, probably a few months past the time that really would have been considered humane. So her dying didn’t have a whole lot in common with Old Yeller’s, but I wasn’t going to bother him with that. Yank too hard on the tiller of an emotion, and the ship might just sink.

“I sure did.”

“Can I read it sometime?”

“Of course you can.”

He went back down to do some more schoolwork, and I turned back to the piano so that I could look at the sheet music and wonder for my own part just why in the hell anyone would make me read something like that. But after a minute I stopped and printed out Lucy’s eulogy, then took it downstairs and set it next to The Boy, where he had moved on to something for Math class. I think Old Yeller was done for the day. He said, “is that it, the Lucy thing?” I nodded. He said “I can’t read it now, but maybe later.”


You can read it now if you like. Or later, as you see fit. Or never. It got quite a lot of attention when I wrote it, and it’ll be right here if you’re ever interested.

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