Chemo Sonata

Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata is almost fused to my path, my journey, memory. Well, to be perfectly honest, we’re only talking about the first movement. It seems to be a genetic family trait that we only manage the first movement and don’t seem to progress.

My childhood resonates with Moonlight Sonata. It is my father’s piece…his song…his dance. Dad runs like clockwork. He’s largely methodical. He has his routines and used to have “a place for everything and everything in its place” once upon a time. Dad didn’t concern himself with the things like feeding children and dogs, closing windows, settling rowdy children for babysitters or applying makeup before it was time to go out. He was just ready. This meant that while Dad was waiting for Mum, he sometimes calmly and often impatiently, sat down at the piano and played Moonlight Sonata its soft rhythmic tones contrasting with my mother’s rush and bustle.

One of my most precious memories of my grandmother Eunice Gardiner who was an accomplished concert pianist also involved Moonlight Sonata. She was in what you would call her twilight years. Her memory was failing in all sorts of ways as her bright intelligence and wit were not so gradually being attacked by the cruel ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease. She told me a story about how her older brother Les had asked her to play Moonlight Sonata at a party he was having when they were young. Although she was a brilliant pianist, apparently she too only knew the first movement of Moonlight Sonata at least from memory and when she didn’t play on, he brother apparently remarked “even I can play that”. After telling this story my grandmother went across to the piano and tried to recall Moonlight Sonata and instead went on to play a patchwork of snippets from a range of highly complex pieces including Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude. I wasn’t really into music at the time and didn’t know what any of the pieces were but I was amazed at how she’d somehow stitched all these complex pieces together like the squares of a patchwork quilt. Strangely, I somehow loved her more than ever then and was very touched by a musical gift that somehow transcended human frailty and the ravages of disease.

I learned the piano for many years and while I haven’t kept it up, I will usually sit down and play Moonlight Sonata on what used to be my grandmother’s Steinway Grand piano whenever I visit my parents. I tinker away from memory with many repeats and returns trying to kick start my memory and faltering fingers. I still like to believe I can play even though putting two hands together to even play C Major scale these days, is a challenge.

Playing Moonlight Sonata after chemo.

Playing Moonlight Sonata after chemo.

Quite often, I visit my parents  after trooping down to Royal North Shore Hospital for medical appointments and treatments. I was playing Moonlight Sonata after my latest chemo treatment last Thursday when I noticed my hands on the keyboard with the tell-tale bandaid “spots”. It had taken three attempts to get the canula in, largely because we were trying my more resistant left arm so I could write with my right. In the end, we gave up but I was lucky because I was still able to write. I am a determined soul and like most writers, quite the addict. I must admit that it does seem rather crazy now…pen pushing while you’ve having chemo pumped into your veins which perhaps could have used a little rest. All the same, you are who you are.

Anyway, I asked Geoff to photograph me playing the piano with my hands covered in my spots. It was another one of my laugh or cry moments and I mostly saw the humour of the situation. I love photographing hands and also love using the piano as a photographic prop. I have numerous photos of the kids’ hands in various sizes tinkering away on the keys.

Miss aged 15 months at the piano.

Miss aged 15 months at the piano.

A duet Easter 2007

A duet Easter 2007

I also asked Geoff to film me playing.  Not a perfect Moonlight Sonata but my version just how I always play it going over and over and over the various bit of the first movement and back to the start stumbling through the notes in a fusion of emotional expression, a question for perfection and even a touch of moonlight on a dark night. Another reminder that things don’t always have to be perfect and that it’s more important just to have a go and do what you can.

3 thoughts on “Chemo Sonata

  1. Rob McShane

    Ah Rowena – a beautiful story and photos! Good for you – photos with plasters! Love it! Have read the piece on your grandmother – what a unique, special and beautiful lady! She must have been very talented! So pleased you have access to her piano (and a Steinway too! – I’m envious!!) – must feel very special to be able to play on it – even with a fumble or two! Love the ‘Moonlight’- a favourite of mine too (and the Raindrop Prelude mentioned – probably my most favourite- oh, except for Mozarts….and on and on I go! Favourites change with my mood I suspect and these days, what I am able to play on any given day! Ha ha! 🙂
    Hope you have an awesome day!

  2. roweeee Post author

    Rob, you’ll probably love this story. My uncle arranged for the organist who played for the Pope’s visit to play at my grandmother’s funeral. The organ at the Church was quite impressive and had at least two levels of keys. MY then 5 year old son was taking great interest in the organ afterwards and the organist asked him if he could play. My son said he could play the piano. I almost burst out laughing because my son had never had a piano lesson but he could do a very good impersonation of somebody playing the piano…no doubt from watching my Mum. I was shaking in my boots watching this conversation unfold, especially when he asks Mister if he would like to have a turn on the organ. I was seriously dying by this stage and my son usually jumps at such opportunities and thinks about the consequences later but just this once, he had some presence of mind to decline. Phew!
    I seem to be a Beethoven girl on the piano and it’s Bach on the violin although I am playing some songs from Oliver and Memory from Cats at the moment.
    Had a quiet day after charging around seeing moe doctors in Sydney for my daughter yesterday and check ups with my specialists Tuesday. Today was sleep day. Hope you had a great day. Best wishes,

  3. Rob McShane

    Thanks for your stories Rowena! Do hope your daughter will be okay – and yourself! Today was supposed to be
    a rest day but didn’t happen! Ah well – always tomorrow! 🙂 Have a great one! Best wishes, Rob

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