Mireille Heidbreder

What is music?  To many, it is inspiring.  The dictionary states that it is an artistic form of auditory communication.  Teenagers today believe that shoving ear buds into your distressed ear canals and then blasting sounds into them is the art of music. But the way I see music, it is an art that frustrates and toys with your mind, until your restless soul breaks apart, and you connect to the world of the composer.  Now, this is only my opinion: but today’s music is just a bunch of compiled sounds with no purposeful meanings, not to mention the vapid lyrics.  Many, especially teenagers, would disagree with me, but now as an adult I have experienced not only great music, but one story that wrenched my heart apart and sewed it back together with its beauty, pain, and sorrow.   I will never forget the story of Daisy and the music she played that precious hour at midnight in front of her dream.

I was a young woman at the time, clueless of the art I was performing, and oblivious of what was going around me at the time I worked at MD Anderson Cancer Center.  I was a nurse.  To me, my job meant running around with syringes, papers, blood samples when I was unlucky, vomit bags, and who knows what else.  It was when I read the daily bulletin board close to the Children’s Cancer Research Hospital section that one 13 year old girl had recently been admitted and needed a private nurse.  What a sweet thing to do, I thought to myself, help a crying child who cannot enjoy her last days as a teenager.  Yes, I was a spiteful and self-centered person.  I grew up in a rich household, went to private school, and both of my parents were lawyers.  Well, this is definitely not the job for me- I’d rather do my regular errands instead.  Of course, you cannot battle your fate, and I eventually ended up in that room with the same 13 year old girl, but in the meantime I continued my exhausting job, running around all the time.

Early one morning the head nurse summoned me to her office, and standing there with her steaming coffee mug in one hand, she asked me if I would be willing to take up a big responsibility.

Not really, I thought.  But she was my boss, and I was hoping that this was a promotion so I said, “Yes m’am of course! I’m willing to do anything”.

“Well, there is this girl that is suffering from liver cancer and needs special help.  She really is an angel, and what made me think of you is that she absolutely adores music”.

Music? Really? Babysitter? Really? , I said to myself.  I wasn’t really into music.

“Oh, yes!  I would love nothing better than to help the little girl out,” I said, with as much enthusiasm as possible.  I wondered if she could detect the insincerity of my response.

As we walked down the ward hallway, my boss went over to the bulletin board and tore down the paper asking for a nurse to help the 13 year old girl I had denied just a week ago.  As I trudged behind, I was thinking that I had just made the worst decision in my life.

We reached the girl’s ward, and with a sigh my boss rapped several times on the white door.  There was a short silence that was suddenly broken by someone wrenching open the door and staring at our faces.  She was a blond woman, of about 40 years of age, and she wore tight jeans and a t-shirt.  Her face was pale and you could detect wrinkles starting to form on her heavily made-up face.

“What do you need?” she inquired with a snarl.

“This is Miss Smith.  She will be your daughter’s nurse.”

“Pleasure to meet you,” I said reaching my hand out to the woman.

At first, there was no sound, and then the woman’s demeanor changed, and she reached her hand out to me.

“I’m so sorry I was rude.  Please come in.  I am just a bit anxious about Daisy.  My name is Karen Harrison.”

What really pained me was that when she turned around to lead me into the room, her hand went up to her face, and I was sure that she was wiping a tear off her cheek.

“This is where I leave you, Elizabeth,” said my boss. “You’ll be great.  Just be kind and aware.”

And with that, my only other hope of backing out disintegrated through the door.

“Honey, this is Miss Smith; she will be taking care of you,” said Karen in the direction of the bed.  I started walking toward the bed, and there I saw quite a pitiful sight.

Lying in the bed was a young girl.  Her face was pale and drawn, and her soft blue eyes were ringed in dark circles.  She had no hair; all of it must have fallen off during chemotherapy.  She had a nasal tube and around her several machines were whirring and beeping making a constant distracting noise.  I had no words for her.  She smiled kindly at me.  I didn’t know you could smile so serenely when you were in such bad condition.

“Hi Miss Smith”, she said in a calm voice.

The best I could say was “umm…Hi.”

“Well, I’ll leave you two to talk and get to know each other; I am going to talk to Dr.Shawn.”

And with that Karen walked away leaving her daughter and me alone in the room.

“Can I tell you something?”, said the young Daisy.

“You can tell me all you want”, I said, trying to be as optimistic as possible.

“I adore music.  I love it, and one day I want to become a professional pianist”.

Well, in reality, I wanted to tell her that she was lucky if she had a year to live with such an aggressive cancer, and playing the piano could be something she could do in another life.  But instead, I played the innocent nice nurse.

“That’s awesome Daisy. I used to play the piano myself.”, I answered.  “Do you actually know how to play the piano?”

Then the worst came.  A slight flicker of hope flooded into the girl’s eyes.

“No, but will you teach me?  I would have never guessed that my nurse would be a pianist.  Will you please teach me? Please?”.

Oh, how I wished at that moment that I would have kept my mouth shut.

“Sweetheart, I don’t think we can do that.  I really don’t play that well and uh,..” I trailed off with nothing else to say.

“Don’t baby me.  I know I don’t have much time to live, but this is something I’ve always wanted to do before I die.  I’ve been in this hospital doing nothing for too long, and I want to do something that will make me happy.  All my life I have wanted to make music.  All my life I have wanted to be on stage and play the most difficult piece anyone had ever invented.  Just because I have cancer and my life is going down the drain doesn’t mean that I don’t want to enjoy my life as much as possible before I die”.

Daisy took a shuddering breath after her long speech and turned towards me.  She looked at me with a gaze filled with such sorrow that it was starting to swallow her up.

I won’t lie.  I was completely shocked by this emotional monologue.  At first, I was going to continue to reassure Daisy, but I soon realized that no matter what I said, the girl would persist with the idea.  So I decided I would be honest with her.

“OK.  I am sure you are not going to take no for an answer, so I will teach you what I know about the piano, and one day Daisy, maybe you will bet to be on a stage and play”.

Funny enough, I truly meant that.  A bittersweet symphony was breaking in my heart, and I knew that I had said the right thing to make Daisy’s life a better one.

Daisy stared at me with all her might, a fierce competitive gaze that stared so long that the glass of anger shattered and leaked tears.

“Thank you, thank you”, Daisy mumbled with gasps in between.

And so our journey began; discovering Daisy’s inner talent of deciphering the power of music.

Shortly after our first meeting, I started searching for a possible piano in the hospital, and I moved into a small unused room next to Daisy’s ward.  You might think, What in the world would a piano be doing in a cancer research hospital? At first I believed that also, and was afraid to disappoint my patient, but lo and behold in the Recreation Center, there in the corner, dusty and out of tune, sat an old Yamaha piano.  I obviously wasn’t going to ask the nurses who ran that particular center, “Hey guys! I’m taking care of a 13 year old girl with cancer who wants to play the piano.  Can I come here to teach her?”  That was not going to work.  But, I became friends with the janitor (she was Italian and I knew a couple words in Italian, something that pleased her immensely) and I asked her for the keys.  So, at eleven o’clock at night every day, I would carry Daisy and all of her equipment to the Recreation Center so by midnight we had the room all to ourselves as well as a piano.

Our first night was tough, because Daisy was heavy, and not to mention I had to roll down all of her machines, but it made me sad when we finally reached the piano and she sat down on the bench and just wept.  She didn’t say if she wept from pure joy or the realization that the end was approaching.  I sat down in a chair next to her and with my sleeve wiped her tears from her pale cheeks.

“My mom will be mad if she finds out”, Daisy said with a sob.

“Your mom will never find out, nor will anyone else”, I said smiling at Daisy’s ghastly figure.  How could I guess that soon we would be discovered by many, and I would be the one to blame for everything?

At first, I taught her the notes on the keys.  Then we learned some scales and basic chords.  I soon realized that Daisy had a gift; by our second night she was playing Three Blind Mice and Mickey Mouse without my instruction, just by memory.

I worked and stayed with Daisy every day and every night.  We worked at every hour that we could. Her progress with learning music and the piano was growing, but in secret.  When she sat at the piano, she was the poster child for joy; no one could convince me otherwise.

Within one month Daisy was playing a simple Sonatina by Mozart, the only sheet music I found near the piano.  It was during one of our sessions that Daisy asked me a question that had been weighing heavily on her mind.

“Will I ever be able to play in public?  I mean, I don’t want to be ungrateful, but I wish I could play for my mom and other people”.

“I can’t promise you this Daisy, but someday, there will be a crowd out there for you, cheering and screaming”.

I really understood that Daisy had a true passion for music one breezy May night.  We were both in the Recreation Room, sitting on the bench.  She was fiddling around with the notes and playing something that sounded like Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

“Well done! You have such a good ear.  Should we go on to the Mozart?” I suggested.  She answered me with a peculiar question instead.

“Have you ever asked yourself what composers really want out of the performers?”

I admitted the truth.  “No, not really.  What made you think of that?”

“I have always wanted just to dive into the composer’s mind and pick out what he wanted the player to play and understand.”  Once more tears started to well up inside Daisy’s eyes.

“Well Daisy, this that’s what the beauty of interpretation is,” I whispered to her.

“I don’t care anymore!  I want to play and compose and do everything! I want to know!” she shouted with great force.

“Shhh!!  Daisy!  Remember they can hear us!”

“I DON’T CARE ANYMORE!!!!!!”  she yelled at me.

And with that Daisy pushed me off the bench, and started banging on the piano and playing scales and her little inventions with such great violence that I was certain that at any minute security would barge in.

Suddenly, lights were snapped on, and annoyed doctors and nurses started heading for the center.  Hands grabbed me, and I was shoved into a heap in the corner of the room.  But, the commotion didn’t stop Daisy.  She kept raging on, her machines being tossed and turned as she expressed her rage to the gods about how she wanted to have the intelligence and knowledge of music spread through her fingers.

“What is happening?” shouted one doctor over the deafening sound.

And then I saw her.  There was my boss hidden among the other doctors and nurses.  I cowered even more as Daisy’s music raged.  The power of the music was starting to cause discomfort in the others too, as they ran around and talked to Daisy to quiet her down, but she pressed on without a care in the world.  I started to sink, giving myself up to all the work I had done, and my head started to explode.   Finally there was silence.  But, it wasn’t silence; it was the peace inside of Daisy playing Mozart like no one else could.  It was just Daisy and Mozart.  He was sitting next to her beaming as she had delved deep into his heart and had received his message of what music truly meant to his ears.  The beauty and purity of the music continued for what seemed like years, and then it ended.  It ended so abruptly that every one, except Daisy, stood in shock at how such a young child could communicate to others in such a beautiful way.  Finally, it was my boss who broke the silence.

“Elizabeth Smith, is that you?”

The question made my ears bleed and my jaw tremble.

“Yes m’am it is”

“Why have you brought one of your patients down here to play the piano at such a late hour?  You have violated at least five rules of this hospital,” said a tall doctor.

“I did this because my patient found pleasure in music, and the only thing she wanted was to play the piano and understand music”, I said, my eyes starting to water.

“And also because I wanted to show the world what I was capable of before I die”, whispered Daisy.  She had used so much of her energy that she was starting to fade, “and I got my wish.  I performed in front of an audience and here you all are”.

With puzzled looks from the nurses and doctors and with one shocking movement, Daisy ripped her self from the machines, crouched in the corner, grabbed me and told me:

“I saw Mozart Miss Smith.  I finally reached into the true roots of music”.

And with that she fell on top of me wheezing.

The last thing I remember doing was hugging Daisy and crying so hard that my head was bursting with grief.

I didn’t see Daisy for three miserable days.  I was suspended from my work for irresponsible behavior and abuse of a patient.  One day I got an unexpected message from a doctor saying they needed extra hands in the Children’s hospital.  I finally got to visit Daisy that day during my lunch break.

She looked awful.   Our adventure of several nights before had done her no good.  She was lying in her bed paler than ever, and it seemed as if she could have been easily snapped like a twig.  But even in her condition, she recognized my face.

“Miss Smith, is that you?” she whispered softly.

“You should never call me that.  Always call me Elizabeth,” I said with a smile spreading across my face.

“I’m glad I got to see you another time.”

As soon as she said the last sentence, she started to cough violently.  Her small body shook so badly it set off an alarm.

None other than Daisy’s mother, Karen Harrison, came in from a side door and was completely taken aback that I was in the room.

After she finished calling the nurses for help, she said something unexpected.

“Thank for what you have done for my daughter.  Even though you did something very irresponsible, you made my daughter’s last days brighter than I thought would be possible”.

That was the last word I heard from Karen, and the last time I saw Daisy Harrison.  The doctors worked hard on Daisy, but it was apparent that her last attack had been so severe that there was no recovery in sight.

I went back to work half time in the regular hospital division since the board decided I was still dangerous to children.  One day, I received a letter from the Harrison family inviting me to their daughter’s funeral.  I never cried as much as I did that day.

When I arrived at Nassau Bay Cemetery, I noticed that the ceremony was going to take place next to a small gazebo.  I wandered over to it and from there watched as Daisy’s coffin was lowered into the earth.  I hoped that a prodigy like herself would be greeted by the long gone masters that she had so desperate to understand.

Today, I still work at MD Anderson, but I have never met anyone quite like Daisy.  What Daisy taught me about music is not only to appreciate the sounds, but to understand the value of the composer and the message he intended to weave through the threads of his music.  I will always live with the peace and guilt of Daisy’s music in my heart, but when I go to her and kneel on the lawn, I know that a great composer is meeting her in her dreams. 

 


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