My family has always been a small, three person unit consisting of just my mom and dad and me. They were always mathematical people; numbers came naturally to them as breathing. I was born with songs tucked beneath my tongue and rhythm poised in my toes; with different lands drawn on my retinas. As my mother took rulers to my hands for getting ‘twenty minus seventeen’ wrong, I hummed and tapped a beat with my foot until it only looked like my mother was a composer, waving her ruler around to the rise and fall of my pencil scribbling hopelessly at subtraction problems.
I was 13 when I found the piano. It wasn’t through forced lessons nor through a flaming epiphany from listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 in C Minor, K 491. I was in a bookstore, and tossed on the SALE table like a discarded piece of trash was a book titled “Teach Yourself How to Play Piano!” I had always had an appreciation for the piano, and by appreciation, I mean obsession. I watched documentaries on the greatest composers and I cried with each swell in any song while my parents wagged their heads in the kitchen and whispered about me.
"She needs to find some direction in life."
I bought the book for five dollars and a used keyboard for 35. That was the summer I fell in love. Any time I laid my fingers against the keyboard, I felt reunited, connected, with something that was larger than my average tween life. I was creating something beautiful with my hands, contributing to the dwindling amount of romance in the world. I gobbled that little book up within a month and signed up for a piano class my first year in high school. It was an easy class where everyone went at their own pace. Soon enough, my teacher was having me work outside the book, printing out individual sheet music for me and a select number of other students in the class; also a group of romantics. By the middle of the school year, I had hit a wall. My fingers were not as fluid as they once were; they met the piano with pain and resistance. The love affair between the piano and I was burning out.
I didn’t know at the time, but arthritis was the name of what broke us up. That Christmas, my parents bought me a real piano. When they went to bed, smiles on their faces, I cried as my crooked hands rested on the keys I once dreamt about in my sleep. Slowly, I stopped playing music. My mother didn’t question it. She watched as I struggled to bend my fingers and knew that she had passed on to me more than just hair color and skin tone.
When the silence finally blanketed the house for good, I wept in the bathroom for an hour. I remember wanting nothing more than to just break my hands for betraying me like that.
I still have the piano; no one in the family had the heart to give it away or sell it. It’s covered with flowers, graduation pictures, and a thin layer of dust. I pat it each night before I go to bed.
Today, I felt rebellious and sat at the piano, playing until my fingers refused to move. To feel the keys beneath my hands again, to hear songs fill this empty house, it’s all worth the stiffness in my hands, the swollen joints. I’ve only done this four times since I’ve stopped playing for good.
I swallowed an Advil before I went and wrote this out. Why? Because I need to remember; I need to remember that no matter how long it’s been since I’ve played, no matter how warped my hands are, no matter how hard it may be for me to open a jar or even sit up from bed in the morning, I once taught myself how to play a piano in a summer, that I was once courted by this darling, daring instrument before we were forced to part. But it will never be permanent.
I am not defined by these red, swollen, painful knuckles; these ugly fingers. I’m defined by 13 year old me with a fire in her heart and a fever in her hands.
I am worth more than just pain. I am worth beauty, too.