For my 49th birthday last year, Mark rented me a cello. He also gave me a music stand and a beginner’s book. I drew the bow inexpertly across the strings and made a commitment to this hour-glass shaped beauty. Sound waves rumbled up my arms.
The summer passed before I managed to find a teacher and schedule lessons. Everything I’d been doing to coax sound out of my instrument was wrong. I’d been sitting wrong, holding the bow wrong. Even the size of the instrument was wrong. I rented a different-sized cello. And I practiced. Twenty minutes a day.
The more correctly I placed my fingers on the cello’s neck and the more expertly I employed my pencil grip on the bow, the more my elbows and wrists ached. The fingers in my left hand went numb. Joints in my right hand stiffened and swelled in protest.
Though I was in pain, I continued to practice. I learned ecumenical plucking: “Jingle Bells” and“The Dreidel Song.” Kids home on a visit in October asked for a concert, and I obliged. “Let’s hear that again,” they teased.
My sense of loss around the absence of Sam’s power drumming diminished. I was no longer lingering in the hall, recalling Max’s increasingly indifferent, irregular sessions on trumpet. My cello and I, we were making new music memories to fill the Big Empty.
A friend asked me how things were going with the cello. I filled her in, including details of numb fingers and joint ache. Why, she wanted to know, was I doing something that gave me pain?
“I just need to practice harder,” I told her.
“Will you listen to yourself?” she asked.
I knocked off for a few weeks. Sensation returned to the fingers in my left hand. My wrists ached less. The bow lay where I’d left it, its strings slack but still coated in powdery rosin. And I thought.
Or maybe I felt.
I wanted to fill my heart and head with vibrant sound. I wanted to try something completely new. I didn’t want any more pain than I was already experiencing.
So, this past January, I joined a choir. Every Wednesday, I retrace steps I took with my children to our neighborhood public elementary school. I climb the steps to the third-floor music room and slide into a stiff, plastic chair, squeezing in among the altos. The only pain I experience comes from climbing the stairs. That and the times I occasionally pinch my fingers in the metal clasps of the three-ring binder that holds my sheet music. Our brilliant, tart-tongued director warms us up. I take a deep breath and open my mouth. Sound waves rumble through my chest and out of my head. Our improbably named, almost 90-year-old accompaniest — Flossie — plays the first few bars of Morten Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna,” and we’re off.
I’m not good, but I’m getting better. I have trouble tracking the line, so I’ve highlighted the music staff in yellow. My counting is often off, so I’ve written in the beats, noticing time signatures, rests, and odd rhythms. I don’t practice, I won’t be in town for the year-end concert, so there’s no public payoff. But I am fully present each week. I join my voice with the rest of the choir and experience the joy of making music.
I need to return the cello to the rental company, since the year-long contract is almost up. In a month, I will no longer punch “49” into the touch screen on the exercise machine I use at the gym. Fifty. And what have I learned in the first year of empty nesting, the last year of my forties?
To age gracefully has little to do with skin care, hair color, sagging neck, or even productivity. The trick, I think, is to hold onto the dreams that matter most and to be creative and flexible in making them come true.