My Haunting Memory: an Experience of Beauty

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My Haunting Memory: an Experience of Beauty

Rachel Usala

We are always asked as children, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" A ballerina, an astronaut, and a pilot are all typical answers, but I dreamt of being a pianist. I wanted to sit on a large stage with a flighty roof and pour my heart out to the heavens, oblivious to an admiring crowd. My fingers would beat a vicious tempo and then smoothly transition to a soft, heavenly ending, as if my notes were dewdrops falling from butterfly wings. No, I don't think that's exactly right. It wasn't the music that fascinated me as much as the grace of a pianist performing. The harmony that radiates from a master pianist's tense body, tilted head, and rapid hands were beauty itself.

I practiced hard, but after eight years of lessons, I realized I was possibly the most dissonant musician on God's earth and retired the little brown piano from earnest playing. Every couple of weeks I would return and sit on the bench, wipe off the dust, and play a little ditty, painfully reliving my failure. I got in the habit of confronting all my frustrations, not just my failures as a pianist, by playing. The wrong notes and faulty tempo seemed to express my unspoken inadequacies and allowed me to wallow in self-pity.

On the night of my twelfth birthday, I sat down at the piano. I was angry. My mom had gotten sick during the day and cancelled my birthday party. She said it had taken all her strength to pick me up from school: she couldn't possibly host a party. Because I blamed her for spoiling my special day, I decided to get away from my mom by spending the night at a friend's house. My luggage lay by the piano. When the doorbell rang, I picked up my bag, closed the piano cover, and walked out of the house, leaving Mom to suffer in isolation. I have never regretted anything more in my life.

When I got home the next day, my family told me that Mom had been on her deathbed. She had contracted pneumonia and suffered adrenal hemorrhage as a complication. Ironically, my brother Colin had been the only one who had realized how sick my mother was. Even my father, a physician, had first concluded that the symptoms were viral, a severe cold. My mother survived after a year recovery but is permanently medicated.

John Dewey said, "The world is full of things that are indifferent and even hostile to life.... Nevertheless, if life continues...there is a transformation of [the organism's existence] into [a]...more significant life (1)." He's right. For years I was racked with guilt for not weeping and praying by my mother's bed on the eve of her illness, but after the ache of regret had faded a little, my perspective changed for the better. I appreciated things I never had before.

For one, my brother Colin gained a kind of beauty in my eyes. He had always been special in his own right. He is popular, intelligent, articulate, handsome, and romantically rebellious, but despite all these endearing qualities, his real beauty had surfaced during that January night when he exhibited a conscious, compassionate understanding for Mom. He knew that something was wrong even though he was only ten. His sixth sense for a loved one, he's ability to step out of himself and feel the pain of someone close to him, is more beautiful than the skill of a master pianist. I regret not being at my parent's bedside not only for my mother's sake, but also because I am sorry that I missed the opportunity to see an exquisite quality in my own brother, which I never knew existed.

My mother also gained a kind of beauty. I had almost lost her, and things have a tendency to develop a whimsical elegance when transient, like a late blooming flower. I suddenly wanted to know everything about my mother: what her childhood was like, how her pregnancies had been, what her own relationship with her mother, father, and grandmother had been like. Each of her memories was a precious gem I tried to lock away in order to preserve that fašade of her immortality, which had been shattered when she contracted adrenal insufficiency. "Because the actual world, that in which we live, is a combination of movement and culmination, of breaks and re-unions, the experience of a living creature is capable of esthetic quality (2)." That I had left my mother in her time of direst need accentuated the "break" and yawning gap between my mother and I, and I worked to create a "re-union." In the process I developed a more mature understanding of aesthetics and an appreciation for the beauty and delicacy of mortality. In literature they call these experiences loss of innocence and treat such moments has tragic. Yes, in a sense it is tragic that my appreciation of spontaneous beauty, like a master pianist performing, lost its significance in my life, but other, better things gained more importance. My loss of innocence is beautiful for how it changed me.

My mom's near-death experience brought about another change: a strengthening of my conviction to follow a career in science. Although being a pianist had been my dream occupation, becoming a physician had always been my practical ambition, even before my mom's illness. This was only natural: my entire family is scientists or doctors and shares their lives and career experiences with me. My father and uncles are doctors, my aunts are all nurses, my grandfather was an organic chemist, and my mother is a microbiologist. Nevertheless, my mother's near-death motivated me to pursue a career in science with a new sense of purpose for two reasons. First, my father had been the one that saved my mother's life. Six doctors had looked at my mother and failed to diagnose her adrenal insufficiency. Only my father, at the last moment, had made the diagnosis and given my mother her life. I was impressed enough by the power of my father's knowledge and the magnitude of the gift, life, that he was able to bestow that I decided to study science. Second, I felt I had the potential to become a scientist or a great doctor because my father had shown great skill and saved a life. I'd always had the irrational notion that a parent and a child are inexorably linked and that the potential in the parent can be passed down to the child, genetically or otherwise. That my father had saved a life so close to him made me feel that somehow I too had the potential to save a family member's life. Maybe I would someday save my daughter's life. If I did, it would be a way of making up for not being there for my mom. It would also be a means of gaining through scientific knowledge a beautiful, if superficial, sixth sense like the kind I had seen and envied in my brother Colin.

After my father's ingenious diagnosis, I decided to study chemistry and mathematics and make it my art. I call science my "art" because "art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reenforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is (3)," and that is what science does for me. Each science or math class paints a more complete picture of the universe. I've seen calculus explain special relativity and the application of constructive and destructive interference of electromagnetic waves from my physics class clarify molecular orbital theory in my organic chemistry class. To me this is the essence of beauty and harmony and what Dewey called "the past [reenforcing] the present:" each of my scientific experiences has built on another. Science "as the quickening of what now is" is even more explicit. Without the scientific method or mathematics we would not have the potential to predict the weather, diagnose disease, or electronically chronicle the enormous amount of literature, scientific data, and art that mankind has created. Without science the world would not have ready access to these developments nor the experiences of others to build upon, which are the seeds of progress and the quickening, or expediency, of forwarding thinking.

My mother's near-death experience and recovery changed me in such a dynamic way that I consider it an experience of beauty. It opened so many doors for me. I gained a new appreciation for my brother and my mother. My own sheltered, child-like sense of immortality was replaced with a more realistic and more meaningful love of mortal, transient life. My father's show of skill by saving my mother's life inspired me to pursue a career as a scientist or doctor and motivated me to study chemistry and mathematics. My scientific education has been nothing less than a beautiful and fulfilling journey in and of itself. It is said that the same kind of brain activity is used for mathematical and scientific reasoning as for musical performance. I am happy that mathematics and science are becoming my instruments as the piano never was.

Ironically, I never play the piano anymore. I can't bring myself to sit on the bench, rest by hands on the white and ebony keys, and feel the music assuage my frustrations. The piano is haunted by my memory of my twelfth birthday and a selfish, blind little girl. I use this memory to remind me of my imperfection: even the pain of guilt is beautiful.

1. John Dewey, "The Live Creature." Art as Experience (1934; rpt. New York: Perigee, 1980. vii-viii, 14.)
2. John Dewey, "The Live Creature." Art as Experience (1934; rpt. New York: Perigee, 1980. vii-viii, 14.)
3. John Dewey, "The Live Creature." Art as Experience (1934; rpt. New York: Perigee, 1980. vii-viii, 18.)

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