Songs in the Key of Life

May 1996

          Recently a person close to me had a serious cancer scare. In the midst of trying to garner the medical information that would eventually help us determine that things would be scary, but end happily, we had one of those conversations where you talk about everything that matters.

            Near the end of the visit, this person got down to the heart of it.

            “I don’t want to die yet,” she started wryly. “I haven’t even figured out if there’s an afterlife!”

            I chuckled and assured this person that, fortunately, medical science had advanced to the point where she could spend the next several decades considering the question.

            As baby boomers and their parents age, the whole mortality (or immortality) issue has made its way into the forefront of the national debate. Our society is starting to take a closer look at death.

            Let’s face it, if Georges Burns can die, anyone can.

            Some folks have a matter-of-fact attitude concerning their exit. My dad, for example. He has already purchased his cemetery plot and placed his head stone. The exact year of his departure is the only detail left undone.

            Someone visiting the cemetery recently saw all of this. She called and asked in shock if my father was dead. “No,” I responded. “He’s just very organized.”

            My father is the exception, however. Most people still face death with fear and ignorance. Last month I was on the periphery of someone’s passing. It offered some perspective.

            It all started with piano lessons.

            Diane, my bride and the perennial winner of our household’s “Mother of the Year” award, determined that our second child, Maggie, had some musical talent and would benefit from piano lessons. Mom also surmised that Maggie was struggling a bit with her new braces and entry into fourth grade. Mom thought Mags needed to feel special. Piano lessons fit the bill.

            And that is how our family met Sister Donna Kucenski, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis and a piano teacher.

            Diane located her through a flyer from school and called. Donna informed my wife that she was taking students in her home, an apartment near our neighborhood. The date for Maggie’s first lesson was set. There was a special circumstance, however.

            “You should know,” Sister Donna informed Diane, “that I am a cancer patient.” Diane was mildly concerned about the situation but proceeded. The night after the first lesson, I came home to the sounds of Mags banging away on the old, used upright in our basement. I asked Diane how things went, and she smiled. Maggie bounced up the steps to drag me back downstairs to hear her play. She told me that Sister Donna was very nice and had taught her a lot. And then Maggie played her first song for me. She finished, proud and beaming. Then she mentioned as an afterthought, “Oh, and I wore a mask.”

            Sister Donna explained the surgical mask for me when I accompanied Maggie to her next lesson. “I am undergoing chemotherapy, and my immune system is weakened,” she informed me with an apologetic smile as she put on her mask. “If I am going to beat this cancer, I cannot afford to get the flu. I hope this is not a bother for you and Maggie.” Id didn’t faze Mags a bit. She already had her face gear on and was seated at the piano in the small apartment which was immediately adjacent to a hospital bed.

            As far as Maggie was concerned, everyone wore a surgical mask to play the piano.

            The lessons proceeded over a year. There were times when our family’s schedule or Sister Donna’s health did not allow for the weekly instructions. The piano teacher’s life was almost as complicated as ours.

            She shared her apartment with two other religious sisters and her aging mother.

            When the lessons couldn’t be held, Sister Donna would always send instructions. Even when she was ill from her treatments or the progression of her illness, she would call and ask Maggie to play for encouragement and affection.

            The months progressed. Maggie’s piano playing improved, but Sister Donna’s health did not. One night, a parent of one of Sister Donna’s other pupils called to ask that we pray for a surgical procedure that Donna was having the next morning. Donna’s instructions were very specific. We were to pray for the doctors performing the procedure. We were given their exact names and how they were spelled. The piano teacher was as conscientious with God as she was with Maggie and her scales.

            The lessons came less often in late winter of this year. Rather than prayers for her health, however, Sister Donna asked that everyone pray for her pupils’ performance at a big recital in February.  Some of her advanced students had chances for scholarships. Donna attended that recital in a wheelchair. It would be the last time she would see some of her students.

            We got a call one morning in late March. Maggie’s piano teacher was “struggling,” and if anyone wanted to stop by for a visit for the last time, this might be the day. Before we finished discussing it, we got another call telling us that Sister Donna Kucenski had died at her home in bed. The bed I had seen beside her piano that day I had stayed for Maggie’s lesson.

            I think Sister Donna knew that our daughter Maggie might be the last new piano student of her life. I sometimes felt that she was pouring all she knew about music into Mags, while trying never to make things uncomfortable for her. She made Maggie feel very special.

            In the end, Sister Donna taught much more than piano. She was a good and selfless soul. She honored and dignified life by performing her chosen work for others as well as she could for as long as she could. She gave knowledge with compassion. And she left this life with the enviable spiritual fortitude that those with strong faith possess.

            If anyone can be holy, she was.

            Public discourse will continue about the value of life and the existence of a human spirit. But as someone who struggles himself with these questions, I think Sister Donna gave me a gift. A sense, at least, of what the human soul might sound like.

            I amlistening to it now as I write.

            It is the sound of a nine-year-old girl playing scales on an old piano.

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