Illustration by David Owens
My uncle is dying, and I don’t know what to say to him. My family has flown across the country to spend one last Christmas by his side, and I’m avoiding him as if the cancer were contagious.
I am a coward. So little is being asked of me during this visit. I’m not expected to bathe my uncle, or give him injections, or monitor his symptoms for signs of deterioration. All I have to do is tell him now, while there’s still time, that I love him. But I feel incapable of confronting the inevitabilities that hover around him. I put the conversation off, hoping the right words will come. At 25, I know that I’m too old for this kind of paralysis.
A few days into the visit, my uncle corners me in the kitchen. To my surprise, he doesn’t want to discuss his prognosis or exchange pleasantries. He wants to talk about Mozart.
“I hear you’re working on the Sonata in C major,” he says, steering me toward the piano in the front room.
My uncle is the finest musician I know. I’ve spent my whole life listening to his interpretations of Bach, Schubert, Haydn and all the other geniuses, wondering if I could achieve a fraction of his artistry in my own playing.
“When I was in college,” he begins, “everyone tried to make Mozart sound pretty. They all played jewelry-box Mozart. And this was the composer of Don Giovanni.”
His eyes fill as he says the name of the opera. Over the past year, the disease has hijacked his neurological functioning. His emotions are amplified and, at times, beyond his control.
“My teacher,” he continues after a moment, “said that he was hearing a lot of Mozart that sounded like Beethoven, and a lot of Mozart that sounded like Chopin, but not a lot of Mozart that sounded like Mozart. I spent a whole year studying that piece, note by note, trying to understand what he meant.”
He sits down, places his hands on the keys, and launches into the sonata’s opening. For a few measures, the melody is bright and true. But then his left hand trips and his right hand loses its certainty. The notes clash, and then stop entirely.
“My hands don’t play together anymore,” he tells me.
I marvel at the unique cruelty of his illness, which doesn’t even spare the music.
He lifts his fingers off of the keys, pauses, and looks at me.
“You don’t have to play Mozart the same way that everyone else does. That’s what I want to tell you about music.”
I realize that this is how we say goodbye. He doesn’t need me to talk. He just wants to encourage me one final time.
He stands up from the piano bench, gesturing for me to take his seat.
“Now play,” he says.
Lives in: Rockville
What she does: Book editor at NASW Press in Washington, D.C.
How she got her start: “I started dictating short stories to my mother when I was 3. She would fold the stories into little books for me to illustrate. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to hand her a real book that I’ve written.”
Her background: Donovan graduated from the University of Maryland, where she completed the Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House program. She is currently a member of the Rockville Writers’ Group.
Previously published in: Stylus: A Journal of Literature and Art and Silver Spring Voice
Favorite place to write: “On the Metro during my commute.”
Favorite authors: Virginia Woolf and Colm Tóibín
Up next: “I am working on my first novel.”