Beyond the Telling

Beyond the Telling April 7, 2015



One of the reasons we are so bound to storytelling is that the telling opens us to truths too large to keep in view.



I met a woman from Brazil who had to tell her story. Her mother was a difficult woman. But at the piano, she moved like a heron flying low to the water, mirroring the deep. The moment she finished—her hands lifting like slow wings from the keys—her mother was breathless. It was then she seemed to find herself. In that silence between worlds, Claire loved her mother most.

In this world, her mother pushed against everyone. Like a stump no longer growing but too dense to be removed, her mother was always in the way. When someone would ask, Claire would lean forward and stall, landing in a sigh. It was all beyond the telling: the condescension, the endless criticism, the impatience with everything human, the coldness of her widowhood, the cutting of ties when she began to be shrouded by Alzheimer’s.

Yet Claire couldn’t let her mother go. She tuned her piano, though she seldom played. For touching what her mother touched made Claire feel close to her. During her last year, her mother sat at the piano, just staring at the keys. But two days before she died, she dropped her thinning hands and began at middle C to coax a song she couldn’t finish. She began to fly, then stopped and turned away.

It’s been weeks since the funeral and in her grief, Claire keeps searching for the rest of that song. What part is her? What part is her mother? She keeps searching for the moment her mother would lift her wings. Her therapist says, “Try to let it go.” But in the night, she dreams of her mother’s hands lifting from the keys like the fingers of a saint throbbing in the dark.

Claire wants to finish the song so she can begin to fly herself. If she could just finish the song, she might be freed beyond the telling. Every night, Claire feels her best self hover like a note of truth between generations. If she could only finish the song, it might illumine the bottom of her grief, where she could close her pain and begin again.

And every time we’re touched by another, whether by the contagion of their joy or the opening of their pain, every time the song of life moves from them through us, we carry their note, and add our own, to suffer our way into harmony. When I lean to hug my eighty-seven year old mother, trying to feel the young girl she was, alive with wonder before I was born, I’m trying to feel and play the one song that shapes us all, though we’re so frightened to share it.

All we want, really, is to be freed beyond the telling of what went wrong or how we failed. All we want is to be freed into living the song that life keeps jazzing through our hearts. What we call coincidence, what we call obstacle, what we call the miracle of surprise—all are notes of life bringing us alive, throwing us into each other, forcing us to accept our small crescendo in the unending hymn that bemoans and affirms what it is to be here.

A Question to Walk With: In conversation with a friend or loved one, tell the story of someone in your life whom you wish you understood more completely.

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