Ode to Joy

Weird title, isn’t it? And yet, this is the title of the last movement of the last symphony Beethoven wrote. He was old and so deaf he could not conduct the orchestra playing his creation. He was on stage, however, though unable to hear the music. One of his soloists had to turn him around to face the audience when the piece was over so he could see the standing ovation he was receiving. If you have ever heard this piece of music (and play it loud!), you’ll find yourself swept away by the hope and glory of the music.

Life is not easy or fair. What a crippling irony that Beethoven—the possessor of one of the finest musical geniuses of all time—had to suffer from deafness. But he did not stop creating, even though he could only hear the symphonic music in his mind.

My challenge to you here is to write about a contrast you’ve experienced where you had to struggle with tragedy and find your own way to survive and then thrive. Can you write an Ode to Joy?

19 responses to “Ode to Joy

  1. My Husband Doesn’t Know My Name

    OLD LETTERS, OLD FRIENDS

    Spring 2005

    My husband doesn’t know my name. After thirty years of love and companionship, he no longer knows what part I play in his life.

    He comes up the stairs to the loft where I am working at the computer. Everything appears normal. He’s a hale and healthy man of 75, though lately he has been losing more weight than is good for him.

    “Say, gal,” he says. “How about getting me a phone number so I can call my wife?” He says “gal” because he doesn’t know who I am. He speaks in a complete sentence, and by that I know he is hallucinating. When I ask who he wants to call, he responds, “Betty.” He dislikes Betty and would never talk to her.

    “How about Carol?” I ask. “I don’t have Betty’s phone number.” He agrees. I call his first wife, and Ken and Carol have a “conversation.” Carol is very kind and talks to him at length. Ken tries to hold the phone to his ear and listen. Sometimes he gets a couple words out and I can tell some lucidity is returning because his speech becomes more difficult. The phone frequently slips to his neck and he looks puzzled.

    My husband has been stolen from me by a disease called Alzheimer’s. It has been almost five years since he was diagnosed with dementia, three since a neurological reaction to hernia surgery slammed us up against the wall with the dreaded “A” word. I’ve kept him at home, caring for him by myself. The disease is insidious and has led me down a deep, dark path so craftily that I am in way over my head before I realize what has happened.

    I wanted to keep him at home until he no longer knew me, our home, or the life we had together. That time has arrived. It has become far too dangerous for each of us for him to continue to live at home. His particular type of Alzheimer’s is characterized by its rapid progression, almost constant hallucinations, delirium, and muscle contractions that cause him to fall frequently. He can no longer dress or groom himself. Incontinence is becoming a problem. More and more often I have to hand feed him. He cannot be left alone even for a few minutes. He is often frightened, often worried. He says, in his more lucid moments, he wants “out”, wants to stop taking “the pills,” his six dementia medications.

    September 2005

    I take Ken to Arizona with the aid of his eldest daughter. We spend the night before the flight in a hotel in Anchorage, hoping to minimize the negative impacts of travel. Ken wanders around the hotel room all night, talking to imaginary listeners. None of us sleep. During the flight we sit on either side of him, each holding one of his hands, trying to keep him from pulling on the seat in front of him. He becomes more and more agitated, less and less connected. I give him his evening medications early, trying to calm him.

    That evening I place my husband in an assisted living home. I turn his care over to strangers. The home is very nice, very clean, but I cannot bear to watch. Walking out of that home on the morning of my return flight is the single most difficult thing I have ever had to do in my life.

    I come home to Moose Pass and begin a winter of introspection. I sit and I wait. There is no closure. Instead, there are periodic emotional upheavals as various family members try to adjust to Ken’s circumstances. I feel severely conflicted: I should be there to hold him and protect him from the things that frighten him nowadays; I should be at home, trying to heal.

    I wait. I have no desire to socialize, but friends and neighbors watch out for me. They stop by to chat, invite me for dinner, make sure I am occupied at Christmas. Still I wait. Long, endless days, even longer nights. I cannot get to sleep until four or five in the morning. I sleep until noon, hating myself for it, but unable to adjust to an earlier schedule. I wait some more.

    February 2006

    Ken’s daughter calls to say that he has taken a turn for the worse, and we think it might signal the start of a terminal bout of dehydration that we have been expecting as his body forgets what to do with nutrition. I get Ken’s medical records out, working on a timeline of the progression of the disease, seeing it through his neurologist’s eyes with her words. By late evening I must force myself to think of something else. Unfortunately I settle on my years just out of high school.

    I think of mistakes I made then, both in my work and in my personal relationships. I think of a first love, long before I met Ken: some ill-considered words I have rued for forty years and an apology I have wanted to tender all this time. Too late now, as he died a long time ago. Tossing and turning at two in the morning, my brain doing really bad things to me, I am desperate to find anything else to think about other than those two troubles. I fear an emotional meltdown, recognizing the symptoms.

    I recall a shoe box filled with old letters that I wrote forty years ago to a friend. She had returned them to me six years ago and I have often thought of chucking the whole box of letters into the woodstove unread, fearing that they might contain some long forgotten embarrassment I wouldn’t want known. I get the box from the bottom drawer of my desk and pluck out a letter at random. All my troubles have set me up for the emotional tornado that rips through me as I read that first letter.

    There it all is: a chance late-night meeting with my first love, coffee at an all-night restaurant, apology offered. I’d been met with understanding, forgiveness, his own apologies and enduring affection. How could I have forgotten such a monumental event in my life? I sit up all night reading those letters, laughing and crying. Long forgotten events come tumbling back into my memory. I am astounded at how much I’ve forgotten.

    But the best part, the very best, is what lay between the lines in those old letters–unfailing, unquestioning friendship from many.

    For days afterwards I reread those letters, write dozens of e-mails to friends about my discovery. To a select few I speak of that old relationship, how it has formed me into the person I am today. I speak of the lessons I learned from it, and how those lessons have helped make my marriage to Ken last thirty years.

    I speak of wanting to make that apology for forty years, that I now know things need to be said while there is still time.

    I begin contacting friends from those old days, telling them how much I have valued their friendship then and now. I tell my friends of today the same. I am looking back on that young woman that I used to be with understanding, tolerance and some fondness, despite all her youthful mistakes, as I reconcile my first thirty years with my last thirty years. I am becoming a whole person.

    I begin to see patterns in my life. I see that things do indeed happen for the best, and that there seem to be reasons why things happen as they do. May not have been what I wanted to have happen at the time; may not have seen any reason for it then. I puzzle about what I may have done to deserve watching my husband’s brain rot away these past five years, and then it occurs to me that perhaps it had nothing to do with ME. Maybe Ken needed me there for HIM.

    I sense the beginning of healing. This dreadful journey that I have been on with Ken is far from over and there can be no closure yet. I know there are some land mines waiting out there for me, but I can feel myself becoming stronger, less wounded, ready to face what this journey may bring.

    And that box of old letters, unburned and unread all these years? Perhaps they were just waiting for the time when they would do me the most good.

    © Jeanne Waite Follett

    (My husband died in 2007. This story was submitted under a different title to an annual creative writing contest sponsored by the University of Alaska and the Anchorage Daily News. It won first place in the adult category for non-fiction in 2006. That validated my writing, which has been almost non-stop since, and has done much to help me become a new person.)

    • If not for love, we would be naught but the wildest animal.

      I can see why this story would win first place. A very touching and moving story.

    • I remember the tears I had when I first read this, “A” has to be the worst that could fall upon someone and that someone’s family. Isn’t good that writing is such good therapy, even when not a single soul reads it.

    • Gully:I read this story when you published it during our first time with Ann.
      It was beautiful. sentimental and loving then as well as it is now. A classic that will live forever.

  2. This topic requires quite a delving into one’s heart and I’m not too certain if I’ll like what I unearth. That said, Ann, I’ll give it a go 🙂 if the end result proves adequate, I’ll post it and let you have a read.

  3. How fine to read about the journey you’ve taken, and how you found a way to conceptualize nearly all of your adult years into sense and meaning. This is, indeed, an Ode to Joy–to joy in living, in spite of life’s often slamming agonies. I shall be printing this out to keep, Gullie, as I wander into the nether years and look for balance. Thank you for sharing it.

  4. unable to paste my story here. Guess I have to write it again.

  5. Ode to Joy
    I don’t want to write about my struggle with life tragedies. It makes me sad to think about them and they stir memories that I prefer not to bring up.
    Instead, with your indulgence, I would rather write about my struggle with the violin I inherited from one of my cousins, and with my mother, who wanted me to become a musician, in addition to becoming a doctor or an engineer. As most mothers do, she had the vision of a perfect son.
    ***
    My mother, with the help of some political connections, managed to secure me a spot for admittance in the National Conservatory of Music which was the most prestigious institution in Cuba for the learning of this art.

    The Conservatory was located in a two story beautiful building with a white façade. Inside, there was a round white marble lobby from which you could see the open square courtyard with a water fountain in the center. Around the courtyard, were the classrooms with their doors closed.

    At that time I was about 12 years old and my mind was focused in playing basketball and in other mundane activities rather than in music. For me, going to that building was like going to another galaxy.

    At the Conservatory, you learned music the old fashion way: you were not allowed to play the instrument until you took classes in Theory of Music; Reading and Sol-fa ( which was the most boring activity in the world);, History of Music; Interpretation; Hearing (I don’t know how to tittle this course, but the objective was for you to write down the music the professor was playing on the piano, as if you were taking dictation,) Knowing your instrument, which explained specific details of all the part of the violin; where the notes are located, how to place your hand, how to tune the instrument and much more.

    In any event, I took a year of these subject at the end of which I was up to my ears in Music. That was the year of my struggle with tragedy. Between the regular school classes and my involuntary immersion in music, I got to the point where I didn’t know whether I was coming or going.

    Little did I know that the real tragedy will come on the second year when I was supposed to learn how to play the violin.

    The only consolation at the Conservatory was when I, with a couple of other your friends, were able to sneak into the large ballet studio where the girls danced in skimpy, very tight and revealing outfits. If there was ever a paradise, it was there.

    The second year was the shortest semester in history for it lasted one class only: the first and the last.

    On the second year the classes consisted of five or six students. As you came into the classroom, the professor handed out to each student, a different piece of an easy version of some classical music score which you had never seen before in your life, or, at least, in my life.
    Then, after studying the music you were given, you sit next to the professor and tell him all the particulars about that piece; the tempo, the mayors, the variations and whatever else you were able to detect.
    The point was that the professor wasn’t there to tell you anything about the fundaments of the piece. He was there to teach you how to play, no to explain what you should had learned the first year.

    After that, you were supposed to tune up your instrument and get ready to play.

    Of course, after the two and a half months of summer vacation, during which neither opened a book of music or the violin case, I had forgotten most of what I had learned the previous year, so, it follows that my first day of class was like waking on a bed of fire in regard to show my knowledge about the fundaments of music and it was like entering hell in reference to what happened when I tried to tune my violin.

    In order to avoid the embarrassment in front of my friends, I managed to be last student to come up to Mr. Molina, a gentle old man with an impish look about him, thick eye classes which were constantly sliding down to the tip of his nose, a receding line of gray hairs that seem to be unaware of the existence of a comb or a hair brush and with such a white skin that it appeared to be transparent.

    So there I was, next to Mr. Molina, trying to explain the particulars of the piece as best as possible but with evident lack of confidence and knowledge.
    Mercifully, that part of the exercise was over in a few minutes after which the professor asked me to tune the violin.

    I took the instrument and the bow out of it’s case and started to play some basic notes. Then, when I put the violin on top of my left thigh to calibrate the first string, the string snapped of cutting slightly into the skin of the thumb in my left hand.

    In a calm voice, the professor told me not to worry and to change the string.
    With shame coming out of every pore in my body, I had to tell him that I didn’t have a spare string.

    Without saying a word, Mr. Molina got up from his chair and went out of the classroom returning few minutes later with a new string which I proceed to place in it’s position and tuned.

    One the first string was out of the way and when I started to tune the second string, surprise!, the string snapped also.

    At that moment I wanted to disappear, I wanted to cry, to run away from that Conservatory forever, to throw the violin into the ocean. But I did nothing.
    I stood there sitting with my head down, trying to control my emotions, unable to speak with the violin hanging on my left hand and the bow on the right hand, both touching the floor.

    Finally, afer a few moments of complete silence, Mr. Molina asked me a question: “son, if you were a magician, where would you rather be at this time doing what?”
    “I would like to be at the school gym playing basketball” I reply.

    “So there is where you should be and not here” he said. “I don’t think you like music enough to star here and, therefore, I think you shouldn’t take more music lessons.”

    “But my mother…” I started to say when he interrupted me.
    “I will deal with your mother. Ask her to come see me tomorrow or the next day, and I will explain the situation to her. I’m sure she will understand.”

    My mother went to see Mr. Molina the following day and when she returned home she gave me the sweet-sour news:” All right, no more music for you.”

    Notes:
    The violin: my mother gave the violin away to another family member. I never heard about that instrument, again.

    Basketball: after playing in two or three international tournaments representing my country, I practiced with the Cuban Olympic team in search of a spot on the 1956 Summer Olympic in Melbourne, Aust. Unfortunately, Cuba didn’t participated in those games due to internal political problems.

    Music: What I learned about music during my first year at the Conservatory kept embedded in my brain forever. Although I’m not a musician nor can I play any instrument, that education gave me another dimension to enjoy, appreciate, understand and interpret music of different disciplines.
    Thanks Mom.

    • My favorite line: “Little did I know that the real tragedy will come on the second year when I was supposed to learn how to play the violin.”
      I liked your description of Mr. Molina, and finding out you were a great basketball player!

      • Maureen, thanks for your comments, specially for your opinion regarding me being a great basketball player, that I was not.

  6. This is definitely one kind of ode to joy. You show your struggle through the underbrush of music basics, hacking away as best you could, and then revealing yourself as the kid who should be playing ball. Joy! You also reprise the joy of what you learned about music in the final paragraph and it sounds like it has served you well. Good one, Orlando!

    • Thanks Ann, your comments do me a lot of good.

      • Lando, I won’t repeat it for the umpteenth time. You know what I was going to say. I am so sorry about your Olympic ambitions. Though I have ready many of your stories (including the ‘family jewels’), I’ve never heard how you came to the USA. Hoping to learn about that. By the way, do you still order cheese and ham sandwiches and are the ants still raiding your pantry?

  7. My ode to joy is the surprise of well-loved work.

    My first job was on an assembly line that consisted of four people, four functions, an eight-to-five work day with two fifteen-minute breaks, one hour for lunch. I was sixteen—time to have a summer job. I hated it. I could just manage to live with the aching feet from standing on cement, but I couldn’t live with the boredom, with the way the clock moved one slow minute at a time. My coping strategy was to work as fast as I could so that I could add one more word to the newspaper crossword puzzle I had taped to the side of the work bench. Even this was difficult because my coworkers were so fast. It took me at least fifteen minutes to gain thirty seconds to read the clue and possibly write the word. I simply had not known work would include pain and the impossible-to-bear, non-stop boredom. I lasted two weeks.

    I had many jobs from that point on, but it wasn’t until I graduated from college that I had to face the fact that I had no skills except typing. Over and over I went back to jobs where I typed and filed and transcribed dictation. If I stayed long enough, I worked my way up, since being at least semi-smart tends to stand out. Supervisor, manager, department head. No longer bored, but now with a new kind of pain: anxiety and stress. Show the bosses how good you are, compete with colleagues, meet the budget, fire people, and try to keep a family growing on the side. I became an executive in two, very different jobs and got fired from both for not really knowing what I was doing. I have always had an ability to make things up as I go along, but creativity only takes you so far in business, and getting fired is painful.

    Now I work 365 days a year. I have been doing this since 2002. You would think this schedule would be painful or that the repetition would become boring. Not true. I realized long ago that mothers have been keeping this kind of schedule forever. It’s their labor of love. Now I have no pain in my work, and I’m never bored being helpful to people who like to learn what I know. I work at something I created, built, and love. Who knew I would finally discover joy in work?

    • A hard working girl who developed into a hard working woman with the ability to make things up along the way and who help people who like to learn. You don’t see these kind of woman too often.

    • Ann, I hope you recognize how blessed you are. So many creative souls are trapped in the repetitive boredom and never find a way out.

    • And some day I hope you realized how many people you have helped, and not just with writing skills.

  8. I could use some of those typing skills of yours…

  9. I had a story published three years ago after receiving an honorable mention in a writing contest. Originally I posted it here under the prompt “Worst Lie”. I did a lot more work on it, polishing until I couldn’t polish anymore and entered it in the contest. Getting this particular story published was the highlight of my life apart from my children/grandchildren of course. I wrote the story about the day I fell in love for the first time. I was fourteen and the year was 1964. Eventually our lives went separate ways.. He moved away. I married. Life goes on. Thing is, I never forgot him. When I was notified of the upcoming publication, my sister and I decided to try and locate my “long ago friend” on the internet. I wanted to see how his life had gone and to tell him about the story I had written about him. After some searching, we found what we were looking for. It listed his brother, parents, etc. Under his name though, it was listed as deceased. My eyes could not focus. My mind could not focus. My heart could not focus. My sister located his brother’s phone number and dialed. He answered the phone. And yes, my first love had passed away in 2002. Cancer. My heart broke. We talked for a while and then I told him about my story that was to be published in September 2011. He said he wanted to read it. I said ok. And we agreed to keep in touch.

    September arrived and I drove into town to our book festival. Going to pick up my copy of the anthology with my story in it. My published story! This was something I’ve wanted all my life. And now it was reality. I remember thinking that if nothing good ever happened to me again, it was ok. I had a story published and nothing would top that. I was on cloud nine. But how can you be on cloud nine while your heart is breaking over your first love? The one that’s been in the back of your heart since you were fourteen? The one you will never see again? The one that will never read your story?

    The next month, October 2011, I got a phone call from his brother. He was planning a trip up to the mountains which is about an hour from where I live. We made plans to meet him and his wife for lunch. I had not seen him since 1966. I won’t go into detail here about this meeting–only that I held onto him for a long long time. And we both cried. And we talked about his brother. The life he had. The cancer. The loss. As I sat across from him and listened, I couldn’t help noticing his eyes. He had his brother’s eyes. The same shape. The same color. The same glint. I couldn’t help remembering….

    I gave him a copy of the anthology that my story was in. He called several weeks later and said he loved it. Said he had read it every single night. Said it brought back a lot of memories from our time as “barn kids” with the horses and all the crazy things we did back in the sixties. And it made him cry for his brother.

    Once in a while, I’ll pull the anthology from my bookshelf, find the page number and stare at the title and author’s name. My name. Sometimes I’ll read my story. But it’s hard to see through the tears.

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