Standing in front of the old antique dresser, the clueless girl in the mirror looks at me with confusion. She has forgotten why she left the lunch she was packing on the kitchen counter, and just stares back at me. In frustration, she turns back toward the kitchen, hoping to re-jog the original thought.
Her rheumatologist explained that this short-term memory problem is caused by lupus attacking her brain. A recent flare of CNS lupus symptoms has caused her confusion, headaches and slowed eye-hand coordination. Every morning her symptoms are much worse than later on in the day, and by afternoon she knows she will feel better and think more clearly again, improving more as each hour goes by. Analytical thinking and problem-solving tasks definitely have to wait until afternoon! Back to the kitchen she goes.
After packing her lunch, finishing a first cup of coffee, breakfast, and mild exercise in the living room, she pours a second cup of coffee and takes her morning medications. Today, she must take extra prednisone her doctor prescribed this week for her lupus flare. With cup in hand, she crosses the living room to the grand piano by the window. Adjusting the tapestry covered piano bench, she sits and rests her steaming coffee cup on the nearby window sill, looking out for a moment at the backyard morning beyond.
Leafing through the pages of the hymnal, she stops at a favorite and starts playing the piano very slowly. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound…” Although she understands and knows the notes, this morning it is very, very hard to get her eyes, hands and brain to talk to each other! The sensation invoked is a physical feeling of nearly painful mental exertion.
With great effort she plays on, very determined. It just hurts to think! Yet, she forces her muddy mind and hands to continue to work together to play the simple beautiful notes on the page in front of her. Persisting will soon surely yield a valuable reward, she is certain of this, so continues.
It seems the very act of this morning’s piano playing begins to reconnect unwilling neurons between her mind and the fingers finding her piano’s keys. The sound of music surrounds and soothes her, filling her struggling mind and soul with a quiet flood of joy. She plays these hymns both for herself and for her listening heavenly audience of One. Little by little, the music flows more freely and her musical ability begins to be released. Private worship is infused with her musical experience.
As she plays, she scans the simple chords on the hymn page, expanding them to an improvised arrangement. Within itself, her brain begins to awaken more with the passing minutes, various sectors speaking between themselves with increasingly coordinated activity. Creativity, interpretation, musical notation, expression, dynamics, mathematical rhythm, musical style, volume, tempo, dexterity, harmony, melody, observation, and contemplation all simultaneously emerge from the pianist’s intellectual interaction with her instrument.
Going through the hymn several times, she makes each repetetion a different extemporaneous arrangement of notes, rythym and mood than the one before it. She embellishes and changes the music to follow the thoughts of the poetry expressed below each line of music. She expresses herself through making music. She is having fun, and feeling better than when she started.
Gratefulness fills these precious musical moments. The pianist pauses to look out at the morning from her seat by the window, taking another sip of her cooling, momentarily almost forgotten coffee. Reflecting, she marvels how over recent months and the past couple of years, her piano skills have grown better than before. Despite lupus and being over 50, she now plays a little better than when she was studying music in college.
It seems that each morning’s musical “therapy” has helped to slowly awaken unused neural pathways through her brain tissues, perhaps in place of abandoned lupus-damaged ones. Her skill has improved.
Her mind’s ability to repair its function around its past organic damage has been enhanced by daily musical practice. Her short-term memory has improved as her mind has been strengthened. Her ability to function at a professional and challenging job, previously at risk of ending with disability, has been restored and reclaimed. She believes the piano was a key to her improvement, mingled with the joy of knowing God’s daily grace helps her face the challenges lupus.
A delayed start to her day outside the house will soon begin. With neurons now firing effectively, and critical coordination improved, driving 30 minutes on the freeway will now be a much safer proposition! So, the shower, hairdryer, makeup and daily dressing ritual happen next.