A Very Special Orchestra

Right now more than a few graduates of a local high school are dusting off long-unused instruments. They’re checking for broken violin strings or dried out cakes of rosin. Brass instruments are being oiled and woodwind reeds purchased. Are those cello pegs going to move and if they do, will the strings stay in tune for longer than a few minutes? And, most importantly, can they remember how to play this thing that was such a huge part of their life so many years ago? I suspect there’s going to be a lot of practicing  in the next month or two, including in my own home. My once respectable flute playing has been dormant for too long, and I’m paying the price now to whip it back into shape.

In early June, all of us will gather together with that high school’s current orchestra and celebrate the life of our teacher, colleague, and friend who left us way too soon. We will play him home to Jesus in the warmth of a June morning the way we couldn’t during a dark pandemic November. Our grief may not be as raw as in those first terrible days, but it still clamors to be expressed, perhaps even more so now that months have passed.

We will sit in front of the young conductor who has taken his place and glance around at those who shared our musical lives. Who got in trouble on the orchestra trip. Who always cut class to hang out in the band room. Whose parents called the principal to complain about how mean this teacher was, and who now understands how that mean-ness changed his or her life for the better. Who played a solo they’ll remember forever because this teacher believed they could. Who started this individual on his musical career by handing him a cello to learn to play because there were no openings for a piano  accompanist in his high school orchestra. Who remembers the frustrations and the laughter and the satisfaction of working with someone whose strengths complemented your weaknesses and vice versa.

Some are traveling a great distance to play in this orchestra again, and there will be joyful reunions and sharing of memories. Several local music educators who were inspired and trained by this man are making it all happen—from organizing Facebook groups, to scanning pages of music to managing the logistics of the event.

The members of this very special orchestra may be a little grayer, a little wiser, and perhaps, a bit more jaded than when they were sixteen. But the music is still there. Muscle memory will bring it all back as fingers wrap around a bow, as a violin is tucked under a chin, as trumpet bells are raised. When we look up for a cue, someone different will be on the podium. But we will see our beloved maestro and play our best for him, one last time.

The Hope Squad

I recently spent a day volunteering at the vaccination center that has opened near my home.  I was assigned to the front door in a sort of Wal-Mart greeter position. I would call out the appointment times in five-minute increments, ask everyone who entered, “Do you have a fever, cough, or shortness of breath?” and distribute information about what to expect after receiving a vaccine. I answered questions as best I could and tried to keep the lines moving.

I was utterly blown away by how quickly a former craft store was transformed into a pop-up medical facility, structured down to the last detail to ensure patient safety and comfort. Volunteers took temperatures, registered patients, and provided assistance wherever needed. Clinical volunteers, many doing this in addition to their paid jobs, vaccinated patients and oversaw the post-vaccination waiting area. A young woman interpreter accompanied Spanish-speaking patients throughout the entire process, offering explanations and reassurance.

During this past year, I have been holed up in my house, watching the pandemic unfold on a screen. But getting just a tiny glimpse of how we have come together to fix this nightmare was a revelation. I mean, who figured all this out in such a short time? Transforming empty stores, installing wi-fi networks and computers, providing security for vaccine transport, creating appointment websites, organizing hundreds of volunteers, making sure all of the paperwork is correct– the list is endless. And this is happening in communities all across the country.  A year ago, even six months ago, we had no idea that we’d be vaccinating the entire population, let alone developing a plan about how to do it.

What I saw on my first day as a Hope Squad volunteer was nothing short of a miracle, and I will admit, I struggle with those who whine and criticize the efforts being made by our government, flawed as it may be. There are hundreds of thousands of dedicated people–from the brilliant researchers who developed the vaccines to the lovely gentleman providing wheelchair assistance at the local center who are helping to save lives every single day. I think in this world of “if-it’s-not-my-political-party-it-has-to-be-wrong” attitude, it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re actually accomplishing together as a country.

The Hope Squad is great branding and a catchy name to encourage volunteerism. But it also describes what I saw taking place in a former AC Moore store a few miles from where I live. It didn’t matter who you were or what the hat you were wearing said—if you had an appointment, you were warmly welcomed and received a life-saving vaccination. If you didn’t have an appointment, information was provided to help you get one. Everyone who entered was treated with kindness, respect, and understanding. The faces I saw coming through those doors reflected anxiety and apprehension but also relief and gratitude. Having the opportunity to experience this first-hand gave me hope in a year that’s felt bleak and depressing in so many ways.    

The Gift of the Ordinary

I recently received an invitation to a bridal shower for my best friend’s future daughter-in-law, and it dawned on me that for the first time in a year, I could say yes to a social event. That there was even a social event occurring was cause for celebration. I was excited to write something on my calendar that was not a zoom meeting or vet appointment, and I immediately ran out to Target to buy a gift from the bride’s registry. I now have a reason to wear clothing other than jeans and go somewhere. The fact that, thanks to the timing of my vaccinations, I can safely be in a room with other people, albeit still masked and socially-distanced, leaves me humbled and grateful beyond words.

It’s been a long year of no’s. No family gatherings, no churches, no singing, no movies, no restaurants, no concerts, no travel, no sports. And when we do venture outside our homes, it’s with fear and trepidation. Do we have our masks and sanitizers? How close is that person I hear coughing in the grocery store? Is that a fever or am I just too warm? The high-tension wire of anxiety pulses through every interaction.

We have become acclimated to hiding. As much as we anticipate getting back to the things we love, I sometimes wonder if we’ll return to all those pre-pandemic in-person meetings and events. Has being plopped in front of the TV or computer screen each evening become just a little too comfortable and when those activities resume, will we say, “Nah, I’m not sure I need to do that anymore.”? This year has been an eternal snow day, which I used to revel in, but now I’ve had enough of the hermit life.

The weddings and graduations and packed stadiums and theaters will come back. But it’s the mundane stuff of our daily lives that shapes us and provides a structure so subtle we’re unaware of it until it’s suddenly taken away. Two months back into normalcy I’ll probably be whining about long choir rehearsals or some pointless meeting. But I’ll never again take those things for granted.

This weekend, for the first time in months, my husband and I ate inside a restaurant. Nothing fancy—just comfort food in a hometown place with plastic menus and cozy booths, now separated by plexiglass dividers. But the food was hot and fresh from the kitchen instead of lukewarm from a Styrofoam go-box. We’ve been living lukewarm from a plastic box for way longer than any of us expected. These tiny sparks of normal life—a simple restaurant meal served by another human being, a chance to celebrate a young bride in the company of others—are precious gifts of the ordinary, meant to be savored and appreciated as never before.

Circle of Life

I bury my nose in the top of the cat’s head and smell a faint odor of the peanut butter I’ve been using to try to get pills into him. He’s thinner and his coat is losing its luster. He’s spent the last few days snuggled in the back of my closet, hiding. Not a good sign in a senior cat. We know it’s probably time to make that call to the vet, but I keep putting it off, hoping for a miracle.

The puppy yelps as she and the older dog slam into each other in one of their frequent rounds of horseplay. They go at it hard, rolling around on the floor, heads in each other’s mouths, tails wagging the whole time  She is growing before our eyes, like one of those time-lapse videos in a nature documentary. We had to loosen her collar again, and she races to her food bowl with such excitement that sometimes she tips the whole thing over.

A month ago, the cat had most of his teeth removed due to a painful condition called resorptive tooth disease. “He’ll be fine,” they told us. “Cats adapt easily to no teeth.” Not this one. He’s been on a hunger strike every since. And then what was diagnosed as a mild heart murmur turned into post-operative congestive heart failure requiring a two night stay at an emergency veterinary clinic. He was traumatized. He now needs frequent medication which he refuses to take in pill pockets. The cat and I are both crying at pill time and my hands are covered with tiny pinpricks from his claws. We know we can’t keep doing this. All the online quality of life assessments point in one direction.

Life is pure joy for the puppy. The snow! The laundry! The toys! Her bright-eyed energy and enthusiasm  are a balm to our pandemic-weary souls.  She charmed everyone in the vet’s office at her check-up and then promptly fell asleep on the exam table after getting her shots. The puppy looks at each new challenge—stair-climbing, ball-chasing, pooping in snow—and says, “Hold my beer.”

We move slowly, gently, with the cat, trying to soothe his stress. There is no physiological reason for his not eating—no tumors or systemic issues and the medication, when we can get it into him, controls his heart condition. One of the vets said, “I’m not ready to pull the plug on a cat who just ripped the hell out of my hands when I tried to examine his mouth. I think he’s all up in his head. Maybe a little Prozac?” But then that could increase his heart rate. Just like in a person with complicated health issues, there are no easy answers.

Downstairs, dog toys and bones lay scattered everywhere. A roll of paper towels and bottle of cleaner stand at the ready for any indiscretions. Coats hang over chairs for quick trips outside and all shoes are placed out of reach. Upstairs, in cat hospice, a bathroom counter holds pill bottles, gloves for applying a transdermal appetite stimulant, bowls of partially eaten food, and syringes for popping the pills into his mouth. (Do not believe any YouTube videos showing how easy it is to do that. Those cats all had to have been sedated.)

Yesterday, for the first time in weeks, I heard the cat digging on his scratching board and he was not curled up in the closet. He’s eating a disgusting gruel of watered down canned food along with people tuna directly out of the can. I think he misses his teeth, painful as they may have been.

The puppy isn’t big enough to jump on the couch, and we have to give her a boost. She makes this little rumbly noise to let us know she’s frustrated because she can’t yet do it herself.  She now heads to the back door (most of the time) when she needs to go outside.

Our pets depend on us, but much can be learned from watching these animals at the opposite ends of life navigate their world.