What Was Never Lost [essay] by Mary Jo Balistreri

Sound is my earliest memory, my first language. Within its vibrations were my Gramma’s songs, the waves of water she traveled through, the back and forth of the rocker in time with Irish songs from across the sea—songs I breathed in, drinking distance and absence, loneliness and love, lullabies she sang as her mother had sung them to her.

Upstairs where I lived with Mom and Dad, a different song and dance informed my growing. There I imbibed the rhythms of a tapper, the grace of arms and legs that told stories, and the beauty of motion. From another room, the croon of a tenor where I would toddle when I heard “Come to Me My Melancholy Baby,” “I wonder Who’s Kissing her now,”Dream,songs I carried from state to state, still humming with those memories.

Grandpa played the violin and after dinner, with Gramma at the piano, they’d practice duets. The hair on my arms shivered when they began, and as if on a magic carpet I entered their kingdom. Sometimes Grandpa would play “The Flight of the Bumblebees” just to see my wide-eyed surprise, hand over my mouth. But at other times, Grandpa got lost in “Tramerei.” The strings moaned, and I’d hear that hurt sound that made my chest tighten, eyes water. With the violin tucked even closer under his chin it was as if Grandpa needed that violin, or it him. With his arm fully extended, his body bent into the instrument, both Grandpa and the violin disappeared into the wounded animal of the music.

Playfulness in Grandpa’s music was rare, but the plucking pizzicato tickled and made me laugh. Later when they read, I’d hear the Victrola upstairs at bedtime. Usually it was soothing but sometimes there were loud hammers from the piano, drums and cymbals that made me tremble and feel afraid. Then I’d call for my dad and he’d sing me asleep.

I knew from a very young age that I wanted to live within music, that somehow rhythm, melody, timbre and tone were powerful ways to make the world my own, for wasn’t I born in music and wasn’t that the core of who I was?

As I grew older, music became even more important for the words in my home were double-edged and confusing. One thing was said, and another thing meant. But in music I was safe and could say what I thought through sound like my grandparents before me, my mother and father. I could become good enough so that I would never have to be concerned about what was said—it was all there in a touch of the fingers, in the dynamics, in the way I played with accents and rubato, with staccato and legato. I could sing with my hands, and my ear guided me.

I chose Chopin for beauty and longing and joy, for brooding and anger, for sorrow. There was nothing that could not be expressed through Chopin. An etude like “The Revolutionary” was crashing chords, furious runs that cascaded from the top of the keyboard all the way down. What could convey anger better? Or Beethoven’s “Appassionata,” or the first movement of the “Moonlight Sonata” for melancholy? And Bach, ever steady Bach, the architecture of sound, fugues to work out tangled thoughts, the Arioso for grandeur and awe.

In 2008, I had radiation for throat cancer. Toward the end of the treatment, I stopped breathing. Rushed to the Emergency, I then spent the next 3 months in the ICU. I have no memory of that, but apparently the life-saving drugs destroyed the cilia in my ears, already compromised by radiation. I did not at first realize this loss because beautiful music, familiar to me, played night and day in my mind. I actually thought I was listening to the radio, but slowly and painfully I became aware of my loss after a few months at home. The only thing that sustained me, continues to sustain me, was that music had not left. The melodies I played all my life, songs I listened to in my hearing years were not lost, but had become my listening library. My brain stores music much like an iPod. In the worst days of my illness, I could not make my own selections as emotion and choice had been erased as well as my hearing. How miraculous then that “Amazing Grace” or “Brahms Lullaby” were chosen for me by the extraordinary mechanism of my body coming to the rescue. Even today, these are often the songs that sing me to sleep.

A year later, “Now is the Hour” began as I walked through mangroves the last day in Florida before returning to Wisconsin, where I live in the spring and summer. As I said goodbye to the Eastern sqreech owl, shorebirds, alligators and their babies, I had no idea how much sadness my leaving carried. I didn’t realize until later how precisely my iPod chose it’s selections. Originally, a Maori farewell song to soldiers departing for WWII, Gracie Fields heard it in New Zealand, learned the words and sang it on the BBC for departing European soldiers.

The day in 1943 my dad left on the ship for WWII, “Now is the Hour” rang out from loud speakers. Wives and mothers dabbed handkerchiefs to their eyes. Children cried and dogs barked. At three, that song was Daddy going away.

Another example of the exact fit of the music to the situation is my sirens. They start at a distance and come closer and closer. Just as in everyday life, a siren means pull over, stop, mine mean the same thing. Played alternately in thirds, they warn me my nervous system is becoming overwhelmed by something out of my control—too much noise, a situation beyond my current capability. If I do not pay attention, do not pull over, my body shuts down. Out of energy at a cellular level. It can take days to recover if I try and override this built-in alarm.

I know this through experience and always listen now. Sometimes it can be minor, a crowded parking lot, commercials non-stop on TV, and those are easy to fix.

The “sirens’ have become a fun connection with grandchildren as they ask “Gramma, are your sirens going off?” Since none of us had ever heard of such a thing before, it’s still rare and wild to have sirens in your brain.

Today, five years later, my iPod is still without need of batteries. It does all the things it did in the beginning and more. My brain, with the help of hearing aids, has build the new neural pathways that bypass the ears’ conductors, the cilia. Besides having at my disposal music twenty-four hours a day as before, I can now hear a melody if it is a song I once learned in my hearing days. I can hear one person clearly, several if the ambient environment is reasonably quiet. And since I am back in Florida for a while, I can hear the Gulf and the surf, the screech of a sea gull.

That my hearing is severely compromised is true. That it can only get worse is also true. But I choose to concentrate on what has not been lost.

I have music.

That thread passed down through generations, given to me in my mother’s womb has held strong, this thread of my life story which continues to unspool to a son—jazz composer and pianist in New York, a granddaughter who continues to play the piano.

To regain what you once thought lost is a joy, unmeasurable. The smallest sounds bring pleasure. Every time the chimes ring or a bell gongs at sunset, the who who of the owl, the cardinal’s trilling song. Each time it happens, it is like the first time.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay put the editors in mind of Lynn Kanter’s essay “What Did I Have.”]

Image by Dawn Huczek

Mary Jo Balistreri has two full books of poetry, Joy in the Morning and gathering the harvest by Bellowing Ark Press, and a chapbook, Best Brothers, by Tiger’s Eye Press. She has recent work in Parabola, Journal of Modern Poetry, Plainsongs, Crab Creek Review, Passager, Ruminate, Kentucky Review, The Homestead Review, The Heron’s Nest, Acorn, and A Hundred Gourds. She has six Pushcart nominations, and two Best of the Net. Please visit her at maryjobalistreripoet.com.