I didn't know her, when there was color in her cheeks. I didn't know her when she ran, or sang, or laughed without having to sit down. It's in her mother's face, though, and it's in her voice whenever she tells me that she's glad she can at least sit at the bench for her lessons. At least. She breaks my heart.
"Do you want to try your piece?" She nods and finally tucks the errant hair behind her ear. I take up the pages of the song she'd chosen, open them, and set them in front of her. She prepares by placing one bare foot atop a brass pedal, and once again arranges her fingers along the ivory with consummate care. I step back to set the metronome to a slow, steady knock, and she begins to play. Her fingers trip over the melody, more than once, but I hardly notice because I'm watching her. I am always amazed by the grace that remains in her. I have never wasted a moment wishing that I'd known her before this happened to her, because even as she is, she is more than enough to humble me.
I realize she's stopped playing, and wonder if she's lost her place, but when her shoulders begin to shake, my momentary confusion is replaced with alarm and I am by her side in seconds. Even though I can feel the frustration radiating from her brittle frame, I ask her what the matter is.
She shakes her head once, defeated, and angry. She doesn't have to speak. We both know the ugly truth, and we are silent for a long moment while the metronome ticks on. I dare to place a hand on her shoulder in comfort. I can feel her bones.
"Play your chords," I say to her, quietly, and after a moment's hesitation, she does. I sit beside her, and it is my turn to arrange my fingers along the keys. I wait, as her chords slowly climb the keys, then descend. I begin to play, and mine become the notes that swim below hers, buoying them up and up, making a song of them. All of my training, I devote to this one task. I don't claim to know much but this, I know. This, I know. I lose track of time. We play and play, and when I finally glance at her face, she is smiling. This, I think, this is why I am anything at all.
That was the last time I saw her. I couldn't make myself go to her wake, because I think that seeing her so still would have killed me, too. I went to her funeral, though, and it rained. I held an umbrella and said things I can't recall to her family. They thanked me for all I did, and all I wanted to do was apologize because it wasn't enough.
I dream of her, still. Sometimes I just dream about rooms that are empty of her, and I wake up broken and alone. Sometimes I dream of the day that we played together. And sometimes, when I am very, very lucky, I dream that I am not playing at all. Instead, I watch her play unassisted, melodies far beyond any I could have taught her, suffused with light and smiling.
This story came out of a rough idea that snuck up on me on during one of my many long drives, assisted by the beautiful music of Olafur Arnalds. The particular song that inspired this is called Arcade, if you'd like to have a listen.