Without question, the toughest part in writing Abyss of Chaos was the fact that I was writing at all. My whole life had been music. Nearly everyone who knows me, knows me as a guy who plays the cello. I know me as a guy who plays the cello. So when I couldn’t play anymore, I had to think about what else I could do. Honestly, my first instinct was to panic.
Classical musicians are made young, and though I didn’t start when I was two, I had nevertheless been focused on the cello for so long that I was going way, way back to find other viable interests. Like, coloring with crayons “way back.” Seriously, what else was I going to do? I wasn’t going to the NBA or the NFL. I wasn’t going to suddenly become a movie star, as many children might wish for. Childhood dreams are just that — dreams. Only as an adult do we gather the requisite hindsight to understand how we sorted out what we were or weren’t going to be when we grew up.
I had a long history of believing I couldn’t do anything else. I suffered from low self-esteem in high school and didn’t earn very good grades until my last two years. I lived in the shadow of an older brother who, as far as I could tell, never had to crack open a book to get straight As, while I struggled to earn Cs. My friends were kind, reassuring me that, “some people just don’t test well,” but I knew better. Even the internal dynamics within my family were predicated upon the surety that “David is a cellist.” Fast forward a couple of decades and it’s me, passing my hand over the detritus of years, searching for something else, something real that I could bond besides cello, and finding instead a foundation of musical bedrock. My personal and professional identity had become one. Under the shadow of Focal Dystonia, my confidence in trying something new wasn’t particularly great.
Well, as it happens, plucking up the courage isn’t only about me. In fact, most of it isn’t only about me. Disability, re-inventing myself, these things are just as much about those around me as they are about me. Hence, it isn’t only my turn to panic — it is also yours.
How do you get behind a friend — a son — a brother — in his new endeavor, when all you have ever known him to be is what he’s always done? How do you see him as anything more than a wounded creature? A friend, a loved one, yes — but a diminished friend and/or loved one. You want to support him, but what if he sucks? What if he fails? Don’t you owe it to him to set him straight? Advise him to get a day job? Take him aside and smack him around a little bit until he comes to?
These are the real world eddies swirling around people in my situation every day — psychic noise that serves no purpose but to inhibit aspiration and bog the spirit. At times, it is tempting to avoid others for fear of seeing it in their eyes. “Oh, there’s that guy who used to play the cello and can’t anymore. How sad.”
Most of those who’re concerned for my well-being, I have learned, struggle with the fact that I can no longer play the cello. That may sound obvious, but look at it again: I can no longer play the cello. My disability was “sudden death.” By nature it was hard to digest. It was hard for me to admit that I couldn’t do it anymore, so why shouldn’t it be hard for you? You are right to question, “You’ve always managed before — why not now?”
The answer is cataclysmic. My experience in those months leading up to “the end” dwarfed anything that had come before. Things I had previously managed in ten minutes of practice could not be done in ten hours. I was playing with the Euclid Quartet at the time, and we kept ourselves pretty busy. Our short history together was crowded from the beginning, with Focal Dystonia insisting on its own chair and stand between the four of us at every rehearsal, at every practice session. The culmination of my struggles against the Demon was in those months recording Bartok Quartets and preparing a first-ever Beethoven Cycle. I was getting up earlier, going to bed later. Each time I sat down to practice, I was horrified to find the line in the sand that represented what belonged to me, and what belonged to the Demon, had inched closer again. Day by day I had less space. Day by day, I had to develop alternate solutions just to play simple passages. I began to resent my colleagues wish to rehearse, coveting the time needed to hammer away at what my body could no longer do, but finally, I got it. There simply were not enough hours in the day. Continuing wasn’t an option. A Great Change had arrived.
Of course, the way to meet that change is to understand that who we are professionally needn’t define us. Surrounded by so many who would see us as what we are, is it any wonder how easy it is to lose track of who we are? But change comes from within, thank God, and we can reinforce “the new” by electing to change in the short time we have. In those moments in the day where one is tempted to smoke, drink, or practice the cello (as the case may be), I remembered that I could change. Also, I learned to keep close those in my life who cast a bright light into the darkness. I’m fortunate that I live with two who have mastered this role: my wife and 22-month-old son. Fortunately, I’ll never have to know what it might have been like to go through this without them, my guiding light. But that, my friends, is a story for another day. Faced with something so potentially tragic, we could have focused on what we were losing, or instead focus on the possibilities of the future. Which would you choose?