At some point, before I turned 40, I mentioned in my parents’ presence that I wanted a mandolin. My mother’s grandfather played one, and while I had never met him, folk music feels like a thread to my Italian roots. My parents ordered me a beautiful instrument, excited to fulfill a wish I had mentioned only casually to them. They told me the news on my birthday, and as I waited for the ordered instrument to be shipped, I experienced mixed emotions.
Music has become a difficult thing for me. It was a comfort when I was first diagnosed with hereditary breast cancer. An hour at the piano was therapeutic; a few minutes strumming a guitar was reassuring. Then neuropathy made those things dispiriting, and, when feeling came back to my fingers many months later, somewhere there was a disconnect. The sensations of playing were different, and the general mental fogginess of chemo brain made it hard to concentrate. Activities that once brought me joy and amusement were stressful and difficult; my hands didn’t move the same way, I couldn’t recall the mechanics of familiar melodies, and my thoughts were disjointed and disorganized.
Other things I previously enjoyed were disrupted as well. My hands cramped when I crocheted, and there is no ferociousness to my overhand volleyball serve. Nerve damage and pain management deterred me long-term from participating in activities I loved, and it was demoralizing. The challenge for anyone experiencing a crisis is how to move forward and embrace what is ahead, instead of looking back with longing at what is lost.
While adrenaline can carry you through the treatment of an illness, the realities of the aftermath may become more psychologically challenging. What does a person do to keep sane?
I know what I do: look for some new challenges to tackle.
I have spent countless hours working on Spanish with a foreign-language app (Mi espanol? No bien, pero un poco mejor.) I took a few free online college courses, read some challenging classical literature, and took up crossword puzzles. I pushed out of my comfort zone at the gym and signed on for classes like Pilates. I took some social and time-management risks by volunteering for leadership positions in my community.
I also began playing the ukulele last year, and it has been fun to experiment with. Maybe the mandolin doesn’t seem like a major challenge, but it is strung differently and I’m interested in playing a classical style. I will continue to test myself and move forward.
When my parents delivered the mandolin to me, they also brought a sturdy, protective case.
“And look,” my dad said, “it has a lock on it.”
I gingerly placed the mandolin inside the case, and my father demonstrated how the lock works.
“So cool!” I exclaimed, and then took the keys and put them someplace “safe.”
That was three weeks ago. I have yet to play the mandolin, so I cannot say if I find it rewarding, or if it seems to improve my mental status.
I’ll let you know as soon as I remember where I put the effing case keys.