There is another knock at the door downstairs, but I only play louder. I let the smooth, shrill notes of the violin fill the loft of my little flat as I run my bow across the strings. G, A, E, D, G sharp . . . Closing my eyes, the second movement of my work-in-progress comes together in a string of melodies—
The door rattles again, and I squeak out an accidental B flat, derailing my rhythm. An irritated sigh passes my lips as I stand, glaring over the loft railing at the door.
I know who it is, of course.
I’d open the door, and my darling brother would be leaning against the door jamb, an apologetic smile on his face as he reminds me that I’m supposed to bring mashed potatoes to our Thanksgiving dinner in two months, as he reminded me every year.
Our family has been without mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving for two years, now.
“Come on, Angie. I know you’re in there.”
His muffled voice finally drives me from my seat and down the thin staircase.
Aaron Middleston, Doctor of Podiatric Medicine. He certainly followed in Dad’s footsteps—no pun intended.
Yeah, he is the golden child. I, on the other hand, am “the heathen of a daughter.” My mother’s words exactly.
I grip the door handle and, with a steeling inhale, release the latch. The door swings open to reveal Aaron, elbow against the door frame as expected.
“I know,” I say, hand on my hip. “I’m supposed to bring mashed—”
“Oh . . .” His words knock that single, surprised note out of me as I back away from the door slowly. He follows me into my flat and closes the door quietly behind him before turning to me with earnest eyes. “Angie—”
“Coffee?” I’m already turning away from him and plodding toward the cramped little kitchen, usually my tiny corner of comfort other than my sheet music-strewn loft.
I hear his deep sigh from behind me. “Sure.”
Five minutes later, we are sitting on my worn loveseat, silently nursing our hot cups of joe. The warmth spreading through my palm from the coffee cup distracts me from Aaron’s calculating silver eyes, eyes just like my own. But he doesn’t speak, and I don’t ask him to.
It isn’t really fair to ask me what I think of my mother. Things were great when I was younger; I picked up my first violin when I was five, and Mom was so proud. I lived for her praise, her ray of approval. I always had Dad’s love, but Mom’s . . . hers felt hard to come by. She always had other things on her mind than raising her daughter. Why have twins if you’re going to pick only one on which to dote?
Our last falling out was after I announced I was leaving the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to write my own music. Her shrieking insults still ring in my ears like the pitch of a tuning fork.
“Angie.” Aaron’s soft tone interrupts the shrieking pitch. “You need to come home.”
I turned my focus to the caramel flavored caffeine in my cup. “I’m not allowed to go home. Those were her words.” I feel my lips curling into a sneer. “She doesn’t want me there.”
“She didn’t mean that.”
“She never said that she doesn’t mean it.”
"It’s been over two years, Angie. And she’s—different, now.”
I let out a sarcastic chuckle, withholding all humor. “Just because she’s dying doesn’t mean she gets a free pass for saying those things.”
”It kind of does, though,” he said with a sad grin. “She wants to see you.”
I don’t want to see her. But for some reason, I can’t bring myself to say those words aloud. I turn my gaze almost absentmindedly to my diploma framed on the wall. If becoming a Doctor of Musical Arts isn’t enough for her, I don’t know what else I can offer her.
I find my lips parting before I give them permission, and I utter the question I had been actively avoiding for the past fifteen minutes. “How?”
Aaron picks at my fringed throw pillow with his free hand and raises his mug to his mouth with the other.
Making me wait, which I deserve I suppose.
Finally, after a loud swallow, he lays his mug down heavily on the stained end table. “Breast cancer. It’s already too late for treatment, and, well, you know Mom.”
“Stubborn like me?” I tease quietly, though my heart isn’t in it.
But Aaron shakes his head. “No. You are stubborn like her.” He reaches out and lays his hand on my forearm. “Come home. You can give her that. And Dad, too.”
My eyes fill with tears as I finally open up a few windows in the tight barrier I’d so carefully constructed around my heart. Mom is dying.
And I allow myself to realize that I don’t want her to. I’d never wanted her to, of course, just as I could never wish death upon anyone. But this emotion—grief, dread, I don’t know—feels deeper, raw, stirred by the imminence of a loss I hadn’t known I cared about.
So, exactly one week later, I am buckled into the passenger seat of Aaron’s Prius heading toward Old Town. As we pass the old Victorian-style houses, I suddenly remember Trick-or-Treating through the fallen leaves with my glowing jack-o-lantern bucket, Aaron’s hand leading me down the street even though I’m technically the older sibling. And there I am again Christmas caroling, toting my violin with me to every house and playing “Away in a Manger” on snowy doorsteps.
But as Aaron parallel parks in front of 1455 North Orleans Street, I’m drawn into memories of sitting on the front porch with my violin, tears rolling as Mom’s harsh voice cut through my resolve.
“G sharp, Angelica! You keep missing the note!”
“I swear, you don’t pay attention to what you’re doing.”
“Hold your head higher, back straighter. Only riff-raff slouch like you.”
“You don’t have a natural gift, child. You have to work for it!”
“Angie? You alright?”
My gaze snaps to Aaron as his question breaks the chain of harsh reprimands. I realize I’m holding my breath, and I release a rickety exhale, my teeth shattering like a percussionist striking a vibraslap. “Not really.”
Aaron’s eyes immediately fill with some emotion like guilt. For bringing me here maybe, for convincing me to face Mom, for letting my relationship with her get this bad—none of it his fault at all. His good heart reminds me that I can have a good heart, too.
So, before he can say anything else, I unbuckle my seatbelt and let it retract sharply back into place. “I’m okay. But . . .”—I unhinge a few more windows of my barrier—“I don’t think I can go in there alone.”
He grasps my hand in his. “I’ll be right there with you, Angie. And Dad will, too.”
I don’t know how the anger I’ve clung to for the past two years morphs into the fear I feel now, two separate movements of one piece of music somehow still melding together at their seams, as we climb the porch steps.
The old wooden door opens, and Dad steps out onto the porch, his graying hair, normally smoothed back with hair gel, sticking on all ends. Tears prick my eyes at the sight of him.
He immediately envelopes me into a tight hug, his familiar cologne caressing my nose like a warm memory. “It’s so good to see you, my sweetheart.”
Through the open door, the singing of a violin floats on the still autumn air.
Dad releases me with a sigh and motions toward the doorway. “After you.”
I walk through the door, the doom of a sacrificial lamb coursing through me. I try to re-center myself, tell myself that I’m being ridiculous. but my fear still outwrestles any sense.
“She’s been hoping you would come to see her,” Dad says as he closes the door behind Aaron. “Before, well—”
The music grows louder, notes flying off the violin sharp as daggers.
I head for the stairs, but Dad gently steers me toward the cracked door of the guest bedroom. “Climbing stairs tires her out too much, now,” he murmurs.
Tires her out too much? That’s impossible. Mom never tires.
Trills of self-disappointment pulsed in my veins. Have I done that well of a job in avoidance?
As I look toward the guest bedroom, toward the violin’s beautiful melody, toward the source of my pain, I actively have to fight the urge to close some of the windows of my barrier again. To shut them as tightly as before.
Instead, I push the door open.
Sheet music scatters the floor and adorns the walls, like my loft, and very unlike the usual state of my mother’s studio right up the stairs. She is facing away from me, toward the room’s corner, and she doesn’t stop her bow from sliding across the strings even as I enter. I understand the urge to keep playing, too.
Before Bach’s “Partita No. 2” can land underfoot, I pick up the discarded sheets and organize them into their correct arrangement, grateful for the task. Anything to keep my focus off the woman in the corner.
Too soon, the music flies through its crescendo and begins its descent, slowing, slowing, and finally stopping completely.
A silence, taut as a bowstring, fills the space that the violin’s song had so beautifully imbued just moments before.
Finally, Mom turns in her seat.
As First Chair with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra for ten years, she has always held her head high. Even now, with cancer riddling her body from the inside out, she lifts her chin and holds her jaw steady.
But her sunken cheekbones and glassy silver eyes take me by surprise. My barrier falls.
The anger that I want so badly to feel, and the familiar hatred that I want to hold on to, subside to an agonizing, complicated ache as I look at my mother.
She is dying.
“Angelica.” Her voice is far from brittle, but a weakness is there. Her eyes melt into an uncomfortable grimace. “I—” Her words catch on a lump in her throat.
I wait for an apology, but she speaks no more. Instead, she motions toward a violin case standing near the dresser and beckons me to her. “Play with me.”
At first, a flame of anger ignites like a candle. Who does this woman think she is? She kicked me out! She cannot control what I do anymore.
But there is no energy behind the flame, and it dies as quickly as it rose. This unprecedented invitation causes my hands to shake as I open the violin case and lift the instrument from its home, a spare that Mom has had for years. I pull up the rocking chair near the bed and bring it closer to Mom.
Mom’s eyes study the chair. “How can you play sitting in that?”
“A musician can play anywhere, anytime,” I respond coolly.
She speaks no more on the matter and, turning back to her music, lays her bow against her strings.
A quick glance at the top of the page tells me we are playing “Eumonia’s Monody,” a song I’d never heard of before. Still, hands finally steady once again, I join in, seamlessly combining my violin’s singing notes with hers. The melody wraps around the two of us tenderly, though it is the saddest song I’ve ever heard. The smooth transitions brim with melancholy as G sharps and B flats dominate the page. The piece could be improved a bit in my opinion, but who am I to judge another composer? We all write what we feel, and no two people feel in the same way.
Then, rather abruptly, the piece ends, and Mom lays down her violin in her lap. She turns to me with tired eyes. “I need you to finish it for me.”
It is another year before I can pick up “Eumonia’s Monody” again. Mom’s pencil scratches and scribbles bring me back to the sheet music-strewn guest bedroom, to the rocking chair upon which I sat playing with her for the first time. We worked on the piece together for another two weeks before she passed, and I take it out now from where it had been placed carefully aside. I hold my violin to the crook of my neck and take my time tuning it. Brick by brick, I courageously break down the barrier around my heart. I have kept all windows open for a while now, anyway.
I promised the Vienna Philharmonic a piece delivered to them by the end of the year. So, I begin to play Mom’s apology once more.