Osama and Adult Piano Lessons

Photo by Frank Schramm.

This past Sunday night, while a group of Navy Seals broke into a compound in a nothern Pakistani city and cornered Osama Bin Laden, I packed for a trip to Washington DC, unaware of the action on the other side of the globe.  Although the purpose of my travels was to read through my book draft in one uninterrupted week, I tucked in my suitcase copies of my sheet music.  As it turned out, my classical piano music would help me fully comprehend that Osama Bin Laden was dead.

On the train ride down to Washington DC, a man read one of those sensationalist newspapers, whose headline blared something about Osama Bin Laden.  Could it be that after a decade of searching, the Western powers finally had located the terrorist?  I angled my body away from the newspaper.  Most likely, additional reading would expose the headline to be a hoax meant to sell the morning’s copy.  When the train arrived at Union Station, I scrambled past a newsstand to make an afternoon appointment at The United Church, where I had arranged to practice the piano.

The piano turned out to be a gleaming nine-foot Bluthner concert grand, on loan to the church from the German Embassy during construction.  “I think you’ll like practicing on this,” the church administrator said with an understanding grin.  I peeled back the heavy plastic cover and the flannel liner but could not summon the courage to raise the nine-foot lid on the stick.  Debussy’s First Arabesque sounded muffled underneath the lid, yet I felt elated at the prospect of practicing here over the week.

The following day, I met a friend, a well-regarded investigative reporter, for lunch.  I described my memoir project, about how going back to the piano as an adult had helped uncover lost music from the summer of my sixteenth birthday.  “That’s a timeless subject,” he said. “It’s not like you are writing a book about Osama.”

Wow, I thought, Osama Bin Laden really must have died, and his death must have happened recently.  I prayed that while this realization had zoomed through my brain,  I had not looked stunned to, of all people, an investigative reporter.  “Hah,” I said, with an ease that I hoped communicated that I was up-to-date.

That night in my hotel, I strained at the tiny print of the New York Times website on my iPhone.  I read about the raid and the subsequent celebrations.  The coverage catapulted me back a decade before, when I had wept scouring the Times every day after 9/11.  Osama’s special brand of terror for me, as part of the tribe of Adult Children of Alcoholics, had been the wholly unexpected timing of the Al-Qaeda attacks.  In my youth, I had never known when my father, an alcoholic who could not stand my music, would tip into anger.

On Friday, a full five days after Osama had perished, I arrived at the United Church for my final practice session.  I still found it difficult to grasp that Osama Bin Laden, whose presence in the world had lurked as an submerged yet constant threat, really was dead.  As I approached the sanctuary door, I heard the familiar textured tones of a tuner finishing his work.  He offered to leave the Bluthner’s lid propped open.

The afternoon light, filtered by the church’s rose, light blue, and creamy yellow stained glass, cast a companionable glow inside the sanctuary.  With the lid open, the concert grand’s tones swirled in the air.  I rang out the declarative F, followed by the elusive D-flat, then the sweet A-flat of the Raindrop Prelude’s opening phrase.  The Prelude gathered force with the growing storm until I cracked the thunderous, fortissimo octaves.  I watched my left hand, strengthened from piano practice, plunge into the keys.  Around me, Chopin’s sonorous thunderstorm crashed.

That’s when it hit me: Osama Bin Laden was dead.

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