My Imaginary Submarine: When Life and Work Collide

A Life’s Work. It’s an interesting concept. I’ll admit, there was a long period when my work was my life. But over time, I added life to my work, bit by bit, one piece at a time – a husband I love, a child I adore, parents in need of care, a home.

From earliest memory, I have always been a master of compartments. I build them around the things that matter most to me, just like the sections of a submarine. If one leaks, the damage is contained and won’t flood the whole vessel. I’ve used this system for decades and it’s proven to be a lifesaver – not to mention a sanity-saver. I will wager to say that there are few careers more demanding than a life in the arts, and even fewer still that require more ongoing practice, maintenance, time, and compartment-building to assure quality control, than a life in classical music performance. I’ve always accepted that, but it’s a complicated endeavor. My teacher, Alice Chalifoux, was fond of saying to her students at low moments, “Just remember you’re not a machine.” Oh, but I have to be, I would reply silently.

I think of her today and I think of that thought. This past week, I performed four concerts of Mozart’s Concerto for Flute and Harp with The Cleveland Orchestra. I had been looking forward to the engagement immensely – a beautiful piece and an amazing opportunity. Not to be missed – or so I said to myself the week before, as I was sleeping on the couch in my dad’s room in the intensive care unit of the hospital in my hometown of Norman, Oklahoma. Two days earlier, he had been taken in for an emergency surgery that went terribly wrong. Having never before even cancelled a concert, much less a quad weekend with a major orchestra, I stayed until my dad was pronounced somewhat stable and then flew back to Cleveland to get my hands on a harp and prepare for the week ahead. My compartments were in full operational mode – locked tight with extra sealant. Rehearsals and opening night went well. My machine is working, I reassured myself.

But as the weekend progressed, my dad’s condition did not. He was moved to another facility and I was told he was so weak he couldn’t swallow. Not looking good and getting weaker by the minute with lots of complications. I felt completely helpless. My compartments began to leak – not just one, but most. My eyes would uncontrollably fill with tears at the drop of a hat. My chest was so tight I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I, like my dad, was barely there. As I pushed through the rest of the concerts with a giant lump in my throat and eyes so muddled with tears I could hardly see, I heard my teacher’s voice again and again. She was right. I am not a machine. My compartments have flooded.

As I sit here now, on my way to be with my dad at last and hold his hand, stroke his head, or do whatever I can in return for all that he has been to me throughout my life, I suppose I am grateful that I am not a machine. My dad is hooked up to all the machines he can stand at the moment. He needs the warm hand of his daughter right now. Thank God I have one to give – and I’m almost there.


Photo by Laura Watilo Blake

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