"The tongue holds the power of life and death..." Proverbs 18:21. The wisest man who ever lived said that. I think he was right.
I'd like to tell you a story about the power of words, and the power of a small, single gesture.
I was 13 when my brother married. I had been taking piano lessons for just one year, and hoping to save a little money, he asked me if I thought I could play The Wedding March at his wedding.
"Yes, bro!" was my instant answer. Now I hadn't learned the piece previously, but I had heard it and I thought I could get it down pat by the deadline.
I spoke with my piano teacher about it. Her name was Karen and I thought the world of her. She was a tiny woman of about 30 and she was very encouraging. She told me that, in her opinion, I could do it. We had two months before the wedding and it should be plenty of time. After our talk (which was during a weekly lesson) I went downstairs with my stepdad and into the music store where we found the sheet music and purchased it. I ran back upstairs to Karen's lesson room and knocked on her door, interrupting the lesson of the kid who was after me. Karen opened the door, quickly snatched the sheet music from my hand, looked it over, closed the pages and said sharply, "Yes, that's fine. Now shoo! I'm in the middle of a lesson."
Smiling, I took the music and went back downstairs and into the parking lot where my stepdad was waiting for me.
"She said it's fine." I reported, hopping into the passenger side of our car. But then, strangely, the feeling of exhilaration I first experienced began to fade and a sense of fear began to emerge.
"Pop," I said looking at my stepdad, "how many people are going to be at the wedding?"
"Should be about two hundred people."
"Two hundred!" I shouted. "Oh boy. That's a lot of people."
My stepdad was a very encouraging figure in my life, never saying a negative or critical word, always knowing just what to say.
"Oh, you'll do it without a problem. You'll learn it, practice it- heck you've got two months worth of lessons to go over it with Karen. She'll make sure you're ready. Don't worry."
His words were so helpful. They were reasonable and sensible, and they appealed to what I believed was true. I could do it. I'd already learned the theme to Hill Street Blues as well as the 30's classic In The Mood and The Wedding March didn't look harder than either of those pieces. (I was looking the music over as we drove and talked.)
I Should've Listened
I practiced everyday. Back then I was what was called "mercurial." A mercurial person was someone who hopped around and went back and forth from one thing to the next very quickly. (Today I'd be ADHD, not a doubt in my mind) I'd play for 15 minutes then get up and play with the cat or dog, then go back and play another 15 minutes. Then, time for cartoons! After 30 minutes of Bugs Bunny, Coyote, Daffy Duck, and Foghorn Leghorn it was back to the piano for another 15-30- minute practice session. It was coming along fine. I was a big "memory" pianist. I played a piece until I memorized it and then never needed to go back to the sheet music as long as I played the piece once or twice a day. The time frame in which I had to learn the piece actually switched from a benefit to a liability. I had actually learned the piece in only half the time! My memorization even impressed the great Karen.
"It sounds great. You've worked hard on it, I can tell."
Her compliment made me swell with pride inside even though I gave her a modest "aw shucks" expression.
Then came an unexpected warning:
"You know, it might work against you a little bit having learned it so quickly."
"How?" I asked.
"If you don't play it every day you might forget parts here and there. You'll be fine as long as you keep practicing."
"Oh Karen," I said assuringly, "I know this music forward and backward. I'm all set."
Karen frowned a little and said, "Just be sure to practice everyday, ok? Better safe than sorry. You don't want to get in front of all those people and forget any of the song..not ANY of it."
What a perfectionist Karen always was. I wish I'd listened...
"You Got This, Bro."
I went home to find my oldest brother, the one getting married, visiting for dinner. He was working, living alone, but he still came back to our house a couple times a week for mom's cooking.
"Hey little brother," he said. "How's our song coming along?"
"Come and see!" I said confidently.
We walked into the living room and I sat down at the piano.
"Dum-dum-dee-dum...dum-dum-dee-dum" rang out confidently from the keys. I continued playing until I had finished the last bar. My brother smiled casually, patted me on the back, and said simply,
"You got this bro."
The Wedding Rehearsal
Try the Organ...
The next month flew by in a whirlwind of baseball, Looney Tunes, frog hunting, and...some practice on the piano...well, a little practice...ok, not too much practice at all. But so what, right? I'd learned The Wedding March and memorized it- locked and loaded in the mental vault of musical masterpieces, no worries. No worries, that is, until the night of the rehearsal. Now I know most of you, at least all the ladies reading this, realize that the rehearsal dinner is THE night before the actual wedding. All necessary motions are gone over with a semi serious candor, making sure the ring bearers know how to ring bear, the ushers know how to ush, and, of course, that the pianist knows how to play the WEDDING MARCH!
I arrived late so the rehearsing was already in motion. Everyone else did their thing while I silently took a seat in a back pew watching and waiting. It's funny that I really wasn't nervous at all. It was as if I was watching a movie where my handsome brother and lovely fiancee were the stars.
Finally, after all the wedding procession had marched and rings were mock exchanged, the minister gestured to me with a nod and pointed to the piano. Nodding back I headed over to the piano and began playing, only the familiar dum-dum-dee-dum wasn't so familiar. I hit several sour notes. Even I was surprised at how far I had fallen from impresario to amateur in just a few short weeks. The wedding party, all of whom had been chatting pleasantly a few moments earlier, had fallen silent and all eyes were on me...and not in the good way. It was clear to everyone that it if I were to play this way tomorrow it might just be better to have the groomsmen hum The Wedding March a cappella rather than having the 13 year old kid brother botch the whole thing. Oy... It was at this point that some lady, for the life of me I cannot remember who she was, walked over to the piano where I was playing (attempting to play), leaned over to me and said,
"You might want to try playing this on the organ. It won't be as easy to hear your mistakes."
"YOUR MISTAY-STAY-STAY-STAY-STAKES!" Her words cut through the lump in my throat like a mobsters piano wire. I was devastated. Looking back I think it would've been so much better for her to say, "You have 24 hours kid, don't give up. Go home and work on it. You'll be fine." But you see that's what Karen would've said had she been there. That's what Pop would've said had he been there, but they weren't there. I think that was the first time in my life that I felt utterly alone.
A Timely Word
"How apt is a timely word spoken in due season..."
— Proverbs 15:23
The Big Day
It was the longest night of my life. Up to that point I hadn't had a lot of dramatic nights, but that night certainly was. I went home, opened the sheet music and set my mind and my heart to work. I was determined not to let down my brother. My brother, my hero who had entrusted me with what would be possibly the most significant day of his life. I would not fail him. I just couldn't. I practiced for hours until I rested my head on the piano for a little break. I woke with a jolt hours later having bumped an elbow on some base clef keys. I was tired, I was shaky, but it was in there. It all came back to me, every note, every pause, staccato, andante, you name it, it was there! But would it remain? Would it stay with me long enough to get through the ceremony? How I hoped it would. The hours and minutes dragged on for what seemed like an eternity until we were all there, gathered at the church.
Guests were seated, the wedding party lined up. The minister took his place near the altar followed by my brother and his groomsmen. I walked around the side of the sanctuary and slid silently onto the piano bench. The lid was down and though I tried to lift it carefully from the keys it nevertheless sprung back with a reverberating thud that set 88 piano wires to humming in the midst of a mausoleum silence. There was a moment of awkwardness, but no one died. I was nervous, yet confident. All the notes were flowing through my mind, this time in the correct order. The minister nodded. I nodded back, and began playing.
My Cousin, John...
I played The Wedding March at my brother's wedding. I played from memory and even though I watched my fingers it was as if they played it all by themselves. I was aware of the couples, the brides maids and groomsmen walking down the aisle in pairs. I remember being uncomfortably warm in my tuxedo. Hand held fans were being waved by the women and looking back now I see that as a good thing. If I had been playing poorly the fans would've stopped. That's what happens when you make a mistake, people stop doing what they were doing as if their motion somehow caused the mistake. Some unconscious courtesy I suppose. But they kept fanning and the couples kept walking and I kept playing...flawlessly. Flawlessly until the very last note, and that note came up sour. How could I have made it through the entire song so perfectly only to mess up on the very last note? Ahh, don't you know there's no such thing as absolute perfection? In hindsight it wasn't so bad. In fact, I bet the only people who noticed it were other musicians that might have been in the crowd. (musicians always notice when other musicians mess up- there is no escaping this)
But I have to tell you, just as I realized I had hit that sour note, I winced, noticeable only to me, then I opened my eyes and as I did, I locked onto one of the groomsmen. It was my cousin, John. I had always loved John. He was one of those people everyone liked to be around. Fun, intelligent, another encourager. I lifted my hands from the keys, my foot from the sustain pedal, and maintained that visual connection with John. Very subtly, noticed only by me, known only to him, he winked at me and made the universal "ok" sign with his thumb and index finger. The relief that swept over me was indescribable. I had done it. I had done it and if there was any doubt in my mind my cousin John's silent affirmation erased any trace.
I think about that day from time to time. I think about how that woman, with such a flip and casual tone annihilated me, and how John, with the wink of an eye and a gentle union of his thumb and index finger had restored me...redeemed me. How I loved him for that.
I said that the sense of relief that swept over me because of John's approval was indescribable, and it was. How fitting that he communicated such a life lesson to me without words and that I would have no words to communicate it with you. Unspoken as it must remain, I think you know.
Do you know the power of your words, that you can build or destroy, uplift or tear down the very soul of another person? That was the lesson I learned that day. I wanted to share it with you.
Should anyone doubt the power of longevity regarding the things we say to others, please consider: The events that happened at my brother's wedding occurred in the summer of 1981. I remember it all as if it were yesterday.