Know This Love: A Song for Caroline

Last week I gave my first scheduled piano performance in 5 1/2 years when I played for a group of elderly at a retirement home not far from where I live.

During those 5 1/2 years, I played many times, but the appearances were never scheduled (or paid) for health and anxiety reasons.

But it was finally time to trust myself and God, and begin again.

When I showed up, I was nervous — who wouldn’t be?

I had my half-hour set ready, but still cared about how it would turn out; how it would be received. Even though I’m moving to California in less than two months and don’t expect to visit this facility again, I wanted them to enjoy it.

I wanted them to like me.

At first, the audience was stoic. Not many residents attended, and those there didn’t react when the songs finished. They didn’t even clap.

I didn’t take it personally — after all, it’s a nursing home, not a place known for great health or mental alertness. I chatted with them anyway, even though it was like having a conversation with myself, save for a nod here and there.

Yet as the performance went on and I became more comfortable, playing favorite pieces like Amazing Grace and Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, the staff wheeled more residents into the room and the audience began to clap after each song.

My heart almost broke with joy when I saw a very elderly man bend to kiss his wife tenderly and sweetly on the lips. He looked deeply into her eyes as he undoubtedly had for decades. Their moment was private, but unabashed.

At the end of the set, I sang one of my own songs, Home (Part I). I fell deeply into the music and ended the set in a rush of bliss.

But it wasn’t until afterward that I received the greatest gift of the day.

A woman named Caroline wheeled up to me, eyes pooling with tears from the music, and asked if I could play something her husband might like.

Her hair was white and strained with age, and confusion had begun to set into her features; however, she was still lucid enough to converse with me.

As I knelt down and held her hand, I learned her husband was still alive — that they had been married for a long, long time — but he was ailing badly and wasn’t at the performance.

I told her he almost surely would have loved my rendition of Amazing Grace — almost everyone appreciates that song — as well as the ragtime piece I did. She agreed and I embraced her.

The staff told me the woman was normally “not this lovey,” that her open heart had been a rare gift.

I hugged her a second time before I left, and told her I would try to come back before I moved.

Even if I hadn’t played well, I would have considered the day a success because of what happened with Caroline. But I did play well, and now they want me to perform again before I move away.

I do plan to make that happen, if only to say hello to Caroline.


Matthew Stensland-Bos explores conscious living, loving, healing and grounded spirituality in Know This Love, a weekly SFBay opinion column. You can find him on his website, www.wordswithmatthew.com