Victor Hugo said “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remains silent” For me, it was the language of my life.
At the age of three, I had my first pangs of jealousy, as my brother and sister marched off to their piano lessons. I, the baby, was left out. Perhaps foreshadowing my future life as an attorney, I demanded equity and fairness and insisted on attending piano lessons as well. So, every week, I marched along to Jovita’s house for piano lessons with my brother and sister.
Around the age of five, the local symphony orchestra put on a “petting zoo” program where kids could come and try all of the different orchestral instruments. I was introduced to what would become the passion and love of my life: the violin. I vowed, then and there, that I would learn that instrument.
When other kids were playing hide-and-go-seek, I was in my room playing Mozart.
Looking back, I don’t remember much of life before I had the violin. By age 8, I had decided my destiny: I would be a violinist. I played in youth orchestras and chamber groups. Summer camp was music camp. When the neighborhood kids were playing hide-and-go-seek and tag, I was in my bedroom practicing Mozart and Bach. It was my life. My passion. My identity. It followed me into middle school and high school -- the steadfast dream. I’ll never forget my first standing ovation as a soloist, it happened at the end of 8th grade. My weekends, and most after school weekdays, were youth orchestra laden, as I trekked from one side of the state to the other. And then I went off to college, to pursue my music degree and professional career.
But on September 8, 2006, well into my 20s, in the proverbial blink of an eye, that all changed. I was leaving my teacher’s studio when another driver made a left turn into my car. And in that one instant, that one moment of impact, my life’s course was forever altered. Everything I had worked for my entire life came to a halt with that crash.
I remember little from the night of the accident. I had vague flashbacks of it for years. I would catch myself shudder as I drove past flashing lights and crushed metal on the sides of roads and highways. I’d find myself holding my breath anytime I passed an accident. Among my few shards of memories is one of the firemen saying, “Oh sweetheart, don’t look at that arm.” And I remember looking. My right arm lay curled to my side, shaped like an s instead of a limb. I also remember the ambulance ride, screaming over and over, “I’m a violinist! I’m a violinist!” The pain was nothing compared to the reality that I couldn’t move my arm.
My right arm was shattered; the radius was mostly fragments of bone that eventually had to be cleaned out as they screwed rods into bone. One surgery. Two surgeries. Hand therapy. Three surgeries. Hand therapy. Four surgeries. But the pain continued, intensely. I would go home after the surgeries, faced with the signs on my walls that read, “Every hour spent doing something else could be spent practicing,” and there I sat, bone ground into bone. My violin sat on the table, in its case that had been hand made in Italy. Some days I eyed it enviously; other days full of anger.
Without the violin, I had nothing. I was no one.
The trauma of the accident manifested itself in many ways, not least of which seeing no reason to live for the first year or two after the accident. Without the violin, I had nothing. I was no one. The agony of loss of self was too much. I starved myself into numbness. Literally. Hunger was much easier to cope with than the ramifications of what had happened to my arm.
But there was this nagging part of me that wasn’t content with the endless trips to the emergency room. Life from the back of an ambulance had its own perspective, but deep down, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was still a purpose for my life. One of the trips, electrolyte filled IV bags hooked up to my arm, and EKG leads running over my body, an older doctor came up to me and said, “I’ve been in emergency medicine for 20 years and I’ve never seen blood work like this. I have no idea why your heart is beating.”
And frankly, I didn’t understand it either. For years I had told my mother that they could put your bones back together with screws and rods but there was no fixative for a shattered heart. Yet, mine kept on beating, despite my lack of nourishment and lack of hope. There was a flicker of God’s presence in that moment. Why was my heart still beating? There was that nagging feeling again, a higher purpose? So, I checked myself into treatment.
My Next Concerto
I forced myself to keep moving forward, to begin anew and search for the bigger picture. I learned to nourish myself body and soul. I went to law school and began exploring my Jewish roots. I was simultaneously studying the model penal code and kashrut laws; the constitution and the Jewish art of prayer.
It became apparent that I would never again have the finesse and artistry to pursue my career. After my sixth surgery the pain was still intense. Most daily activities would bring tears to my eyes; petting my dogs would make me cry out in pain. Going through pages of discovery at the firm where I was clerking was agonizing. Five years after the accident, I agreed to a final surgery: a wrist fusion that meant a bone graft of all of the tiny bones in my hand into one solid bone and a plate screwed from my middle finger down the length of my radius. I would never again be able to move my wrist. My ability to play would no longer be bound up in the loss of artistry in my music; I was giving up the physical capability to draw a bow across the strings.
The night before the surgery my mother flew into town to be with me. She curled up in my bed and I went and got my violin out for one last farewell. For the first time in five years, it wasn’t about the nuance that my music lacked or the audible deficiencies in tone production. For the first time in my life, it wasn’t about trying to play the Tchaikovsky or the Sibelius. In that moment, it was about true love lost and parting. For three hours, I relived the past 20 years of my life, and listened to my mother’s quiet sobs from behind my bedroom wall.
I played for three hours, listening to my mother’s quiet sobs from behind my bedroom wall.
The surgery was successful. I finished law school and two bars. I grew as an observant Jew and a fledgling attorney. I became a whole person. I was given a second chance to live and I started to see life differently. Being holed up in a practice room for 10 hours a day in order to perfect the next concerto or to out-practice the next violinist so I could get an eventual gig, was not a full life. I was in love with the magic of the passion and artistry of music. I used to tell people that there was no feeling in the world like coming together with one hundred other people in symphonic unity. But my new clarity revealed a different form of connection, laughing and crying with genuine friends.
When I was a teenager I remember saying, “We’re going to change the world through beauty.” We quoted Thoreau like the Bible, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” Our antidote was music- aesthetic puzzle games.
Now I have a different blueprint for change that gives me voice and advocacy. I have a life imbued with the holiness of mitzvot and an ability to help perfect the world in ways that I believe are more profound than my music. My desires to perfect an art no longer drive me; looking back I view them as containing elements of self-absorption. Instead I look outside of myself at those around me and see who needs a babysitter or who needs a challah baked or what pro bono service I can offer. My contributions meaningfully and integrally impact people’s lives.
Six and a half years after my accident I consider myself lucky; I feel more fully alive. I have friends in whose kitchens I bake fun experiments off of YouTube. I go on hikes and runs in the fresh evening air. I get down on the floor with my dogs and play with them, instead of having them lie at my feet while I practice. I know my nephews and my cousins as people instead of just names.
Some days I look longingly at the top of my bookcase where my violin sits, and I feel tears well in the corners of my eyes. But every day I wake up and thank God for giving me breath and new life. Every day, I bless God, the One Who frees the captive. And I feel it deep down in my heart, that freedom came to me through understanding, compassion, and purpose. I was given a second chance to transform my life into a living symphony.