Pulling Out the Stops

I noticed the music his hands created before I noticed him. It was hard to miss the sound rolling through the church sanctuary doors as we entered to take our place in the pews, the layering of pipe upon pipe as the organ picked up the congregation, shook them and put them back transformed in their seats. I’d never heard anything like it before.  He knew how to pull out the stops.

Then I watched the new church organist as he played. Erik’s hands and feet were dancing the Bach Toccata and Fugue, his face lit with joy. This tall graceful young man was the happiest musician I had ever seen.

At sixteen, I had taken ten years of piano lessons and had never experienced what Erik clearly felt. I decided at that moment, I was stopping my lessons with my sixty four year old piano teacher with the cloying perfume, bangly bracelets, swinging ear bobs, multiple rings and meaningless compliments, and I was going to take organ lessons from this incredible man.

Whatever Erik could teach me, I wanted to learn. I watched his hands move up and down the keys, his long fingers reaching and caressing each note.

At first I was so nervous my fingers trembled when I played for him. To have him sitting on the organ bench beside me was a combination of ecstasy and terror. I practiced more hours for him than I ever had practiced before, wanting to please him and show him I was worthy of his time. He seemed to know how hard I was willing to work so he gave me progressively more challenging pieces to learn, and pushed me to create sound that felt wholly ethereal.

After a year of his teaching, a letter from Erik came in the mail the day before my weekly lesson, saying he was moving to another city for another professional opportunity and would no longer be available to give lessons. It was a brisk typed goodbye that burned in my hands as I held it.

The next Sunday, a white haired lady played the organ in church as if we were attending a funeral. I wept for the emptiness of the pipes, knowing the fullness they were capable of. Rumors circulated about Erik’s sudden departure, that he had left for a lover in the city and would not be back. I decided the organ wasn’t so important after all, walked away and never played again.

A decade later I was a medical student on my internal medicine rotation in a big city hospital, working as part of a medical team to admit patients and coordinate their care and treatment. One night I was handed a chart for a new admission to work up, and the name on the cover looked familiar. It could not possibly be the same Erik.

This was a gay man dying of AIDs, admitted with pneumonia and delirium. When I walked in the room and pulled back the curtain, I was not completely certain until I saw his hands. The rest of the Erik I remembered had been ravaged.  The stops had been closed, all except one.

His beautiful hands, the shape of his long fingers, all the same. And for the first time, they enfolded mine.


(written as fiction for a writing class I’m taking–the assignment is “What if? –telling a true story but only to a point.   Erik’s story is real.  My finding him later is the “what if”…)