Helen Chappell - October 2010


Organ Recital
Helen Chappell


I was seated next to a woman of a certain age recently. It was a party situation, but it only took this perfect stranger about three minutes to launch into an organ recital that would have made E. Power Biggs jealous.
The instrument she was playing was her own body, and it was Toccata Fugue in D Minor. She started with hair loss and migraines at the crown of her head and, over the next hour, lovingly described every ailment, hiccup or hoedown in her body, right down to her bunions and toenail fungus.
There were stops in between for her dental woes, her heart, lungs, stomach and, God help us all, her bowels. If she was to be believed, it was a medical miracle she was still walking the face of the earth, even though her doctors didn’t know anything, and she was sure they didn’t listen to her.
By the time she started in on the woes of her friends, I was as glazed as an Easter ham, and just as deaf. Not that it mattered to her, bless her heart. She was enjoying describing her myriad complaints far too much. For all she cared, I could be a ham. She just wanted to talk about herself and her ailments.
In short – it was an organ recital.
I realize, as we get older, we are more preoccupied with our health. When you’re young, older people try to warn you about what’s coming, but you don’t think you’ll live that long, or, if you do, those things will never happen to you. Ha! Aging is one of Mother Nature’s many little jokes.
As a man working out next to me at the Y said, “If I knew I was going to live this long, I would have taken better care of myself.”
Joints that used to flex and rotate suddenly rust shut. You find yourself out of breath when you wind up the garden hose. Aches and pains exist where none had been before. You walk around as if you’re doing the Robot when you fall out of bed in the morning. You have to take a lot of pills for stuff you didn’t even know existed. All around you, people you actually know are falling off their perches. The obituaries become the Eastern Shore Sweepstakes. Okay, I understand all that, because I experience it on a daily basis.
But that doesn’t mean that it makes for fascinating conversation, or that anyone else wants to hear about it. It’s not a contest to see who can have the worst, goriest surgery or whose neighbor died of a more gruesome cancer. Lord knows, these thing exist. But I don’t want to be sitting there eating while someone tells me “They opened him up, and the cancer was so bad, they just sewed him up again and told her to call Hospice.”
It’s not just that I don’t know the people this tragedy happened to, it’s also that they probably wouldn’t appreciate their personal information shared with strangers. Any more than someone you’ve just met wants to hear about your gall bladder, thank you.
You can obsess about your declining health, real or imagined, all you like, but take my word for it, anyone who is not directly involved in your health care doesn’t need all the details. Your varicose vein stripping does not make you a more interesting person, and we don’t want a step-by-step description.
I had a very dear friend, who was about a decade older than me, whose phone calls I came to dread toward the end. After some cursory gossip was exchanged and my state of health was examined with an invisible tongue depressor, the conversation would quickly shift to her health, upon which she could happily expound for hours.
And the news was never good. Various ailments, all too real, were taken out and examined like pieces of old family silver. I could watch TV, read a book and listen for a pause in the organ recital, which would tell me it was my turn to say, “Oh, really? That’s terrible,” or even “Hnunh.”
That a woman who enjoyed life so much at the beginning of our long friendship had crumbled into this state of mind, as well as health, was heartbreaking – but it wasn’t the only subject to talk about.
Like the man seated beside you at a formal dinner whose only subject of conversation is his former career at Acme Widget, mono-subjects quickly turn into borefests. And borefests lead to unkind thoughts. Perhaps involving hastening the end of suffering for the self-obsessed organ recitalist.
It’s heartless to find oneself daydreaming over dessert about a quick napkin of chloroform, but when you have only one subject to discuss, and that subject is your woeful health, you leave your listeners with no choice.
Starting a fight over politics or religion that ends in assault and battery or flying food is one option. Surprise guests at the ’do may include the police, but even that begins to seem like a better option than a blow-by-blow account of someone’s quadruple bypass. I mean, what? They were out, one hopes, during the whole procedure, and therefore, not a reliable witness.
I was so tempted to give that lady my story, involving Rescue Squads, ER drama, hospitalization and being drugged into oblivion for four days. The trouble is, because of the drugs, I can’t remember any of it as I was passed out, which is just as well. Besides, it would be an organ recital, and we just can’t have any more of those, can we?