TUNING A GRAND piano is a skill that can take years to master. Teddy unloaded his dorm room’s contents from his car and piled them under the antique concert grand piano that sat in the musty living room of the house where he had grown up. He pulled back the blinds, opened the windows, and tried to banish years of abandonment. He paused briefly to admire the dust motes dancing in the daylight streaming through the windows.
Teddy removed the grand piano’s cover and peered inside. The dust made him sneeze. He dug out the vacuum cleaner and went to work on the piano’s innards. He had never tuned a piano, let alone a grand piano, and had only a tenuous grip on the concepts involved. He had watched it being done enough to be confident that he would not damage the piano, but that was about as far as his confidence took him.
Music is math, and math is music. Teddy knew math, and he knew music. A 440 is A 440. 440 Hz. It has a known frequency. It is where piano tuners start. That much he knew. He placed his computer on the bench. He rummaged in the basement until he found a socket set. Teddy’s engineering student college roommate, who had played bass guitar in Teddy’s now-defunct party band, would be laughing at him right now. Teddy wiped the sweat off his hands and picked up the tools.
Before his mother’s illness, this piano had held the fractious family together. Time, distance, and disease had torn them apart. His mother had asked that she be allowed to die in this house. Teddy was the first to arrive. He knew he had three days to make the house habitable, but he was only concerned about the piano. It needed to sing his mother home.
Teddy opened the frequency analyzer program on his computer. He tapped the piano’s A key, the one that was supposed to be tuned to 440hz. A dull thud was the reward for his efforts. The felt pads were damaged.
He had anticipated that this might be an issue and had purchased felt at a music store. Not the right felt, but close. Teddy replaced the felt on the damaged keys and started again.
Tuning the piano took two long days, with Teddy only stopping for necessities. He worked slowly, perhaps even tentatively. When he thought he was done, he checked the pitch against his electronic keyboard. The keyboard had the same number of keys as the piano, but the comparison was not a simple as it might have appeared. After another night, Teddy was satisfied with the results. A professional tuner would have taken a few hours. Teddy had spent three days doing the job.
Teddy’s brother, Ben, arrived on the morning of the day the rest of the family was expected. He took one look at Teddy’s gear strewn in the living room and under the piano. Pointedly not asking for help and cursing at Teddy, Ben went back to his car and hauled in enough groceries for a week before disappearing into the kitchen. Teddy could hear him angrily preparing the food he had brought. Much of his rant was directed at Teddy, but that was no surprise. The animosity was justified. Ben had valid reasons to be angry with Teddy.
Teddy’s sister, Elaine, arrived in the mid-afternoon. She silently scowled and went upstairs to prepare to set up a bed in the dining room for their mother to spend her final hours in comfort. Her silent anger was in her face and in her motions, but it was no less intense than Ben’s. She, too, had reason to be angry with Teddy.
The medical transport van arrived at dusk. The attendants silently wheeled Teddy’s mother inside. Teddy’s father gingerly picked her up and placed her on the sofa across from the piano.
“Teddy, play me a love song.”
Teddy played well into the night. By morning, she was gone, never having tasted the food Ben had so carefully prepared nor rested on the bed Elaine had lovingly laid out for her. As the night wore on, Teddy felt the anger that his gift, offered with neither more nor less love than those of his brother and sister, was the only gift his mother wanted.