Devin Barlow is a student of mine. We meet once a week, for 30 minutes. Sometimes it feels like 2 hours to Devin, and not just because I am long winded and overexplanatory. Devin has very little short-term memory because of a catastrophic mountain biking accident in 2003, and sometimes the passing of time feels different to him than it does to the rest of us. What I find interesting, and hope to research, is why Devin is beginning to remember and retain things. His progress over the past few months has been staggering. This is a guy who used to ask me my name several times during our lessons. We used to have the same conversation at the beginning of our session: I would walk in, he would say, “That looks like a cello!” and I would say, “Yep. I thought you might like to have a lesson today.”, and off we’d go. Now he’s often the host, yelling, “come in!” when I arrive, and knows exactly the cadence of the first few minutes of the lesson. Tune the A, then A and D, D and G, etc. We take this for granted…of course that’s how you tune! But think about if you hadn’t played the cello for a few years, and then add in that you have this weird feeling like something’s off, that you’re not operating at 100% capacity but are unable to figure out why. Recently, he began referring to new pieces of technique with the words that only I use to describe them. For instance, I refer to 4th position as “karate chop” position, because of the way the heel of the hand chops at the side of the instrument. Yes, it’s silly, but there are about 100 cello students in Los Angeles who will never forget exactly where that son-of-a-gun is, because of it. I think it was in July, after a few months of lessons, that he began saying, “My hand needs to karate chop the cello, otherwise I’ll be flat…”. There are other bits of new memory. He remembers my name. First and last. He corrects old, old, technical issues the way I do. Each lesson, he is more candid and comfortable with me, whereas during the first few weeks, he seemed embarrassed that he couldn’t remember things and would be self-effacing and nervous. For someone who should not have any short term or new memories, he is racking them up right in the face of science.

Kevin Everett, the Bills’ center who suffered an extremely traumatic spinal cord injury last week, has just begun to move his arms and legs (not just fingers and toes) on his own. There is talk that he may even walk out of the hospital. This is a huge change in tone from last week, when his life was in jeopardy, and the prognosis looked like, “lucky to live, won’t walk again”. Yet another example of unexplained, substantive recovery.

In the end, the human body is full of surprises. Maybe Devin will regress and forget everything we’ve worked on. Or maybe he’ll keep re-igniting synapses and our lessons will prove to be wildly theraputic. What I find most important is that we do things to take care of our spirit while we hope for bodily healing. If Devin lives the same day over and over again, but it’s a fabulous day full of promise, music and the people who care about him, I say that’s a pretty good life.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks for this inspiring post. Today I received and e-mail about a young man who was recently paralyzed in a freak swimming accident. The local fiddle group was asking that we send e-mails of support to him. I will send him you post. Although his situation is different, I think he might enjoy this message of hope.

  2. There was a heart surgeon interviewed on NPR’s Speaking of Faith with some very similar, moving ideas. It’s not enough to heal organs, we need to heal the spirit – which means recovering beauty and purpose in life.

  3. Thank you for your comments! It’s not very “brand name cello teacher” to take on students who don’t have the usual vector towards professional cellodom, but I find that some of the most inspiring students are those who know they aren’t destined to be paid for their talents. 🙂

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