A Harp, ‘Moon River’ and Me

A Harp, ‘Moon River’ and Me

A Lump in the Road column
I tend to live in my head, to lean into my intellect. “What does that mean?” my husband asked when I described it. So I rephrased it and told him, “I’m more of a thinker than a feeler.” He looked confused.

“In painful situations, I think my way out instead of feel my way out,” I explained. “Oh,” he said. I knew he was trying to decipher my “corporate talk,” as he calls it. Sometimes I sound like a corporate press release. It’s hard for me to bring painful emotions into the light and thaw them out.

So, I was happy that on the day of my six-month cancer checkup at San Francisco’s UCSF Hospital last week — when I was so fearful of hearing a death sentence — my head was warming up that block of emotional ice just enough to let me feel what I needed to feel. I got to the hospital early that day, so I could go to the meditation room before my appointment. Passing the front desk and gift shop, I headed for the familiar church-like doors to that quiet space. But on my way, I heard a few notes from a harp.

Was it piped in? I wondered. Muzak? Or a real live artist?

Sometimes hospitals do that. They bring in talented musicians and let them calm the frayed nerves of people who are there because of some life-changing event. The harp reminded me of Stanford, where during chemo I was serenaded by many gifted musicians. But back then, just as I started to enjoy the music, Benadryl would kick in and I’d fall into a drug-induced slumber.

I always asked my husband what I missed, but he confessed that as soon as I was out, he raced to the cafeteria for frozen yogurt before they put the toppings away. I guess it was his own ritual to get though chemo.

Looking for a harpist, I peeped around the corner and saw a gray-haired lady behind an unwieldy instrument. Harps are weird-looking, something you’d see in fairy tales except that they’re cumbersome and a little awkward. The woman was plunking strings, her fingers arched like the legs of a spider dancing on an orderly series of tight wires, touching just the right ones to unlock their magic.

So instead of going into the meditation room alone, I opted to sit among the lady’s small audience and let her gentle melody enfold me. I assumed an attitude of mediation, but emotionally, I felt stuck, frozen but jittery at the same time.

I guess it was a touch of anxiety, a sensation I find ironic. On one hand, I felt a numb, stuckness deep in my core. But on the other hand, I felt a vibration of electrical current that made my eyelids twitch and my fingers tap.

The juxtaposition of these opposing forces felt like the fixings for a headache. I sat in one of those plastic waiting-room style chairs, with a handful of other people and listened.

The harpist played “My Favorite Things” and I was transported to a county fair when my daughter, Lauren, sang that song at a talent competition. I could see her in her little Hawaiian dress, singing a capella, her voice pure but oversized, piercing the din of the carnival atmosphere.

Will I live to hear her voice develop? I wondered. Will my husband and I ever make it to Tahiti to watch a sunset? Sadness started to prick at the ice deep inside my body.

Then the harpist played “Moon River,” a lullaby I sing to the baby I love so much. That baby has a 13-year-old’s body now, but I still read to her, sing to her, love her like the infant I used to hold. “Moon River” punctured my last layer of ice — and tears came, right there in the hospital lobby, streaming silently behind the curtain of blond that shrouded my bowed head.

I felt toxins trickle down my face and into a universe capable of handling my anguish. The harpist looked up just in time to see me leave, tracks of salt and puffiness no doubt visible on my face, a question mark on her face as she glanced up to watch me go.

I gathered my strength and took God with me into the elevator to get my news, trusting in my heart and knowing in my head that the Divine Plan would unfold exactly as it should.

Note: Breast Cancer News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Breast Cancer News, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to breast cancer.


  1. Alison Kaufman Rease says:

    I was so touched by your article, Nancy. I, too, am much more of a logical thinker than one who acts on emotion, as a retired teacher. Last year was “a touch of breast cancer,” fortunately caught very early so radiation followed the lumpectomy. At the hospital there were two guitarists who gave a calming glow to the experience and I’m forever grateful for them, and now, for your insightful comments. For me, it’s been a shock, but dealt with thanks to the help of friends who cared, a son who is a doctor and called twice a day just to chat for a few minutes and the garden, to whom, when no one was listening one morning I actually said out loud, “I’ll miss you.” Silly, huh? Using your head is the smartest way to go. Lots of research on good websites and a few treats for myself like sending for organic wonderful soaps from Purple Prairie’s website. I hope you are well! Fondly, Alison

  2. Nancy Brier says:

    Using our heads while having full access to our hearts is the perfect balance, with cancer or any of life’s other challenges. Thanks for your kind comments and for sharing your story, Alison. I hope you enjoy a long, beautiful path to a full recovery.

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