Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Painfully Yours

Dreams can be both wonderful and frustrating. Sometimes they seem just as real as this state of consciousness we call being awake. People often say that when the time comes, they would like to die in their sleep. Perhaps we want that other reality to continue. Who am I to say it doesn’t? Last night I had an unexpected visit with a conductor, the late Hans Vonk. I have played a number of concerts under him, and people couldn’t stop complaining about him having become cranky, compared to his earlier years. One time I remember him interrupting a concert because a small child in the audience was crying, and asking that the unhappy young listener be removed from the hall.

The last time I worked with him was in New York at the Mostly Mozart Festival. He was quite abrasive and many musicians were complaining backstage. I sensed that something wasn’t right and even more so after he came to talk to me for a long while in my dressing room. It was as if he wanted to tell me something but then decided not to. Mr. Vonk’s irritability didn’t bother me that much as I saw the great artist and musician behind the cranky front. It was a shock to read his obituary just a few years later and find out that he had suffered from ALS, Lou Gehrig ’s disease. He was only 63.

Musicians and audiences seem to have an unlimited amount of sympathy for victims of illnesses or accidents that are visible. There are polio victims that have had successful careers, in spite of the obvious obstacles they continually face. I have seen many a soloist show up with a leg in a cast, or a bandaged finger. Even orchestra members sometimes cash in on this sympathy factor and have themselves brought onto the stage in a wheelchair. While the pain and discomfort of a polio victim is easy to fathom, Mr. Vonk and numerous others suffering from chronic or terminal illnesses cannot have a label attached to their back: “I have Lou Gehrig’s”, “Burn Victim” or anything of the sort. Mr. Vonk was a Dutchman, and in Europe people are much more private about their health, or lack of. An obituary often states that the person died after a long illness, without ever going into details; quite the opposite of this country.

Today’s New York Times had a story about a mother with shingles and her daughter, a doctor. Although I didn't find it particularly well written, to be in the Science Times, it nevertheless brought attention to a rather common cause of hard-to-treat pain. I was only five when my first outbreak happened, and clearly remember the doctor coming to the house and saying that he had never seen shingles in such a young patient. That wasn’t particularly bad if my memory is correct, but a number of later episodes have been agonizing. The older the person is, the more likely shingles is to cause residual pain that won’t go away, turning into post-herpetic neuralgia. Even strongest opioids don’t always help, but thankfully there are new medicines that are of promise. Perhaps in my lifetime chronic pain will be no more an issue to cope with.

Which brings me to the point: if a person isn’t always all happy and jolly, or seems to have a short fuse, don’t rush to blame him or her for the behavior. Had I been in Mr. Vonk’s shoes, there would have been little to smile about. May he forgive us all for any ill thoughts we might have harbored, wherever his soul is, as we were just ignorant.