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The Accident

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One Last Time

 

Does it ever strike you as strange that so many days go by and you forget all about them: I can’t count how many times someone has said, “How was your weekend?” And I struggle to remember what I did during the past couple of days. But then again, there are those days that you cannot forget. Every detail is etched in your memory. February 28, 2015 is one of those days for me.

 

The Nemtsov assassination occurred the day before, on February 27. I was heart broken in the face of such corruption and cruelty. Boris Nemtsov was gaining traction as a competitor for Putin in Russia. Shortly after an interview on Echo Moscow Radio that I listened to, he was shot on a bridge near the Kremlin. The next morning, a Saturday, I took off on a road trip at 4:30 am with a Russian friend, Tatyana. We were headed to Newport, Oregon, where I was scheduled to play a rehearsal and two concerts under the direction of David Ogden Stiers.

 

Everyone was nervous: the roads were icy in the mountains, news from Russia was troubling, and yet there seemed to be something else that no one quite understood. My husband and I, as well as Tatyana, felt that something was wrong. We had the snow chains, I had reviewed how to put them on, but there was no need. We made it over the mountains, no problem. In fact, we made it all the way to Toledo, the last little town before Newport.

 

There is an intersection at Toledo where the local traffic has to yield to highway traffic. I was on the highway, relieved to be driving on dry pavement. There was a truck stopped on the right side of the road at the stop sign. I could see the driver looking to his right, far down the road to see if anyone was coming. He looked to the right while I approached, but did not look to his left. He pulled out, I slammed the brakes, and Tatyana yelled “durak!!” which means “the fool!!” A dull crunch ensued, then silence.

 

I was astonished that the impact felt like nothing at all. A physical therapist later told me that I probably passed out. I found myself sitting in the car in the opposite lane, facing oncoming traffic. A man was yelling, “Get out of the road!” So I rolled the car off the shoulder. There was no blood. No broken glass. No airbags. Everything was just fine. Well, okay, the car was totaled, but other than that . . . The truck that had pulled out in front of me only had damage to the cargo area of the truck. The driver was on his feet, uninjured, but confused. He wasn’t sure what had happened.

 

I was shaken and shaking, I couldn’t breath very well and my chest hurt, but it looked like everyone was okay. We exchanged information and waited for the State Police and a tow truck. Then there were the phone calls: “We were in an accident, but everyone is okay . . . no, the car is not drivable . . . the front right half is crumpled in . . . I don’t know if it can be fixed . . .”

 

Tatyana and I grabbed the essentials out of the car before the tow truck driver loaded it on his flatbed. Everything had slid or been thrown as far forward as possible: All of the bags and papers and random objects were plastered to the nearest vertical surface. Viola. Purse. Suitcase. Car registration and insurance. That should do it.

 

 

 

And yet I could not quiet the voice in my head: This time is different. You are done for.

 

The cellists drove Tatyana and I to urgent care. Tatyana, who speaks only Russian, refused to be seen. “Doctors are capitalists! They will just try to sell you medications!” I was examined and diagnosed with whiplash. It was a surface exam, and in all honesty, I was not much more cooperative than Tatyana. I didn’t know what was wrong, but I felt like a wounded dog, resisting the urge to snap at anyone who came near me. A cursory exam would do for now. I needed to hide—to be alone for a while.

 

Our next stop was the perfect place to have peace and quiet and a chance to figure things out: the home of Ulla and Mike Mundil. For years they had been my gracious hosts, providing a bedroom and meals while I played concerts. Mike is American and Ulla is German. She had been a Russian teacher in Germany, and they both speak English, German and Russian. I knew Tatyana would be in good hands. Before I got through the doorway, Ulla, who knew all about what had happened, was holding a book out to me: “Maybe you would be interested in this! It is by a violin maker, Martin Schleske . . .” I smiled and said something polite, my inside, I was thinking, “I don’t care about some stupid book. I just want to die, I hurt so bad.” Mike carried our things to our room and I begged for some time alone to rest. My neck and left shoulder felt like the strands of muscle had been turned into hot, mashed up hamburger meat. I was disgusted by being in my own body. My left foot was numb, but at least it was getting easier to breath. Tatyana was suffering from blinding headaches. Mike and Ulla were gentle and caring, but I still couldn’t really let my defenses down. It wasn’t over yet.

 

I slid into my long black skirt and pretty black shirt and put on plenty of makeup. Makeup is always good for putting up a barrier—a wall that people can’t see through. (I wish.) A check in the mirror confirmed it: I was still slim and pretty. I cut a stately figure as I stood up straight, holding my Kiernoziak viola, one of the best that he ever made, if I do say so myself. Although it was hard to choke down much food, I had drunk plenty of water and knew that I would get through the concert.

 

One concert that evening, another one the next afternoon.  David Ogden Stiers talked to me backstage more than once. “You don’t have to play, you know. Do what is best for you!” But he was wrong. I did have to play. If I didn’t use up the last of the adrenaline, if I didn’t let my body do what it had done several hours a day for the last 34 years, then I would have to face what was wrong. I knew I was about to crumble into a thousand pieces, and I wanted to do it at home, behind closed doors. If I admitted for one second that I shouldn’t be playing, then my makeup would melt off in a flood of tears. Not here. Not just yet. Lord help me.

 

It’s always better once the downbeat has started the flow of the music. Whatever else you are worrying about melts away. Don’t feel anything. Just play. The music will drown out everything else. And it worked. One last time.

The tow truck driver dropped Tatyana and me at the concert hall and then took the car away. I was twenty minutes late for rehearsal. I unpacked my viola and slid into my chair. As always, I was focused on the music: time to blend, support the section, let this warm glow flood out of my gorgeous viola. Nothing else matters. But I could tell something was different. Somehow I knew that this was the last time. I was done for. Although I hid it as best I could, I knew this was the end.

Two cellists sitting in the same row with me kept looking at me with worried eyes.“You are not okay!” they said. “You need to go to the hospital.” I was both freezing cold and sweating. I was still shaking, too, but not very much. Not enough to keep me from playing. After all, I had played five days after giving birth to my first child, I had played a solo with an orchestra after ripping a muscle in my right shoulder, I had played with a myriad of physical ailments.

Come to Me all who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28

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