Archive for the ‘Special Days’ category

Half Steps and Whole Steps

March 1, 2009

Frederic Chopin lived from March 1, 1810 to October 17, 1849. He is recognized as one of the giants of pianism, and his playing and composing impact the art even today.

Chopin was a master of smaller-scale works, and most of his output was for solo piano. He was equally at home making grand and dramatic musical statements as well as small and intimate ones.

Drawing on the traditions of great keyboard player-composers of previous generations, particularly Bach and Mozart, he developed his own unique approach to melodic writing. His melodies in and of themselves are often minimal in character, and taken out of context, they appear to not even be melodies at all–more akin to kernels or seeds than full-bloom creations.

However, he mastered the art of using ornamentation–trills, scales, arpeggios, sequences of notes played “outside of time”–and these elements are what create the momentum that allows the melodic kernel to soar.

Next year is the 200th anniversary of Chopin’s birth. As a pianist, I am keenly aware of history and the heritage I am drawing on when I play. Up until now, while people said I had the talent, I did not have the mindset to play at a world-class level. I couldn’t imagine myself taking a year to study a recital program–I was afraid of boredom, but, perhaps to a greater extent, I was afraid of the weaknesses in my own technique that would be revealed if I focused so intensely for such a long period on such a small repertoire.

As my technique has gotten stronger and my ability and desire to play expressively have increased, my desire to apply that type of single-mindedness to practice has also grown.

So, when the idea for a Chopin lecture-recital pairing for 2010 came in the middle of the night earlier this winter, I didn’t dismiss it out of hand. I played with it, considering how I could illustrate Chopin’s evolution as a composer.

The program took shape fairly quickly:

Bach: English Suite No. 5 in E Minor, BWV 810

Mozart: Sonata in B-Flat, K. 281

Chopin: Preludes, Op. 28

I’d heard someone play the complete preludes on a recital when I was in college and always dreamed of doing it myself. But, while I started a few times, I was quickly deterred and discouraged, lacking the technique and the discipline to tackle such challenges as Prelude No. 3 (an all-16th-note left hand that required equal parts speed, smoothness and dynamic shaping); and I never even looked at No. 8 (if 16th notes were beyond what I could do, then 32nds were even further beyond my capacity).

But, as the saying goes, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. So, I have begun, taking half steps and whole steps as my mind and hands are able to find a way.

My most recent victory was to finish the fiendishly chromatic Allemande from the Bach suite. The first half was learned easily enough, but it wasn’t until the third attempt that I was able to hold the final few measures of the second half in memory from one practice session to the next.

I still often catch myself wondering how I’m going to accomplish what I’ve set out to do, especially since, as is often the case when we take an opportunity presented by the universe and run with it, the project has grown into a mission to play the program at least once in all fifty states.

Yes, it’s about Chopin, but it’s also about raising awareness of the fact that a blind person can play at the highest level, of showing the world that Braille music is a viable tool for independence, and taking listeners on a journey they might not otherwise embark on.

I could have done an all-Chopin program, and I’m sure many pianists will. The B Minor sonata is on my “must play” list, but not until my technique has grown even further.

In the twenty-four preludes, Chopin put all the different aspects of pianism in miniature form. For me, this is a journey of education. I’m allowing the pieces to teach me how to play, how to produce effects I once only dreamed of being able to achieve. Already, No. 8 has shown me that, by keeping the fingers close to the keys, you can bring out a melodic line and surround it with swirling notes that sound as if they have just blown in on a strong west wind.

Some days, I leave the piano exhausted, unsure how I will learn everything I need to if I want to play this program. I listen to the CD I’ve made of the recital pieces (Schiff on Bach, Uchida on Mozart, Polini on Chopin). With each listening, the music gets absorbed a little deeper into my being, and when I return to the keyboard, things that seemed insurmountable the night before make a little more sense. Even if I don’t have the whole solution, I may have the first step, enough to make my way through two more measures.

This coming Thursday, I will give the first semi-public performance of the prelude from Bach’s English Suite No. 5, the piece that will open the program next year. I will be playing for a meeting of the Etude Club of Schenectady. It is a group for women musicians who gather each month to play for one another. For me, the meetings and the performance opportunities they present are an impetus to bring a piece to the highest level possible, at least given the short time it’s been since I first began working on it.

Throughout the next year, I will set several such performance milestones for myself. For me, these are important because they will compel me to have things finished and in a coherent musical form in time to present them convincingly to an audience.

But by this date next year, I will be unveiling the first full-length public presentation of my program. More than ever before, I know that I can play this at a level of musicality and polish that I never could have in the past. I also am beginning to believe the people who have said all along that I am a great player, with something unique to present. I am beginning to understand that I should be heard by more than just family and friends. And, at long last, my heart is returning to my music, and my voice is no longer content to sing in just a whisper.


Birthday Music

September 18, 2008

I remember, growing up, that on my birthday, my godmother would always call and sing to me.

Sweet, you say, and yes, it was … except she couldn’t sing!

One year, when she was in her eighties, she called and sang to me. Then, when she had finished and I’d thanked her, she said, “Oh, you’ll be so proud of me. Guess what I did.”

I couldn’t guess, so she told me: “I’ve signed up for voice lessons!”

Interesting, but I never heard any more about those lessons, and it was maybe a year or two after that that she went into her final decline with Alzheimer’s. So, the woman who had always regaled us with fascinating stories about her world travels, who loved to read aloud at the Lighthouse, and who spent many a Saturday afternoon engaged in fierce Scrabble games with my grandmother and me, was reduced first to, “So, what’s new and startling,” and then, when that final loop of conversation left her, to silence.

My husband set his cell phone to play “Happy Birthday” at midnight, so he was the first person to “play” me anything.

Then, my friend Winy, who is studying music in Malaysia, played it on her violin, followed by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”. She just started playing in June, and maybe she was embarrassed by her lack of skill, but I sure enjoyed it.

My grandmother always used to find those electronic singing birthday cards. I loved my grandmother more than anything, but I hate those damn cards with a passion! To me, they sound like a large mosquito who has been given a microphone and an amplifier and told to sing for her supper. I just want to kill it, and, like mosquitoes, those cards never seem to die no matter what you do.

But I miss my grandmother, anyway.

I’ve often read about how certain music was composed and given as a gift to someone else. I wonder how it must have felt to receive the complete keyboard sonatas of Domenico Scarlatti as a wedding present, or how Clara Schumann felt each time she played the concerto her husband wrote for her, especially after his illness and death.

I have composed pieces for others through my Soul Essence project, and some have been for special occasions. I can, and have, composed for myself, too, but it’s not the same.

All the same, I finished learning the last movement of Beethoven’s “The Tempest” today. It may not have been composed for me, but since I was expecting to have to take several days to finish, to get to that last double bar and know that I can now play the entire work as it was intended, even if only in rough form, is a wonderful birthday present.

Tomorrow, I will begin the long and painstaking process of raising it from mere notes to art.

Besame Mucho! (Kiss Me a Lot!)

February 14, 2007

This title comes from a jazz tune, but it’s what I’m thinking about right now and what I chose to write about.

As if you haven’t been bombarded with the fact enough already: today is Valentine’s Day. I got thinking about love (and snow; it’s still coming down, and I’ll be communing with a shovel after I’m done writing this).

Well, let me rephrase that: What I was thinking about first thing this morning was finishing the editing on a song I had written. The notes were there, and I’d done a lot of work on the parts for strings (adding directions for when they should get louder or softer), but I still had a bit more of them to do, plus the parts for piano, harp and guitar. After all that, I go back through and put in tempo changes at transition points so everything flows smoothly.

So, I came in from walking the dogs and turned on the computer, then went upstairs to get breakfast.

I got out a plate and walked over to the table and was about to put the plate down when I found two huge tins of Hershey’s Kisses!

Oh, goodness, this isn’t what I had in mind at all! In fact, I didn’t really have anything in mind, and that was fine, but … Ted had outdone himself and I started laughing.

A few weeks ago, we were in the post office, and they were having a contest to see who could guess how many Hershey’s Kisses fit in a Priority Mail box. We never did the contest, but Ted had said he was going to get me enough of the candies to do it on Valentine’s Day. We’d laughed about it, and then I’d let it slip my mind.

One thing about Ted, though: If he says he’s going to do something, he does it. So now, I have eleven pounds, four ounces’ worth of Kisses. Most newborn babies don’t even weigh that much! We’ll be eating them for a long, long time.

I think it’s wonderful when people get flowers, but I like my flowers growing in the garden instead of in a vase. And as for jewelry, I think that’s beautiful, too, but I don’t find myself lusting after it. But a small, unexpected gesture? That cuts me to the heart every time!

So what was I thinking about love? Well, love isn’t wanting to have sex all the time. It’s not always wanting to be around someone and feeling empty when they’re gone. It’s not thinking about them constantly and fantasizing about them and idealizing them. Those states are better known as horniness, obsession, and infatuation. Unlike love, they’re all pretty much temporary. If you think of these things as love, then you will be forever disappointed because they can never last forever. Love is what happens in a relationship after all the newness has worn out of it.

Love is something that develops over a long period. It’s accepting someone with all their traits, some good, some bad. It’s allowing the person to be vulnerable with you, and being vulnerable with them in turn. It’s trusting and earning trust, even though you might sometimes screw up and have to rebuild that trust.

St. Paul wrote a great passage in 1 Corinthians on love, and it’s read at many weddings. One thing not included in that passage, though, is that love is surprising. It comes upon you when you least expect it, taps you on the shoulder, and takes your breath away.

Or, it interrupts your daily progress with moments of sheer delight and laughter, like the one I had this morning at my dining room table.

Ted said he’d thought about raining Kisses on me just after midnight. It’s a funny idea, but I’m glad he didn’t. Ecko is a chocolate freak, and any stray candies that went to the floor would most likely have ended up in his belly. Chocolate is very bad for dogs, not to mention the foil they’re wrapped in.

So, I’ll probably get many moments of laughter over this Valentine’s Day.

And now, I’m off to eat a Kiss or two and then go play in the snow.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas …

January 5, 2007

Today is the “twelfth day of Christmas,” the twelfth day after December 25. In the calendar of the Christian church, tomorrow is Epiphany.

I’ve always enjoyed the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. I liked trying to remember all the different gifts. I liked the order and precision of it as a “counting” song. And all those birds!

Anyway, I only very recently learned the actual story of the song and thought today would be a good day to pass it along. This history was sent to me in an E-mail by a friend in Kansas; I’m not sure who to give credit to for it, but the information is certainly interesting.

From 1558 until 1829, Roman Catholics in England were not permitted to practice their faith openly. Someone during that era wrote this carol as a catechism song for young Catholics. It has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to members of their church. Each element in the carol has a code word for a religious reality, which the children could remember.

The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.

The two turtledoves were the Old and New Testaments

Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.

The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.

The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.

The seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: Prophesy, Serving, Teaching, Exhortation, Contribution, Leadership, and Mercy.

The eight maids a-milking were the eight Beatitudes.

The nine ladies dancing were the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.

The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.

The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.

The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.

That’s the “authorized” version, and it made me think; What if we took the song literally? I did a little imagining on this subject, and here’s what I discovered.

Over the full twelve days, I would have gotten twelve partridges in pear trees. That’s an orchard! So I’d have to assume that I now had a little land. The partridges could be hunted for food, and the fruit from the trees makes good eating, too. There’d be more than enough for me, my true love (the giver of all these fascinating gifts), and anyone else.

I got twenty-two turtledoves. I can now hire some of them out for weddings, keep some as breeding stock, and, since they’re part of the pigeon family, perhaps I can teach a few to carry messages.

Thirty French hens can produce quite an egg supply. I’d have to borrow a rooster from somewhere, but once a few eggs hatched, I could have a perpetual source of chicken soup, stew, and anything else I might want. (Croquettes, anyone?)

I’m not quite sure what to do with thirty-six calling birds. I don’t know exactly what a “calling bird” is. But if it’s a songbird of any kind, this could be a very enjoyable gift.

Ah, forty golden rings! These always come in handy for buying French hen and turtledove food, not to mention building a house for my true love and me.

Forty-two geese a-laying? Oh, goodness, more eggs, and they’re so big! But geese also give down for making pillows and feather dusters (more about these in a moment).

Forty-two swans a-swimming are certainly beautiful to look at, and now I’ve got a pond to go with my pear orchard.

If I got forty maids a-milking, I got both the “milkers” and the “milkees,” right? Along with the barn and pastures for these animals. My true love, knowing my preferences, made sure to get me goats, not cows, since I grew up with goats and love them above all other milking animals (although I like the sound of cows mooing!). Anyway, since I like goats, I think I’ll put those “maids” to work so I can do the milking myself. And, since those golden rings have made us quite a nice house and we have no shortage of feather dusters, the “maids” are now doing housecleaning. Would you like to hire one? My house isn’t big enough or dirty enough to keep all forty busy all the time!

With thirty-six ladies dancing, I’ve now got a ballet company. Well, ballet and anything else they might decide to dance.

I could use my thirty lords a-leaping in the ballet company, but it might be more fun and profitable to field them as a major-league baseball team. Sure, football pays a lot better, but injuries are too common, the season is too short. Hockey is nice, but there’s too much fighting, and I don’t want to freeze my swan pond for practices or games. Basketball has lots of leaping, but the baseball season is longer and the sport is more forgiving if the lords get old or aren’t terrific all-around athletes. So baseball it is. I like the sound of New York Leaping Lords, anyway.

Are my twenty-two pipers piping musicians or plumbers? Even if half play music and the other half fix leaks, I’ve now got the “orchestra” for my ladies dancing. They’re also great playing for weddings, funerals, parades, and in marching-band competitions.

And finally, twelve drummers drumming. They can join the pipers in all their pursuits.

Cluck cluck … honk honk … tweet tweet … bleat bleat … “Now ladies, kick together! Five, six, seven, eight” … (If I hear “Amazing Grace” played badly by beginning bagpipers one more time … It’s pretty noisy hear, so I think my true love and I are going to go somewhere in the mountains for our honeymoon.

New Year Bell

January 1, 2007

I awoke sometime during the night to the sound of rain and bells.

Ted and I were married in April 2001, but waited to have our wedding celebration until the following August, so we could have it in my Grandma’s garden. She and my grandfather spent over fifty years tending it, and she’d always wanted to have a wedding there.

Anyway, one of the gifts to us, from one of my aunts, was a beautiful set of handmade bells. We were living in an apartment at the time, so there was no place to hang them.

But when we moved to our current house, they were hung on a beam outside our back door. It’s funny how the smallest gestures often carry the most meaning. When those bells were hung, I felt like the making of our new home was finished.

A short time after that, my Grandma and a different aunt gave us a set of wind chimes in the shape of a pineapple. The pineapple is a symbol of good luck in some culture I used to know but can’t recall now. It doesn’t matter, really; those wind chimes were hung beside the other set of bells.

This past summer, a friend gave us a Japanese summer bell, another bringer of good luck. That, too, has taken its place beside the others.

The first set of bells is pretty heavy: I think they’re made of copper or brass. If they’re ringing, you know you’ve got some serious wind. Since we live among the trees, if they’re ringing, we’re inside the house, and, if I do go out with the dogs in the backyard, my husband will often keep watch for falling branches from an upstairs window, or even take over escort duty himself.

The pineapple wind chimes can get going in a medium breeze. They aren’t as well-crafted as the original bells, but I love their sound and that my Grandma had a part in bringing them into our home.

The summer bell, much smaller than the others, is made of glass with a wooden clapper. It sings with the slightest rustle of wind, and last night, along with the patter of raindrops on the roof, it was lifting its voice, perhaps in celebration of the year that had turned over sometime during the night.

A Birthday Tribute to a Great Dog

December 29, 2006

Kiefer turns thirteen today. This chance will only come once, so I take it. Today, I choose to celebrate Kiefer, look back, look forward, and love my faithful friend.


Dogs are cool, but I wouldn’t say I’m too much of a dog person. I love them a lot, but I’m not obsessive about it (or maybe this is just how I delude myself!).

Anyway, I met Kiefer just after Thanksgiving in 1994, when he was about to turn two. My dad and I were driving home after visiting my godmother in Pennsylvania when my mom called with the news, “Eric has a dog for you.”

Eric was the trainer at Freedom Guide Dogs, just outside Utica, NY. I had been on their waiting list and was expecting to get a dog in the spring.

Kiefer was my second guide dog, and he was teaching me new tricks within five minutes of his arrival. My first one, Elaine, had been a yellow Lab female. Kiefer is a black Lab male. Females squat when they pee; males lift a hind leg and just let fly! Lesson Number One, check.

At the end of our first training session together, Eric said, “Now tell him to find inside.” I just about fell over, then asked him to repeat what he’d said in case I’d heard wrong. Elaine was good for “Forward,” “Left,” “Right,” and “No!” I would soon discover that Kiefer loved the “find” command, and the more things I taught him to find, the happier he was.

On our small dairy goat farm, Kiefer became a constant barn companion. Milking, delivering baby goats, putting animals out to pasture, collecting buckets from the pastures at the end of the day, unloading wagonloads of hay, Kiefer was there. “Find the gate,” “Find the bucket,” if it needed to be found, we tried it. He even learned to keep a group of goats together in a herd for walks in the fields behind our house.

Elaine had been energetic to a fault. She thought nothing of interrupting our planned route to chase squirrels or birds or anything else, and she must have had fantasies of steeplechase at one time, because I learned to leap over hedges or go charging through them to keep up. Being in high school and a runner, I didn’t mind, but I knew a guide dog wasn’t really supposed to act like that! Needless to say, I kept her on a very tight leash so I could control her.

Kiefer, on the other hand, had only one thing in mind when his harness was on: guiding. Step around puddles, not through them. (At first I thought it was because he loved me, but really he just hated getting his feet wet!) He’d never, ever run with me in harness, and he preferred going around icy patches to going over them. If I slipped and fell, not an unheard-of occurrence in winter on a farm, he needed no scolding. My being in the wrong position (looking up at him from the ground) was humiliating enough, and he’d redouble his efforts to do his job.

From the beginning, Kiefer proved himself to be an exceptional dog. He was just as perfectionistic in his basic obedience as he was about his guiding duties. He and I, perhaps surprisingly to both of us, bonded fast and firm.

My family fell in love with him, too, and began collecting stories about his exploits. Whether it was eating the entire plate of cookies left for Santa his first Christmas with us, or his vigilance after an ice storm while I was taking care of the farm alone, the stories are now part of our family’s trove of legends. We love animals, but we have high standards, especially when it comes to temperament. Some might take Kiefer’s skills for granted, assuming it’s par for the course for any guide dog. But it’s not, and we all knew it.

There was one creature who wasn’t happy about Kiefer’s arrival, and that was Harley, our barn cat. She had it in mind that I “belonged” to her, along with any baby goat still drinking milk. She’d escort me to the barn whenever I went and lead me back to the house afterward, meowing all the way so I could follow her. If I got off the path, she’d throw herself on the ground and roll around, rustling in the grass until I found her, then scamper off in the right direction, encouraging me to follow with her meows.

Kiefer’s arrival was a huge betrayal (not to mention insulting) to her. For weeks, she stalked back and forth across the top of the Dutch door of our goat nursery barn, staring down at him, who was in a sit-stay waiting for me to finish whatever I was doing. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, her tail flicking in disgusted gestures that seemed to say, “You’re just a dog, and I’ll make you look foolish yet! She’ll send you back to wherever it is you came from. Then the human will be mine, all mine!”

It never worked. I never knew anyone more stubborn than Harley. But when Kiefer was in harness, he could resist just about anything. So the poor cat had to settle for a draw. As cats do, she disappeared for a few days to sulk, then came back and took up her usual daily barn escorts like nothing had happened. Maybe she thought the dog needed leading, too.

Kiefer’s adventures with me weren’t confined to the farm. He flew with me to California where I taught and worked at a conservatory in 2000.

In preparation for that trip, Ted and I flew to Baltimore to see how Kiefer would be on a plane. He hated it, just like he hated the car. So any time we flew, I gave him Benedryl beforehand. You’d think that would make him drowsy and lethargic. It didn’t; he was always much too committed to doing the right thing by me to let himself relax.

We also walked all over Albany, solidifying the trust between Kiefer and me. It’s always something of a process to give your trust to a dog, at least for me. I got many object lessons over the years that assured me Kiefer was trustworthy, but it took my falling into a reflecting pool to get rid of that last tiny smidgen of doubt.

Once at the conservatory, Kiefer and I were on our own, managing a large house and exploring. I tried to go swimming in the pool that was there, but Kiefer thought I was drowning and jumped in to save me. Puddles were bad, but this was unbearable! He paddled around for a minute or so, then jumped out and proceeded to run around the edge of the pool, barking franticly until I got out. Needless to say, I didn’t take him with me on my next swimming trip.

Early in our time in California, on a gorgeous warm night just before sundown, we were playing in the yard. I threw a tennis ball for Kiefer, and, leaping into the air to catch it, he yelped. My heart froze. I called him, and he came, walking on three legs.

That night, I worried a lot, but also hoped he’d just landed wrong and that he’d be fine by morning.

He wasn’t. He unwillingly got up for his breakfast, then went and laid down again. Now there was no doubt: There was something very wrong with Kiefer.

I got a ride to the vet I had found before coming out to the conservatory “just in case”. They took x-rays, then called me back into the exam room with Kiefer.

He had torn his anterior cruciate ligament in his left hind leg. It’s basicly the same injury football players get when they blow out their knees. And, if I wanted the possibility of a few more years of working life for Kiefer, they were recommending surgery.

I went back to the conservatory and called my mom. I called Ted. I called my regular vet back home. I called my Grandma. I cried. Elaine had retired at six because of epilepsy. Kiefer was six now, and we were discussing surgery to put plates and pins in his leg so he could keep working, although no one knew for how much longer.

Two days later, I saw another vet, this one a surgeon. I scheduled surgery, went and bought a crate for the three weeks of cage rest they said he’d need before his cast came off. I thought I was done crying, but I wasn’t.

The day of surgery was one of the hardest I’ve ever had with an animal. I stayed busy, tried not to worry. After all, I was at a conservatory, surrounded by music, the passion of my life.

But I couldn’t concentrate long enough to practice piano, or focus well enough to do any work. When the call from the vet’s office came that Kiefer had come through surgery fine, I cried some more. It would be another two days before I could bring him home.

I might have thought, growing up on a farm, that I could just make the decisions that needed to be made for an animal and be done with it. But my heart always got involved to one degree or another. Kiefer was more than any special goat I’d ever owned. He was my constant companion. I knew I was a strong, independent woman, and I also knew that I could function just fine whether I chose to travel with a long white cane or with a guide dog. But even if a guide dog is just looked at as a different travel tool, it’s a living, breathing, loving creature that I was responsible for, by my own choice. We relied on each other. I fed him, walked him, brushed and petted him. He slept by my bed, was there with a gentle nudge and a lick when I needed reminding that I was loved. He kept watch whether he was curled up under the seat of an airplane or standing with me at a street crossing. As often as Kiefer had done right by me, I wanted to do right by him, and I couldn’t wait to get him home.

Kiefer’s cast ran from the tip of his toes to above the hip, and it was bright blue. I learned how to walk with him while carrying his back end in a sling, how to put on and remove an Elizabethan collar, how to give injections. (I already knew this from the goats, but I didn’t like it and always tried to find someone else to do it.)

What I didn’t learn were the symptoms of anesthetic withdrawal. So when Kiefer woke up the first night howling and whining and didn’t stop for hours, I began to have serious doubts about keeping my sanity. If the next three weeks were going to be like this, I didn’t know how I’d hold up. I petted him, talked to him, held him, cried some more. There was nothing I could do except wait for Kiefer to quiet down.

That night, I was torn between immense relief that no one was in the house to be bothered by the noise and desperately wishing someone was there besides me because I was so scared and confused.

If I needed any proof of the bond between Kiefer and me (and by now, I most certainly didn’t), I got it the first time I put him on a down-stay and went upstairs to do something. Stairs, of course, were off-limits for him. He was good most times, but if I took too long … He’d start by whining for me. If that didn’t get my attention, he made the laborious trip up the stairs on three legs, the cumbersome cast dragging along behind. As long as I live, I’ll never forget the sound of his slow, determined footsteps on those carpeted spiral stairs, nor the absolute joy when he reached the top and found me.

I never used the crate and returned it a few days before flying home. And after the cast came off, I had a guide dog with one shaved leg on which the hair was growing back in brown instead of black and the muscles had atrophied.

Never mind. The welcome we got from family was incomparable.

I married my husband Ted the following April. The day after the wedding, I let Kiefer, now fully recovered out into the backyard. Ten minutes later, when I called him back into the house, he came in on three legs. Oh, Kiefer, you didn’t, did you? … Yes, he had, this time on the right side.

The second surgery was so different from the first; no cast, no post-op injections, and he’d done his withdrawal before I brought him home. Again, a complete recovery.

When my husband and I moved into an apartment, Kiefer learned all kinds of new things. I might have seen many things in Ted, but Kiefer saw only one. Now, not only did he have his “mommy,” but he had a “petting machine,” too. Ted swore he’d never feed Kiefer treats. That lasted three days, maybe less. Kiefer discovered that, not only was Ted good for petting, but he could stare at him adoringly, and unlike “mommy,” he’d get carrots or other goodies out of it.

Of course, at an apartment complex, there were plenty of new things to find, like elevators, curbs, cars. I only recall one instance when Kiefer made a mistake. I told him to find the Dumpster, and instead, he made a beeline for my dad’s truck. Either he misheard my command or my dog had a sense of humor.

By the time Kiefer was ten, though his heart was as willing as ever, his body was becoming unable to take the toll of being in harness. Some days, he’d barely be able to get up, and x-rays showed that he had almost no cartilage in his shoulders, so the pressure of the harness was probably excruciating.

I had told Eric at Freedom Guide Dogs that I would need another dog in the spring of 2005, but by late summer 2004, I had to call and say I needed a replacement for Kiefer sooner. Somehow, they managed to find one.

When the new dog, Ecko, arrived, I wondered if Kiefer would get along with him. I shouldn’t have worried. He has retained his position as the first dog, while allowing Ecko to bond with me and take over the daily responsibility of guiding. He’s also taught Ecko that if you sit and stare at my husband long enough without moving, good things can happen (for Kiefer, it’s often a treat, while Ecko gets a romp in the yard).

Another thing that hasn’t changed is Kiefer as my shadow. He still follows me wherever I go, lying behind my chair in my office or under the piano while I teach or at the foot of the bed while I read. In short, wherever I am is where Kiefer wants to be.

Now, he’s teaching me about old dogs. I’ve never had a dog this old. I’m discovering what my vet calls “grandfather’s cough,” unsteady hind legs, fatty cysts that always look like ticks when they first appear, and hair turning silver, then white. He’s slower going up and down the stairs now and would rather stay asleep than take that last walk before bedtime.

Kiefer has taken Ecko under his wing (or should it be paw?), and when we return from trips for recitals in far-off places, he’s delighted to have his buddy and his “mommy” back. He’s allowed Ecko and I to develop our own unique bond and understands that, even if Ecko gets to do all the work he used to do, there’s still more than enough love from me for both of them.

He loves the new-fallen snow, and after burying his nose in it and inhaling deeply until he sneezes, he’ll go on a long, meandering sniff-fest through the yard and might, if he’s not too stiff, even skip around in it a little.

His tail never stops wagging. Even if he doesn’t lift his head from his bed when I walk into the room, his tail starts thumping.

He greets anyone at the door with resounding barks, as if to let them know that they have to pass his inspection before they can come in, and once inside, they must pet him as a kind of toll payment before they can go up- or downstairs.

When I bend over or kneel down to put on my shoes before taking the dogs outside, Kiefer will bury his nose in my hair. And if I’m sitting, not paying enough attention to him or have stopped petting him before he thinks he’s gotten enough, his paw comes up onto my knee. “Aren’t you forgetting something, Mommy?”

He has been an ambassador for dogs in general and guide dogs in particular to countless people. In short, he’s the kind of dog everyone should be blessed with at least once in a lifetime but often miss out on, a dog who has completely stolen my heart and those of my family and friends.

So, on his thirteenth birthday, I wanted to say, “thanks, Kiefer. You’re a good, good dog!”

Christmas Goes to the Dogs

December 26, 2006

I try to do my Christmas gift-giving before Christmas, and my family has perfected the art of the non-purchased gift, believing the present of one’s time and attention is more valuable than anything we could buy.

So, on Christmas, the only ones in our house getting presents were the dogs, Kiefer and Ecko.

Actually, they’d gotten their presents a few days earlier, while staying at my mom’s. But they didn’t get used in our house until yesterday.

My husband will tell you I’m one of the hardest people to get gifts for, and he’s right. I’ve gotten very good at telling the difference between “I need” and “I want,” and if a gift isn’t in the “I need” category, I don’t think about the fact I don’t have it. I like my gifts practical and useful.

I still enjoy the purely pleasurable gift; my students have delighted me with countless CD’s, scented candles, lotions, etc. But I still like a gift that I can use often. This way, I think about the giver each time I’m using it, and they know without a doubt it’s appreciated.

This year, my mom got the dogs blankets. One set is “informal,” for use upstairs or when they stay at her house. The other set, which is white with grand pianos on it, is the “formal” set for use in my teaching studio downstairs.

I was delighted by the gifts first because we needed them. But second, I especially liked the fact that each blanket raises money for Empire Service Dogs, a group that is breeding and training service dogs for disabled people.

Now, Kiefer and Ecko haven’t quite figured out the blankets are theirs yet. After all, they don’t smell like they belong in our house (Ecko says) and they’re not easy to make into a wad and curl up around (according to Kiefer).

Ecko has also decided that, since he’s bigger, he should use both blankets by himself and relegate Kiefer to a cushion on the other side of the room. You know, typical behavior between older and younger siblings who just got really cool Christmas presents from their grandma!