Rebecca Raney - The Reckless Violinist

Saving My Son: Yes! Learning the Violin Played a Big Role

Published over 1 year ago • 3 min read

Did you see that woman at the airport, screaming from the top of the escalator?

“Get up! Please! You’ve got to get on this plane! Please! Please!”

That woman was me, of course. I was panicked and pleading with my child, after having tried every trick in the book to get him on an aircraft.

My husband and I were taking him to a clinic to start a potentially life-altering medical treatment.

He had dropped to the ground and would not move.

I look back at that moment, when I panicked in the airport, and I think back to late 2020, when I had a different complaint.

What was the problem then? My life was too easy.

I had spent months in hard lockdown to protect my son, whose medical condition was iffy but undiagnosed. I had not set foot in an indoor space outside my home since March 2020.

I needed a challenge. A big challenge.

I got that challenge when I decided to play the violin again. At times, it brought me to tears, the frustration of no longer being able to play pieces that I had mastered in my teens.

Then, after 10 months, I started to feel the sense of mastery again.

At the time, I did not know that a bigger ordeal was ahead.

This time, it had nothing to do with music. It had to do with my son.

During the lockdown, he developed a glandular tumor. A biopsy indicated that it was benign, but the doctors said that they wouldn’t know for sure until it was removed. They cautioned that it could be an aggressive cancer that would leave us with no more than five years with him.

After a five-hour surgery, we got great news: The tests for malignancy came back negative.

Then, of course, the ordeal intensified.

Doctors also did genetic testing, which revealed terrible news: He has a devastating underlying medical condition that could produce more tumors. One in four patients with this disease die by their early 20s. He is 15.

Then the ordeal intensified again.

We learned about a promising treatment that was being tested in a clinical trial.

The catch: We would have to fly to the East Coast dozens of times to participate.

What’s the problem, you ask? Well, my son is a child who will not fly. In 2016, the last time we tried to fly, he started shrieking in the airport terminal, and we had to turn around and go home. We never tried to travel again.

To save my child, I had to get him to do the thing he would not do.

I reminded myself that I had been through another ordeal recently – an ordeal that I chose. I had suffered with my violin, and I had failed, and I had kept going until I passed the test.

In the end, I thought, I might not be able to get the child on a plane. But I’ve got the chops to try.

The approach: I would use the same meticulous process that I apply to tearing down a passage of Mozart. I would crack this code.

We embarked on a “summer of novel experiences,” in which I introduced the child to new things to prepare him for air travel. We went to malls. We went to plays. We tried new restaurants. We hit the beach.

We tried all kinds of things that typically make him uncomfortable.

The culmination point: A trip to the DMV -- without an appointment. And you know what? He didn’t like our time at the DMV. He yelled. He complained. He wandered around. But he did not flee. He got through it. The experience trained me to have the faith that if we try something difficult, we might just get through it.

* * *

When we got to the airport for that first trip in August, my husband and I had shown my son pictures of the process of air travel. We had extensively discussed how to move through the airport and wait to board the plane. We had prepared him for everything – except for the escalator. He took one look at the contraption and dropped to the ground.

Two police officers spotted him from across the terminal. One of them yelled, “Hey! You want to see our elevator?”

Are you kidding? My son loves elevators! They jogged over to him, swept him up in momentum and got him onto the elevator and into the security area.

The TSA whisked him through the process quickly and painlessly. Then, when we got to the gate, the agents for Southwest Airlines not only arranged for us to board the plane first; they GOT THE PILOT TO WALK HIM DOWN THE JETWAY.

Right now, we’re preparing for our third trip to the East Coast. My son has been taking the trial drug for two months and has suffered no ill effects.

I’m telling myself a new story: I should not be surprised that we survived the ordeal.

After all, last year, I learned how to play the violin again. I mastered a difficult skill, and I reflected on how that sense of mastery has affected my goals from the time I was in my teens.

Playing the violin turned me into a person who could pull off the impossible.

Here’s what I thought in my teens, and what I think now: If I can play the violin, then I can do anything.

* * *

I’m still not ready to tackle the Mendelssohn violin concerto, but here’s a new video about my warmup routine.

I thought I had made up this routine in 2021. Then my memory kicked in, and I realized that this was the warmup I had been using for 40 years!

Yes -- it all came back.

Rebecca Raney - The Reckless Violinist

Respectable journalist. Terrible waitress. Reckless Violinist. Noir novelist. Longtime contributor at The New York Times. Sign up to follow my cross-platform project about money, merit and music in the turmoil of America.

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