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Crossing the Rubicon

Updated: Jul 10, 2019

The day started off well: a clean white shirt for the hospital, and a new set of pieces to play on their lovely Steinway in the lobby. At the start of each season, I generally switch from Mozart (Autumn) to Chopin (Winter) to Beethoven (Spring) to Bach (Summer), so on this first Wednesday after the Summer Solstice it was time for Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier. By the end of my two-hour slot, I was running out of pieces, and actually tried to sightread two of the early fugues (C major and C minor), a decision based on two unsound principles: first, that if John Lewis from the Modern Jazz Quartet could play them then I could, and second, that nobody was listening anyway. This was probably the bravest musical thing I've done since trying to narrate Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire" in my own translation with members of the Columbus Symphony Orchestra (the page turner later told me that the pianist instructed her to pay no attention to the soloist and watch for her nod). Returning home exhausted, I entered the 4-digit alarm code and pressed "STAY" instead of "OFF," so that the alarm still beeped softly. And then all hell broke loose.


Something about the warning beeps building inevitably to the klaxon sound that I knew was coming put me off my stride, and I lost the muscle memory of the code. I had entered those four particular digits so often that the dirt from my fingerprints now gave any prospective burglar a 1 in 24 chance of guessing the code right the first time. And now I couldn't do it, and the alarm went off with the vengeance of Elektra, and Olive started to whimper in my arms, and I tried several other likely codes without success, called my wife, and entered the last four digits of my Social Security Number in a vain effort to stem the sonic tide. The landline rang, as I knew it would (it's pretty much the only reason we have one), and I reached to pick it up with the hand that wasn't holding the dog or the cell phone and knocked the green bowl off the phone table, which broke, leaving potpourri all over the floor. I told the lady from ADT on the other end of the line that I had forgotten my code, which must not have sounded terribly likely (I tend not to be convincing under pressure, especially with authority figures). I gave her the emergency code word with some confidence, and she told me that it was wrong. Sophie answered my cell phone (I must have dialed her instead) and gave me the alarm code (she's a computer expert), which I entered thankfully, at the same time shouting the correct five-letter safe word to the lady from ADT, which was vaguely related to the one I had thought it was. Crisis over.


Janette glued the bowl back when she came home, but not before putting me through some tests to see if I had had a stroke. Touch your fingers to your nose, stand on one leg, stand on the other. Muscle memory can go at any time, but there were too many dropped stitches in this moment to ignore. Calling Sophie instead of Janette. Getting the five-letter safe word slightly wrong. Switching the 4-digit code in my mind. Having something automatically retrievable sink through the floor. The phrase, of course, is Jordan Peele's: I now realize that Get Out is about Alzheimer's. (So, come to think of it, is Us - but then all zombie movies are.) When you are crossing a Rubicon, and the transition from the workforce to the state of retirement is as wide a river as any, you must do so without looking back. George Washington knew this, or at least Emanuel Leutze did. And there will be moments when you feel the land slipping away. But with luck and a little help from your friends, you will get to the other side.


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©2019 by Sebastian Knowles