Consider that at the very moment I set out for the Menlo Park Veterans Affairs Hospital…I was thinking about serious things, like commitment. You know, like doing things properly, all the way, which includes getting there…wherever ‘there’ is…on time. I had cut it rather thin on the promptness side. Having dawdled away the morning. Well, not quite all of it, but enough of it to shave down the time I was supposed to commit to my short story. Which got short shrift, the short story did, ‘forcing me’ to dash about at the last moment, shoving lunch in my face, then rolling aboard the van. And, it must be noted in passing, the essential quality of this spring day. Bright and seasonal as it should be. Promising rain clouds drifting about the sky. Almost warm, but not inappropriately warm. Right on the cusp of April, the cruelest month.
The hospital in our fair burg deals with those psychologically crippled in war or in life. Which by the way, is an interesting thing about the nation’s system of health care for veterans. You would think that the VA hospitals never existed, the way people carry on about the glories of private health care. Never mind, there it is, and it’s not just for people who have seen combat. It is for anyone who has spent time in the military. Full stop.
Which is what happens several times along the way of course, traffic lights being what they are. And, yes, I am parking in front of Building 360 a bit later than intended. Not to worry. The Menlo Park Chorus invariably arrives a bit late to these, our charitable doings in the community. Still, something looks terribly wrong as a roll up to the building foyer. No one, absolutely no one, is here.
An almost reflexive self berating, coupled with despair, sets in. I could roll around at this rather expansive ground floor hospital…up one wing and down the other…or I could just give up and go home. After all, I am late. Furthermore, there have been a series of confusing emails from chorus organizers regarding the location. There are, after all, two VA hospitals in adjoining suburbs. And, checking my iPhone calendar, damned if I don’t see an entry for the other one. Of course, I’m almost certain that the recent emails corrected this. I think I’ve got the right location. But I don’t care. Late is late. And I could be wrong, couldn’t I? Back outside, I open up my van and happily roll up the ramp…just as another chorister strolls by, wearing her Menlo Park Chorus T-shirt.
We proceed inside, and naturally, there’s no sign of any chorus anywhere. We try the Alaska Ward, then the Brione Ward, and onto the California Ward, and, yes, even the Delta Ward. Which I decide is enough but, no, the woman from the alto section isn’t giving up. She checks her iPhone, reassures me that this is the right place. And damned if we don’t find everyone slightly down the alphabet in the Forest Ward.
The chorus is having a go at a song setting of a Robert Frost poem. The song seems ill-conceived to me, but I’m hardly in a position to quibble, waiting patiently by the nurses station. At the conclusion, I roll into place in the bass section and have a go at ‘Up, Up And Away.’
Now that I am actually singing, or providing a reasonable facsimile, I’m not only cringing with general embarrassment over my lateness – but moment by moment, note by note, cringing at my lack of musicality. Bass being quite a misnomer for much of what my section is obliged to sing. Anyway, I can’t hit many of the high notes. Which is because I haven’t hit the score with sufficient frequency. A reminder that the only thing bass here is my abased self.
Our audience applauds. They consist of an old and very thin black woman, bent alarmingly in her wheelchair, a jaunty hat having slid over her face, so that one cannot tell if she is listening, seeing, let alone enjoying, the proceedings. A man who looks like Mark Twain’s brother sits beside her in another wheelchair, saying ‘wonderful’ throughout our songs, rarely between them. An old black man wears a hat that says U.S. Navy, smiling occasionally, and generally part of things. A very distressed middle-aged Filipino man stares at us hard, as though expecting something other than songs to emanate.
As for the latter, I bumble my way through the repertoire. A missed entrance here. A forgotten repeat there. With one song, a bass solo appears at the bottom of a page…which for some reason keeps throwing me. I miss the entire line of music, and not once, but three times.
For we go through this concert on three different wards. Most of the hospital’s patients are old. Which, upon reflection, is probably because they are residents here, inpatients. I can’t imagine living out my days this way. Which is utterly untrue, for I lived out six months of my days precisely this way.
Being no stranger to hospitals, it’s easy to find the toilet. Better do this before I drive home. The door is labeled Women, but none are inside, and there is only one toilet anyway, so what is there to do but lock the door? Strangely, there seems no way to do this. On the way out, I discover why. The door is locked. I can’t get out. This is, after all, a psychiatric ward, and strange practices apply. And practice remains on my mind, even after a nurse gives me a tongue lashing for using the women’s loo. Practice makes perfect, even for those who can’t really sing. Practice and, I remind myself, just turning up.