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Piano Treasures: The Gift of Hope

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The grand piano, a refurbished Steinway original outfitted with a brushed bronze soundboard, lies in wait for the pianist's touch on its ivory keys. Pianoforte, the variation of sound from quiet to loud, is set in motion almost instantaneously as steel strings tautly attached to felt-covered hammers feel the vibration. One could imagine the sound but today the piano is silent, the keyboard locked shut, hidden behind a dusty cover.

There are 20 of us volunteering today at the NYC Ronald McDonald House, spring cleaning in shifts the common spaces that comprise the living area. We are on "ledges and edges" duty, as assigned by Mel Farrell, the House's long-standing building engineer, a native New Yorker hailing from the Western region of Ireland.

Drawn to it almost immediately, the grand piano becomes my pet project, conjuring childhood memories of uprights and metronomes, black and white keys, music sheets scattered on the floor... the curve of the wood, the grain swirling in light and dark hues, my unrequited love for music stirs and I wonder if it's not too late for me to learn. Patrick Lenz, the director of human resources and volunteer development, described its constant presence as a throwback to a childhood filled with piano lessons, offering the possibility of learning and hope.

The dust beckons; crouching beneath the piano, I am Michelangelo, only different, armed with a can of Pledge and a roll of paper towels; the soundboard, a series of criss-crossed blond wood, slats my Sistine Chapel. Four feet beneath the Steinway, priming a paper towel with lemon-scented polish, I reach inward and graze something not wood, something metal, something paper. My fingers grab a hold of prayer books and rosaries, St. Peregrine medals, and inspirational tokens. I've unwittingly discovered the secret treasures of the House Guests, safely stowed within the heart of the piano. Gingerly I wipe the surface clear of dust and replace the totems to their sacred space.

The piano abuts a periwinkle gray wall trimmed in white, at the foot of a wide staircase. The bench is a dark wood with a soft chocolate tufted leather cushion. The floral carpet underneath is a tight woven pile and feels solid under my back. I can see myself as a child disappearing from view with my imaginary friend, dreaming, and wonder if the Ronald McDonald children do the same, using the piano as their own gateway to anywhere but here.

As if I'd spoken my thoughts out loud, a young girl pops underneath the piano. She is giggling and thrusts newly painted fingernails in a shade of metallic pink into my view. Maya speaks to me in broken English and Czech (?), asking me for my fingers so she can paint them too. I shake my head, showing her latex-gloved hands, she smiles and dashes off. Ashlynn takes her place when I am not looking, sitting Indian-style to my left. Maya and Ashlynn are the same ages as my nieces, Charlotte and Alexandra. They are both residents of Ronald McDonald House, patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Maya and Ashlynn have peach fuzz hair and sallow skin, remnants from chemotherapy, yet are vibrantly energetic teeming with youth.

"Isn't this grand piano beautiful?" I say.

Ashlynn nods and replies, "My friend and I come here sometimes. We hide, and save some things for later."

She reaches into the piano and pulls out a prayer book.

Maya returns carrying a plastic bowl filled with soapy water, and says, "For you!"

I look at her quizzically, unfurl myself from underneath and reach for the bowl.

"What's that for?" Ashlynn asks.

"A manicure, I think..." I say.

Maya laughs and leans forward, smiling at both of us.

A sign of acknowledgement passes between the two girls.

We sit in silence for a minute or two before their parents arrive, a mother, a father, each collecting their daughter. They are gone as quickly as they have appeared, like ghosts, like angels.

I continue cleaning, moving from beneath the piano to the topside. I prop open the lid at its 45-degree angle, surveying the layer of dust on the brushed bronze interior. Like any large piece of furniture cleaning the piano requires patience, there are so many parts to consider from the lid to the keyboard cover to the sheet music holder to the pedals. All around my co-workers, and fellow volunteers clean the dust away from the couches, chairs, coffee tables and bookcases in the Macy's Living Room, while families walk in and out, mothers and daughters try on cocktail dresses and ball gowns, high-heeled shoes with sequins and bows.

***

Neuroblastoma, is a type of children's cancer "popular" with guests at Ronald McDonald and does not discriminate against age. Patrick mentioned that children who come to the House treated for neuroblastoma can be as young as 2 weeks or as old as twenty-two. I am surprised by my emotional resilience to this nugget of information and the stoicism is unnerving. I've lived their reality, albeit in reverse -- my mom was diagnosed with terminal cancer 11 years ago. It's something I've never quite gotten over. Cancer's effect on the human soul is not a new thing but it is a haunting one. I can't fathom the antithesis of my experience, of children predeceasing their parents.

Despite all that, the Ronald McDonald House provides a happy place for children and their families. Recognizable by its lively painted murals, brightly colored walls, and a daily recreational schedule filled with karate, singing, arts and crafts. There is a heavy focus on bringing the cultural opportunities of New York to the children. A surprising contribution? The House is on the path of the 3,000 mile migration of Monarch butterflies to the mountains of Mexico. Richard Stadin, a volunteer and butterfly enthusiast, hosts an annual miracle of migration event at the House's butterfly garden where the children help tag butterflies on their voyage from North America to Central America. The children learn about geography and insects, interacting and witnessing nature at work.