Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Piano lessons

James Stemmle
West Virginia, United States

Piano lessons watercolor by James Stemmle
Watercolor by author.

The piano teacher was angry, irritable, incontinent, and in pain. Dying of cancer, she eventually went home with hospice care.

The hospice lady asked, “What would a good day look like?” They rigged things in her home to live at least one good day: a bed on the first floor and just enough pain medication to remain lucid, independent, dignified.

A couple of days into this new normal, her ambition returned. A good day must entail teaching. They called her students to see if they would like to resume lessons from a piano teacher who was dying to teach. Four weeks of extraordinary lessons culminated in a recital. Every student who played Brahms or Beethoven got a hug with a whispered you are special and a little gift from the teacher.

At least one student, the daughter of the physician who is telling this story, went on to music school. But all of them saw beauty: a woman who was dying well.





JAMES T. STEMMLE is an old man, currently living retirement in WV with his wife. In warm weather, he writes poetry during quiet morning meditations in his backyard. He had a federal government career mostly with the EPA, earned a doctorate from Catholic U in Chemistry, and was born in Louisville, KY. He is eager to share some of his accumulating poetry, currently enough to fill seven one-inch binders and part of the eighth.


Winter 2022  |  Sections  |  End of Life

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