The clock was ticking when I left for music row. My goal was to get in before the morning traffic. It was still dark but the delay had put me in the early stages of rush hour. One accident could now wreck my day.
I prayed for safety. I prayed for Suzie. On a perfect day the trip took twenty minutes. Today would take longer.
After a frantic trip by another studio to pick up the extra gear we needed, I squealed into the parking lot, late. All my preparation time was gone. I hustled into the door to find all of my worries were for nothing. My assistants were brilliant. It was all done!
Except for the gear I’d brought with me, things looked ready to go. I breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe we would make it after all. I handed off the rest of the gear and went to the control room to set up the console. It seemed to have a million buttons when I was in a hurry.
I was just getting organized when the door popped open. The producer, client, and entourage poured noisily in.
“Dennis! How are you? It’s good to see you!” Handshakes all around. Everyone was in a happy mood. Orchestra sessions, unlike most studio operations, were always fun to watch.
“Hi, Marshall!” I answered, shaking hands all around. The clients were here. The show had begun.
“Where were you? I called your house,” the producer whispered as other introductions were going on.
“I had a rough morning,” I dodged. There was no way to explain it now. I would elaborate later. “I’m just about ready.” I offered positively.
This was probably the company’s biggest project of the year. The budget was fixed and this session would hemorrhage money at the slightest delay. He would justifiably be on pins and needles the entire day.
As for myself, I had two jobs. One was to be as efficient as possible. The other was to look absolutely calm for the client. The man who was paying for it all needed to see relaxed professionals who did this every day. I put on my poker face and ignored the adrenaline pumping through my veins.
The rest of the musicians swarmed in and I went out to the studio for small adjustments. I made sure mics were placed, headphones were distributed, chairs arranged and music stand lights were plugged in. I stepped carefully over expensive and irreplaceable instruments strewn about the floor in green felt-lined cases. Each a cherished old friend to its owner.
Ducking bows that were being tensioned and coated with resin, I squeezed through the crowded room. There was a din of warming up and laughter as I greeted people and answered questions about where the sections were seated.
After a week of quiet hospitals and bedrooms, it was an overwhelming cacophony. I worked to focus on the task at hand but every third thought was of home. Once the music began maybe I would settle down.
The apparent chaos quickly came to order a few minutes before ten when the concertmaster played concert A. Quickly they snapped to attention and began to tune in unison. They were now a well-coordinated machine. Some said they were the best in the world, preferring them even to London or Vienna. I only knew they were amazing to hear as notes jumped off the charts and took a life of their own.
Now it was up to me to try to keep up with them.
Before the tape began rolling I had to adjust the balance between the instruments before committing the blend to the master tape. The arranger was conducting in the studio, listening on headphones so it was up to me. If I missed a part the arranger would let me know about it and we would have to do it again. I was always tense until the first playback.
When we listened back, I passed his inspection and things began to settle into a natural rhythm. We moved from one song to the next in assembly-line fashion. Pass out new charts, rehearse sections, record and repeat the process. Soon it became somewhat automatic. As they played, I had time to think.
The more I thought about Suzie’s condition the more worried I got. It seemed more serious than anyone believed. There should have been some improvement after that much time and sleep.
Rewind tape. Hit record.
What if it wasn’t a drug interaction? What else could it be? What could cause a person to have trouble talking? A stroke?
Rewind tape. Change tracks. Hit record.
Her mother had a stroke when she was not much older than Suzie. But no one seemed to think that was it, including the doctor, nurses, and Suzie. I rationalized that I’d done the right thing but it kept nagging at me. I determined to call at the first break to check on her.
We took a break to change arrangers but before I could pick up the phone several string players had occupied all the lines. I took a deep breath and waited. The session started again before I could make a call. I would call her at lunch break which by union rules would be one o’clock.
Our little music factory cranked back up and I was swamped again, cataloging details of take numbers, tracks, instruments and start times.
The phone rang. It was a blessing and a problem at the same time. Suzie knew something was wrong and she needed help. The problem was that she was having trouble expressing herself. Alone with the children, her short, halting answers had been enough. They knew Mommy wasn’t feeling well after the surgery and left her alone to rest. Rebekah and Sandy had asked permission and walked to a friend’s house to play. Billy was watching TV.
Suzie hadn’t called the studio because she didn’t have the energy to fight with the receptionist. They were trained to fend off the tourists, musicians, songwriters, engineers and undiscovered stars that constantly bombard Music Row studios. Girlfriends and wives were relegated even further down the list of unnecessary time wasters. On a good day, it was a struggle to get through. Today, at the first long pause, they would just hang up on her.
Suzie told herself it wasn’t that bad, that she could wait until Dennis got home. But now, as the phone rang, she had a chance to talk to an adult. She grabbed for the receiver.
“Hello, Suzie.” It was Celia, a good family friend. “I wasn’t sure you would answer the phone. Did I wake you?”
“No,” Suzie began. Before she could get another word out, Celia filled in the pause.
“Well, I just wanted to call and check up on you after your surgery. Are you doing okay?”
No, Suzie thought, I’m recovering fine but I’m having trouble talking for some reason. Unfortunately, the answer that came out was, “Yes.”
“I’m so glad,” Celia continued. “We’ve been praying for you. I know you’ll be up and around before long.”
This is not working at all, Suzie thought. The realization that her condition could be serious began to dawn on her. She had to get some help.
“Well, just let me know if there’s anything I can do, anything at all,” Celia continued. “I’ll be happy to help. Are the children giving you a hard time?”
“No.” was what Suzie said. Celia had just asked her if she needed help, and Suzie now understood how desperately she needed it, but her mouth was disobeying her brain. No, the children aren’t a problem, she thought, I CAN’T TALK, that’s the problem! How do I tell someone that I can’t talk over a telephone?
“I’m just glad to hear you are doing fine.” Celia chirped without a pause. “I was just about to head out to the store. Let me know if you need anything. I’ll bring it by.”
“Okay,” Suzie answered automatically. Inside, she was becoming terrified. Her thoughts were buzzing like mad but her mouth just played dumb. Help me! Suzie mentally screamed but the more upset she got the worse her mouth operated.
“Well, I won’t keep you.”
Oh no! Don’t hang up, she thought.
“I know you need your rest.”
I need help NOW, she thought but nothing would come out of her mouth.
“I’ll check on you later to see if you need anything.
Stop! If she could just get a sound out.
Don’t go. Don’t go. Don’t . . .” Click. She was gone.
Suzie slowly lowered the receiver, feeling like a plane had just flown over her deserted island. Help had been so close. Now she was on her own again.
What was wrong with her? It had something to do with the surgery or the drugs, she speculated. It didn’t really matter. The cold paralysis of fear crept in as she realized her helplessness. She couldn’t call anyone if she couldn’t speak, and it seemed to be getting worse.
Before it had seemed reasonable to wait until Dennis got home but now she wasn’t sure. How bad would it get? What about the children?
No, she thought, cutting off the endless possibilities. Panic would do no good. What could she do? She took a deep breath, calmed herself and took stock.
She was in no pain. She was thinking clearly. She felt fine. She just couldn’t talk.
She might get Rebekah to call the studio but could she find the number? Would Bekah be able to get past the phone troll? Probably so. What then? Could she explain her situation to Rebekah? Could she even write a note? She didn’t know.
She was trying hard to pull her thoughts together when the phone rang again. Another chance! She lifted the phone to her ear.
“Hi Sweetie,” a familiar voice said. “We’re just getting started after lunch and I wanted to check on you. Are you okay?” Finally, the right question!
I’d always imagined getting the phone call that would change my life. You know, the one you see on TV where you pick up the phone and a voice says, “This is (insert biggest star in the known universe). I’d like you to (insert your wildest dream) on Monday.”
It’s like imagining your Oscar acceptance speech or planning who to thank when you’re onstage holding your Grammy or mentally spending your imaginary million dollars. What I never imagined, was that I would make the phone call myself.
My preparation had gotten me through the morning session but then came crunch time. After lunch, there was a change of musicians and I had just a few minutes to do what I had taken hours to do that morning. My two assistants helped me shift chairs, move mics, and redistribute headphone boxes without damaging a priceless violin or knocking over a coffee cup. As I ticked through my mental diagram of the changes, everything looked good.
But somehow, I got the distinct feeling that something was wrong.
The concertmaster came back, picked up his violin and my time was up. I went back in the control room to set up a few dozen switches on the console to reflect the changes. Once again it all worked out right, but I knew I’d forgotten something.
The producer, the client, and more musicians poured in as I racked up a fresh roll of tape. The feeling was still nagging at me when the strings started tuning. Charts were passed out, sections were rehearsed, and levels were set when it came to me – Suzie! I had intended to call and check on her during lunch but ran out of time. Now, as everyone was getting ready for the first take, I remembered.
I had maybe sixty seconds to make up my mind before they were ready. On one hand, she was fine when I left her. I should call later. On the other hand, this was her first day alone with the kids since a bilateral mastectomy. I should call now. The indecision made up my mind. I would work faster, I reasoned, if I was focused.
I picked up the phone just as everyone in the studio looked through the floor-to-ceiling control room window for me to start the tape. All eyes were on me. I had no place to hide as I did the unthinkable and started dialing. I was suddenly a fish in an aquarium as I watched the quizzical looks through the large sheet of double glass. I tried to become invisible as the phone rang.
“Hello?” she answered in her I-just-woke-up voice.
“Hi Sweetie,” I started in quickly. “We’re just getting started after lunch and I wanted to check on you. Are you okay?”
“No . . . I . . .” There was a pause, like she was distracted by one of the kids.
“Yes . . . I’m . . . having . . .” then nothing. This wasn’t going as expected. The conductor turned around and stared at me.
“Suzie, is something wrong?”
“Yes . . . I don’t . . . I can’t . . .” I could hear her breathing in the silence.
“Did I wake you up?” The string section was restless.
“No . . . I’m awake . . . I just . . .” she stopped.
“Are you having trouble talking?” I asked, trying to get her to respond.
“Yes”. She answered quickly, but with only one word. Possibilities raced through my mind–all bad.
“Did you take more pain medicine?” I tried, thinking maybe she’d taken too much.
“No, I . . . haven’t taken . . . anything.”
My assistant walked in front of me and mouthed, “They’re ready,” while pointing at the studio, as if I couldn’t see. As the conductor grew impatient, I went into my engineer troubleshooting mode.
“Are you in pain?”
“No.” She sounded sharp and clear.
“Are the kids okay?”
“Yes.” she shot back.
“Do you think you could call the doctor?”
“I called . . . the . . .” Silence. She sounded confused again.
“You called the doctor?” I filled in. “What did he say?”
“They thought . . . thought . . . think . . .” She took a deep breath. “It’s . . . drugs . . .”. She was having difficulty piecing a sentence together.
“They think you’re having a reaction to a drug?” I guessed.
“Yes.” she shot back quickly. Yes or no answers were working, if I could ask the right questions. The producer looked at his watch.
“But you don’t think so?”
“No, I didn’t . . . take anything . . . today.” she answered slowly but definitely. What did that leave, I thought, a stroke? But she wasn’t in any pain.
“Can you move?”
“Yes. I can . . . think. I just . . . can’t . . . aagh!” she finally screamed in absolute frustration. There were still long gaps between her words.
“You can think clearly but you can’t get the words to come out?” I tried.
“Yes!” The whole studio side of the glass was now staring at me, waiting.
“But you don’t know why?”
“No . . . I don’t . . . know.” she haltingly answered.
In the silence, I could hear her quietly crying. She rarely cries. When she does, it’s usually for someone else. I was miles away with a studio full of important people and tens of thousands of dollars depending on me but I knew the question I had to ask. It was the one she had asked me so many years ago. The one I hoped would never come. I took a deep breath.
“Do you need me to come home?”
The producer’s head snapped around in disbelief.
“YES!” she exploded with all the emotion she could express in one word.