Osteogenesis Imperfecta - LIVING WITH BRITTLE BONES - Audrey Ekdahl Davidson

Chapter 10


After retirement, I envisioned teaching on a part-time basis and continuing as I was able to help Matt Steel with the Collegium Musicum. I was not one to be easily defeated, but I found lecturing and dealing with audio equipment to play musical examples to my classes very difficult at this stage in my life. My hearing, originally very sharp (unlike many with OI, type I) but now deteriorating, made it difficult, even with hearing aids, to hear students in class. By the end of a year I found myself exhausted and with severe pain where the bone had more or less disintegrated in my leg and hip. In the previous December, we had managed to attend my sister Lorraine’s funeral at the small Presbyterian church near Spicer, Minnesota, where she had ended her career as an organist, and I even was able to be lifted in my wheelchair up the steps to the condominium that she had shared with her husband Hugo on the shores of Green Lake, at that time of year studded with fish houses on the ice.

It was with the help of my local physician that I made contact with the person who would treat my broken leg at last. Dr. Mundell had Minnesota connections, and located the person he felt would be the best bone surgeon available to do what could not be done locally. This, of course, is when I was referred to Dr. Roby Thompson at the University of Minnesota clinic. My first visit to his office was combined with our last social visit with friends and relatives in Minnesota. We flew on a direct flight from home to Minneapolis, then rented a car. My sister Ione was then confined to a nursing home in Fairmont, where Lucille also still lived with her husband. On the way north, we were even able to stop for a day at the Hill Monastic Manuscript Library, which holds an immense collection of microfilms of medieval manuscripts. At one time I could be helped down the flight of steps to the entrance, but now I had to go through the main library of St. John’s University to have access. Clifford helped me to use the lavatory, and took me to lunch. We were able then to attend Vespers at the great Benedictine abbey church, a striking modernist building, nearby and across from the library. The next day we drove from St. Cloud, where we had stayed overnight, to the house of Clifford’s sister, Rosella Wolvert, south of Brainerd.

Dr. Thompson did not offer serious hope of restoring my mobility, though he believed that I should be more independent with surgery. But he did offer pain reduction as a minimum, and this was enough for me to agree to surgery in the fall. Remarkably, I was well enough then to allow myself to be lifted into the seat in the plane by the airline personnel and to fly by myself to Minneapolis, where I was met by my nephew Hugh Heimdahl and his wife Ginny Averill, who transported me to the University of Minnesota Hospital, where I was well cared for by the staff, friends, and relatives. Clifford, who had kept in close contact by phone with the doctor and the hospital, came toward the end of my stay, and because my leg required careful handling following the hip re-placement, we had to travel in the first class compartment in the plane for our return.

In the difficult time following my hip replacement I worked with a physical therapist, a native of Argentina, who tried to teach me to walk, at first with a walker and then a little without, at home where there was a rug for safety. She was as yet a young woman, but still old enough to have lived through the brutal military dictatorship that had ruled her homeland. As she was assisting me, she told how one evening she had arrived at the street where she lived with her parents to find herself challenged by soldiers, who had blocked off the street. They asked her what she was doing there, and she said, “I live here,” then walked toward the door of her house. They could have detained her, and she could have been among the disappeared or at least among those who had been brutally tortured. As soon as I was able to go out, my physical therapy was continued at Borgess Hospital, where it was not so successful. I was trying to walk when I heard a snap. I suspect I had a hairline fracture where the bone was trying to heal. When in the fall of 1995 I next saw Dr. Thompson, he confirmed again that the bone where he had inserted the prosthesis remained in very poor condition, soft and not actually brittle, but until 2001 there were no further breaks in that area. Emotionally, this was a turbulent time as well, for now I would no longer be able to teach even on a part-time basis, and even personal relations were put at risk by my suppressed anger at my situation - anger which, fortunately, dissipated as I came to accept my situation and fully appreciate my helpers.

There were, however, in addition other physical problems to be encountered. As I have mentioned in an earlier chapter, these included several vertebra compression fractures, beginning in July 1995, which kept me from being able to lie down in bed and thus further separated me from a normal life. Being forced to sit up in my wheelchair with my head supported on a pillow at night inevitably caused edema. My legs swelled, and I had to wear shoes more than two sizes larger than normal for a time. The shoes, even though oversize, also needed to have plenty of stretch to them, so I gravitated to sandals and canvas shoes of the kind that Chinese women often wear. On the times when I had to be rushed to Emergency with breathing or heart problems, we had to argue very hard with the ambulance company to explain that making me lie down on a stretcher would be dangerous since more vertebrae might break up. The condition of my legs improved when Clifford found a solution at a store that specialized in equipment for people with back pain. Made in France, it looked very much like an old-fashioned lawn chair, but was extremely comfortable and adjusted so that I could be very nearly lying down flat. Clifford, sometimes with help from a foreign student staying with us, lifted me into it each night, and the effect on my edema was remarkable, though some permanent damage had been done, as I have explained above.

Our decision to invite foreign students to live with us in recent years has been generally a very happy one. The first was Gosia Sieminska, a ship captain’s daughter from Gdansk, where Solidarity was founded at a church dedicated to St. Birgitta, whose reliquary at Vadstena I have noted above. Gosia is now an engineer working out of Toledo, Ohio. Through her and the others we have met quite a number of other foreign students from East and West, including her friend Wilson Wong from Malaysia - and, delightfully, even his mother and father, who at the time was managing the cafeteria at the Kuala Lumpur zoo. Joining us later was Revathi Murugappan, who had been a professional journalist in Malaysia, and who re-turned in order to study dance, and was on hand to perform in the 2002 production of Daniel in which Clifford was involved. Also from Malaysia is her friend Swee Sin Ng, who has been volun-teering some help in a time of need - help which is much appreciated. Then staying with us at different times were two talented pianists from China, Wenli Zhou, whom I had first met when she was the rehearsal accompanist for the St. Martin’s choir, and Yi Wang.

My work resolved down to being the unpaid director of music at St. Martin of Tours Church, for which I had long ago been honored by the Bishop with the Service Cross. When plans were being made for some expansion of the building, I sent Clifford to see that the organ would be protected and the music program given priority. He found the building committee oddly unable to comprehend the problem with having construction around the area of the organ, but ultimately they agreed to have it moved. The treasurer, a specialist in internal medicine who happened to be my former physician (he had refused to treat my dangerously high blood pressure, and this is when I transferred to Dr. Mundell), was determined to put the changes to be made in the location of the organ and some upgrading of it out for bids. The rector, Father Bill Spaid, even had the audacity to suggest looking into the local incompetent “builder” who had been responsible for making the shoddily constructed instrument that had been lent to the church some years before. We held firm, and Gayle Monette was retained to do the work. Most of the pipes as well as the windchests, blower, and other parts were taken carefully down to a basement room, which was sealed from dust with plastic. Some of the pipes, however, were sent to Gayle in Wisconsin for restoration, and new pipes were also ordered by him from the J. W. Walker organ company in England. Now it was possible to set some things straight that were improvised the first time around. During the interval of the building of the great hall and the expansion by a few feet of the sanctuary, we used an upright piano, about which our tuner commented that it had been “around the world a few times.” I also was able to arrange the choir area the way I wanted it, though I lost the battle on where I desired the organ console to be. I still had the choir sitting and standing in a U-shaped formation on a space of wood floor so that I could see everyone from my wheelchair, and everyone could see me. Music that is made from looking at the page mechanically is in my view not very musical; it needs to be pried free from such dependence and to take on a freedom that makes it live. A musical piece needs to be created anew every time it is performed, and this includes the dynamics. An editor’s dynamic markings may be a guide, but the director needs to shape the piece to make it come alive, as I learned from Malcolm Johns years ago.

One of the disappointments of working with Father Bill is that he became less and less supportive as time went on. Perhaps, and I think he would agree, this had something to do with the way his private life was unfolding. For years, though not every year, I had been scheduling the traditional introits for Advent and Lent, and I also had been writing antiphons to be used with the psalm in the Mass. Suddenly he took a dislike to these, and canceled both in the middle of a Lenten season - so much for his appreciation for my efforts! We had a committee to pick the hymns for each month, and he allowed me free reign with regard to supervising the choices. He never interfered with my choice of anthems, which continued to be limited by the ability of the singers, who nevertheless were capable of doing very well in many ways. They were better at doing chant than the singers in the Society for Old Music, at least until the latter had gone through sufficient training, and they even were exposed from time to time to square-note notation when they might be expected to sing an antiphon, for example, from the Liber Usualis in Latin. When we performed early American hymns and anthems, I eschewed the roughness of the sound of shape-note singing but retained the rhythmic structure which is so important to them. I was always sensitive to the makeup of the choir, and continued to schedule African-American spirituals, which actually I had loved since my childhood in Minnesota. It was an argument with one of the members of the choir over the performance of one of the latter that precipitated my final altercation with the rector, of which more below.

I still had some involvement with the Medieval Institute, particularly with the Congress on Medieval Studies. One year I organized a session, for example, on the lyric and song which would be continued by others in subsequent years. I was always willing to read proposals for papers or to give advice on the choice of evening concerts during the conference. Further, I still was serving as an advisor, though after 1997 unofficially and not as a board member, for the Early Drama, Art, and Music project that Clifford headed in the Medieval Institute.

Hildegard of Bingen remained one of my interests, and my transcriptions of antiphons by her in honor of the Blessed Virgin were published by the Hildegard Publishing Company. I agreed to edit a collection of essays that had initially been read at the Hildegard sessions at the Congress, subsequently published as Wisdom Which Encircles Circles, though the second edition prepared for a different publisher, Peregrina, did not materialize on account of the faltering of that company. Clifford and I reported on our production of the Ordo Virtutum at the New School (now New School University) in New York as part of a larger conference on music by women composers. Together we also wrote the little monograph, previously mentioned, on the Society for Old Music’s music-drama productions, including Hildegard’s Ordo. I contributed reviews of some scholarly music books for the Sixteenth Century Journal. At times when I could not get out to hear the concerts of the Collegium Musicum, Matt Steel brought me tapes (later compact disks) and programs so that I could listen to them at home. When Gayle Monette was dying of terminal cancer, I promised him a composition, Fanfare and Contrapunctus, for his funeral which, though not finished at that time, would later be arranged by Jeremy Ribando. By this time I could only write out the notes with great difficulty, and I used an electronic keyboard as a checker to see that I had got things right. I did not any longer have the strength to play my piano, nor was I able to tune my harpsichord so that I could use that instrument.

At my retirement the University president, Diether Haenicke, himself an authentic academic as more recent presidents have not been, called me to tell me that there would be a named Medallion Scholarship in my name. It was a pleasure to meet and to get to know the recipient of this scholarship, music student Holly Hughes. Matt Steel and Nick Batch, with Clifford’s connivance, assembled a selection of early music that I had transcribed or edited as an unusual sort of Festschrift which they presented to me - and which was a delightful surprise - in the offices of the School of Music. This book, which had been supported in part by President Haenicke’s office, included as an illustration a pencil drawing that my friend Victoria Littna had made of me as a conductor with baton in hand in 1977. As late as 2003 the Collegium dedicated a concert to me and to all those who had performed over the years with the Society for Old Music, which then had recently been disbanded. This concert began with the premiere of my Fanfare, scored, as Jeremy Ribando had designated in arranging the piece for me, for two trumpets and organ. The Fanfare was repeated at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve the same year, when it was adapted for trumpet, oboe, and organ. And, for its December 2003 concert, the Michigan Bach Collegium programmed my “Song to Mary,” which, of course, had been frequently included as an anthem in the liturgy at St. Martin’s at Christmas time.

In 1999 Clifford had my “Song to Mary,” “An Heavenly Song,” and Mass in D, the latter written so long ago for Ralph Baxter’s choir at St. Barnabas Church in Detroit, copied and printed. An ensemble, drawing mainly from the St. Martin of Tours Church choir, was formed to perform the music included in this little private edition at my house for my sixty-ninth birthday. Matt Steel directed the group, and accompaniments were provided by Mary Ross, ’cello, and David DeVries, organist at St. Martin’s. They practiced at the church, so I knew nothing about their plan. People from St. Martin’s and others had been invited to stop by the house for birthday cake, so I was not surprised until Mary came with her instrument and the group of singers assembled. Yet it was not until they began singing the “Song to Mary” that I realized what they were up to. This was followed by the Kyrie from the Mass, “An Heavenly Song,” and then the Agnus Dei.

That was also the year that my friend Margery Selden visited Cuba - a trip which oddly opened a channel of communication that led to the discovery on my part of Pamidronate treatment for OI and my contact with the office of Dr. Henry Bone in Detroit. But, while I was having health problems of a serious sort (an echo exam of my heart showed advanced mitral prolapse) and other difficulties with my physical well-being, I was able to travel by van to church (for a not exactly modest fee) as well as across the state for chemotherapy for my collagen. It had been years since I had been able to be present actually to direct my church choir during services, though I had rehearsed them at home during the whole time. I was unhappy that in the interval they had become unused to my church style, but it was an argument, I am sure misunderstood on all sides, that was used by the rector to organize a crisis. One of the singers objected to a tasteful use of dialect for an African-American spiritual that I had worked out with Musette El-Mohammed, herself an African-American member of my choir. I took the singer’s response as racist, but the ensuing conflict was really unfortunate. During an exhausting return trip by the ambulance company’s mobility van from a Pamidronate treatment in Detroit, I thought seriously about what I wanted to do, and realized that on account of my health and the fact that I was now closing in on the age of seventy, I simply wanted out. The members of the vestry, in spite of prodding by Clifford, never expressed any gratitude for my nearly twenty-five years of service, entirely on a volunteer basis though my credentials would have allowed me to hold a good-paying position at another church. The rector, Father Bill Spaid, apologized, and we accepted his apology. Clifford chose him to be thurifer in the 2002 production of the Play of Daniel, and I think any bad feelings have been smoothed over. I was pleased to learn that he had been appointed to a new position in the diocese, apparently as an assistant to the Bishop, that will surely be more suitable to his personality than had been that of rector of St. Martin of Tours Church. The experience at St. Martin’s, however, made us draw closer to St. Gregory’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery affiliated with the Episcopal Church, at Three Rivers, Michigan, since Abbot Andrew was very kind to me during this period.

My final service at St. Martin’s was on Christmas eve in 1999. My cousin Jim Nyquist, his wife Ruth, and their son David, then a physician in nearby Vicksburg, and his wife Janet as well as my cousin Arloueen Nyman came to the midnight Mass. I programmed for the sequence the lovely anthem “Before the Marvel of This Night” by Carl Schalk. It was a very festive occasion, and actually my tenure at St. Martin’s ended with the spirit of good will that I would have wished after all. In lieu of an honorarium I asked that any amount collected by the church should be given to the Next Door and the Open Door, shelters that give up to several months of lodging to homeless men and women. The amount, for a small church, was substantial. St. Martin’s also had purchased an image of St. Cecilia with a message on it honoring me for my long service. This would be installed in the choir area near the organ. So all is well that ends well, though in retrospect I now see the wisdom of being a paid member of the church staff rather than a volunteer for professional services such as I provided. Kelly Monette, Gayle’s son, still comes to town to service the organ, which was tuned according to a baroque tuning system that no local technician would understand, and Clifford has even held keys while he has tuned in recent years.

My final effort as a scholar was to see that my work on Olivier Messiaen was updated and issued in the form of a book entitled Olivier Messiaen and the Tristan Myth. The main effort had to be to survey more recent scholarship as well as to prune away portions that are appropriate only to a dissertation but not to a study for actual publication. There also was an extensive job of revising and recasting so that the individual chapters are well written and accessible. Permissions needed to be sought for both quotations and musical examples, in the case of quotes from Messiaen’s works from the publishers and his widow, Yvonne Loriod. Fees were usually waived, but for one of the illustrations I had to pay a $125 use fee, ironically for a photo that was not of the highest quality and for a reproduction that in the book also was inferior to what I had hoped to have. Because of my health at the time I was doing this, I could not have done these things without Clifford’s help. Fortunately, the Praeger editor was excited about my proposal as soon as he read it, and he expedited acceptance so that, as noted above, it would be proofread before my terrible accident of 11 September 2001. To be sure, there had been the usual battles with the copy editor. I have only seen one review, in a major journal, but it was highly favorable, for which I am grateful. Perhaps I should feel lucky that Messiaen’s reputation has grown so that he is considered one of the most important composers of the twentieth century. It is a reputation that is fully deserved. As Heinz Werner Zimmermann said of his music already a generation ago in an article that I translated into English, “in Messiaen’s method of constructing melodies, we find a technique of astonishing originality.”

The story of Tristan and Iseult, or Isolde, which is a love triangle, may seem an odd choice of a place to conclude my own story, but it is one of the great myths of the Western world. It is known usually through Wagner’s great opera, which I had the good fortune only once to see, fortuitously in a fine production, with Jon Vickers in the role of Tristan, at the Chicago Lyric Opera. Messiaen’s version, born out of his own tragedy and brought into being by reference to analogues from the “third world,” involves an infinitely more complicated and many-layered approach to the myth. The three compositions in Messiaen’s trilogy - Harawi, Turanga-lîla Symphony, and Cinq rechants - are thoroughly cosmopolitan, even international in scope when we consider the sources of his rhythmic and melodic practice.

As I listen to the songs of birds outside my window, I am reminded of Messiaen’s intense interest in bird songs as he found them wherever they were in their natural habitat. Birds are great symbols of hope, of optimism. For me they are certainly a challenge to the powers of darkness and an invitation to strive instead for the heights. Birds are surely messengers of God, who has been caring for me all my life.

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