The building was crawling with parents and children who had all come to that one place on that one day for an annual event that tests the skills of young pianists like my oldest daughter.
It was our first year there, and we were lost.
Insufficient maps sent us weaving through the building like ants carrying sacrificial bits of sheet music in our hands. Fragments of scales and bits of well-rehearsed compositions floated up from the rooms while everyone waited in crammed hallways for the next child to play.
I had no idea there were so many musically inclined children in all of Washington. “This piano thing is really catching on,” I whispered to Faith as we squeezed our way through jutting elbows and perfumed women and clusters of children who wished they were still in bed.
She nodded anxiously, hugging her red music folder to her chest.
I grabbed her around the shoulders and gave her a squeeze. “It’s going to be fine,” I said, even though I had no idea why room 5B wasn’t next to room 5A and it was very likely she was going to be late to her first event.
“Yep,” she said simply.
She was one brave girl, and I was proud of her. I figured I was the proudest mother of all the proud mothers in that place, and some of those women were acting like the mom of Mozart.
I was not the mom of Mozart, and I knew it. I was the mom of the very worst pianist in that place.
Yep. The very worst.
The night before, and not a moment sooner, I realized how unprepared Faith was for this competition. She sat on her bed, shaking with sobs, and told me all about it. She didn’t have her music memorized. She couldn’t play her classical piece well, even with the music, and the contemporary piece needed so much work, it wouldn’t be ready to play if she had a whole week to practice.
“It can’t be that bad,” I said. “Why don’t you play them for me.”
She did, and it really was that bad.
It was so bad, she couldn’t get through a single line without a mistake or ten. Halfway through the second piece, just when things were getting interesting, she broke down and started crying all over again.
“See?” she said.
I did see. I saw how I had completely failed to help her with her piano. I saw how I had been so distracted by house repairs and a kitchen remodel and all the work involved with moving that I had totally neglected her upcoming piano competition.
In fact, that was the first time I’d listened to her play her pieces. It was the first time I had sat down with her and looked at her music and made sure she was ready. Did I know she was playing a song called Skeleton Bones? Nope. Did I know she had to brush up on her scales and chords because she was going to be tested on them? Nope.
I had totally blown it.
To complicate things, she had blown it too. She had failed to practice even though her teacher reminded her every week. She had rushed through her pieces and hadn’t worked on the tricky parts because the weather has been grand and it’s much more fun to play outside.
And she doesn’t like scales.
“We messed this up,” I admitted.
“I know!” she sobbed. “I feel terrible about it!”
I felt terrible about it too. My daughter’s eyes were red and her face was splotchy and she was crying uncontrollably on her bed because of it. But there wasn’t much that could be done about it with less than twelve hours to go before the competition.
“I think you have two choices,” I told her. “You can stay home, and we’ll try to be better prepared next time, or you can go and do your best.”
She sniffled loudly.
“Unfortunately, your best is not very good right now.” I thought it was best to be honest. “You’re probably going to make a lot of mistakes. You know that. But you can go and play what you can, and maybe you can even learn something.”
Faith nodded. “I think I’ll go,” she said, and promptly started crying again.
“You don’t have to,” I said, secretly hoping she would change her mind. I mean, it was really, really bad. I could just imagine her bursting into tears in front of the judges and suffering permanent psychological damage because of it.
“No, I’m going to go,” she said, letting the tears stream down her face.
It was one of those instances when I wished I could say, “It’s not going to be as bad as you think.”
But I couldn’t say that.
So I hugged her instead and said, “You know, Faith, very few people get to be the best. If you think about it, most people are just average. They’re just okay.
“And every once in a while, you get to be the worst. Every once in awhile, you get to be the person who makes everyone else look good.”
“You’re just going to have to be the best person-who-makes-everyone-else-look-good you can be.”
Faith grinned. “I will.”
The next day, she came out of the first competition and smiled. “Well, that didn’t go very well,” she laughed. “I don’t think I’ll get a ribbon.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“It’s okay,” she shrugged, and I marveled at her, this kid who could mess up with more grace than her mother ever could.
“It was actually kind of fun!”
We went through the day like that, with me waiting in the hallways with other parents, listening to the sounds of perfectly-played pieces and knowing it was not my kid playing those notes. Every once in awhile, a dissonant sound was played, or a child tripped across the keys and fell flat, and all the parents in the hall looked at each other and thought, “I hope that’s not my kid.”
Except for me. I smiled and thought to myself, “Don’t worry, everyone. That’s my girl.”
At the very end of the day, I was allowed to go in with her and listen to her play her final piece. The child right before her was a maestro. His fingers looked like they were made of ivory. Faith leaned over and whispered loudly, “Mom! He’s really good!”
Then it was her turn. She sat down at the bench and began to play, but it wasn’t long before the music was lost and she couldn’t remember what came next. She growled at the keyboard in frustration and punched at keys that were not the right ones.
We’ve gotta work on the growling, I thought.
Deep inside, my stomach flipped. I couldn’t breathe. I thought about my mother-in-law, who paid for all of her lessons, and my sister-in-law who had been teaching Faith for nearly two years. I thought about the mother of another one of my sister-in-law’s students who was sitting in the same room with us listening to my daughter botch the whole thing, and I looked at my daughter who was in serious jeopardy of bursting into tears and I did what most moms would do: I thought about myself.
My failed parenting was shining through loud and clear, and I wanted to sink right into my folding chair.
Just then, Faith managed to finish the piece with one triumphant chord that mostly sounded right. Everyone exhaled and clapped respectfully.
We all stood up. I turned to say something conciliatory to Faith, but she was already running up to the child who played before her. “You played really, really well,” she said to him, her face shining. “I mean, really well. You did a great job.”
The other boy look surprised. He couldn’t say the same thing back to her so he mumbled, “Thank you,” and looked down at his hands. Faith skipped back to my side. “He was so good,” she said.
For the hundredth time that day, I marveled at Faith, a child whose first thought after a performance like that was how well the other kid played, and how much she couldn’t wait to tell him so. She was not proud of her own performance, but she wasn’t ashamed of it either. She knew she had done her best, such as it was, and that was good enough for her.
It certainly was good enough for me, although it stunned me to see something good in her that I find it so lacking in myself.
“I’m proud of you,” I said, “really, super-duper proud of you. I couldn’t be more proud of you if you played all your songs perfectly.”
“Hum!” she sang happily.
“You’re the best person-who-makes-everyone-else-look-good I’ve ever seen.”
“I just wish I knew where you learned it.”
Ah. That explains it.
100 Beautiful Days of Motherhood: 41