Debra Rienstra


I’ve played dozens of symphonies over the years, and they’re all exhausting, even for us violists. Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Rachmaninoff, Mahler—performing any symphony composed after 1800 demands a massive feat of collective human skill. The first movement requires alertness and poise, but then comes the second movement, usually a pensive andante or largo, to test everyone’s concentration and physical endurance. It must be precise, exquisite, cantabile. Then the third movement, likely a tricky scherzo. Count! Remember the repeats. When you repeat the A section, no repeats. Listen. Watch. And then you hit the fourth movement, like the last hard miles of a long run. If you play violin or viola, your shoulder is already tired. In the pause between movements, you give your strings a quick wipe with a cloth, but they’re still gummed with rosin. The index finger on your bow hand aches. Never mind. Relax the wrist, hear the first measures in your mind before the downbeat. Bow on string. Go.

You have to dig deep and find the strength.

Andante maestoso

Today we came to visit in the late afternoon and Dad answered the door with his penis hanging out of his pajama fly. I suppose with his frequent urination issues, it’s handier to keep the thing out and at the ready. Anyway, there we all stood. How to resolve this situation without humiliating an eighty-five-year-old man? I did not mention it. I looked away.

Dad shuffles, forgets. He’s fallen a few times, nothing serious. Mom doesn’t dare leave him alone. She’s trapped.

At the end of life, things get cloudier, you backslide. You think more slowly, find it harder to make simple decisions. Small matters seem huge.

I have been watching this happen to Mom and Dad for months now, Dad’s body and mind weakening, Mom getting more irrational and fearful. Dad is not quite bad enough to need outside care, but he is increasingly difficult to manage for Mom. She is fighting it, surprised and resentful at what is happening to her. She can still make her weekly visits to Lori the hairdresser and she can assemble her fashionable outfits, but the rest she can’t control.

Every day is a new question. When does the slow slide become the sudden drop? How do I help my parents get old?

The last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 may be matchlessly exhilarating for an audience, but for the orchestra, it’s an acceleration into madness. Nothing is too over-the-top for Tchaikovsky. After that majestic opening theme, a regal procession, the music thickens and accelerates, the themes piling together, tumbling over modulations. It goes on and on. Louder! Faster! Furious fragments of scales turning odd corners around every measure. Huge, chunky chords. Finger-tangling diddles in the strings over brass madly blatting. More scales. Fortissimo! Presto! Gigantic chords! The orchestra freezes for a fraction of second while the sound reverberates into silence. Breath held. The audience leaps to their feet and applauds.

Allegro vivace

Dad fell again. This time, Mom couldn’t get him up. He lay crumpled on the bathroom floor. I insisted she call 911, then rushed over in time to meet the cheerful, reassuring EMTs. Picking up old guys is routine for them.

Hours in the ER. Dehydration, bronchitis, fever. He’s confused, delirious. Now what?

Several days in the hospital, three difficult weeks in rehab at the nursing home. The staff seem doubtful about bringing him home. You can try it, they say. See what happens.

Mom losing weight. More doctor appointments.

Things are falling apart too fast. There’s no clear path through this.

Around three today I called Mom to check in. They were OK, but bored, she said. And what would they have for dinner? Shirley was going to bring them food from Mr. Burger, but what would they have? Big drama.

I am caring for remnants of people I love. I don’t want to deal with all this, but I must. I don’t know how to do it, but I must.

Beethoven is famous for having reinvented the coda. Coda means “tail,” and in the eighteenth century, that’s usually what it was: a quick tag of an ending hanging off a compositional structure otherwise complete without it. Endings were simple, quick, clean. For Beethoven, with his tireless inventiveness, the coda became another place to develop ideas, fiddle around, worry a theme in a different format or related key, a place for “new questionings,” as James Webster suggests.[1] Symphony No. 3, for example, is a watershed in music history for its length, complexity, and experimentation with form and tonality. The first movement alone is full of innovations. The opening theme in E♭ major veers off toward an ambiguous C# already in bar 7. Pleasantly melodic motifs coalesce into syncopated, pulsing chords. About 125 measures into the development section, the orchestra grinds into a progression of chords so clashingly dissonant, the audience at the 1805 premier was shocked and offended.

The coda of the first movement also exemplifies Beethoven’s new approach, following the recapitulation section with 139 measures of further fussing. Musicologists debate whether or not these longer codas are somehow essential to the form. Is it still an afterthought, structurally speaking? Or in the coda, can we find, as Joseph Kerman proposes, thematic completion, final recapitulation, harmonic resolution?[2] We want so badly for endings, however complicated, to fit. We want everything to fall together into one sensible whole.

Poco piu animato

They spend their days looking around the house worrying about dispersing their stuff before moving to assisted living. “One thing at a time,” I keep telling them. They accept this for a moment, but we quickly go back to the worries: what do we do with the tools and paints, can we take this chair, should we put the books in a box? Going through a closet with my mom, I am astonished by how many jackets she has managed to acquire. And the purses! I knew she had a lot of clothes, but now that I have to manage it all, it seems ridiculous.

I think she sees this, too. Today she said, about moving out, “The sooner the better,” and “They’re just things. We’ve enjoyed them.”

Mom used to hire a professional decorator. Her home was a stylish place to entertain. After four decades of arranging and dusting and buying and enjoying, she no longer cares about any of it. Leave it behind. Dad, for no discernible reason, wants to take along a drawerful of batteries.

Five days at their new place, and no improvement. The food isn’t good, the TV channels aren’t right, they’re bored, they don’t sleep well, the residents aren’t alert.

What can I do about it? Nothing.

When I left them today, Mom thanked me as always. Dad, too, seemed very grateful. He called me a “devoted daughter.” Never heard that one before. I’ve heard “ungrateful” and “naïve.” Never “devoted.”

Mom bitches and worries. I’ve never seen her like this, at least not so exclusively. She’s still recovering from her surgery, but more than that, she’s chronically dying. They both are.

Mom said a week ago, in a tone of pity, “You’re going to lose your mother.” But I already have. I can’t mourn her because I’m busy trying to look after the mother I have left.

From The New Harvard Dictionary of Music: A coda is “a concluding section extraneous to the form as usually defined; any concluding passage that can be understood as occurring after the structural conclusion of a work and that serves as a formal closing gesture.”

Post-Beethoven, codas alter the themes of the music one last time. A frenzied rush, a nostalgic sigh, an odd peroration into new material—a folk dance or adagio lament. To get to the end we need an alteration. Otherwise the piece ends too abruptly, with mere repetition and no reflection. A tag may have been enough for the crystalline classical symphony, but for the grand modern symphony, closure requires digression and change.

How does a composer construct such a coda? At some point in the process, it must seem like a mess, a cluster of deconstructed musical themes and possibilities scattered on the staff paper. How do you know when it all fits, when it’s finished? Does it feel, for a while, as if the whole symphony is just spinning apart into disconnected fragments?

Tempo I

Today Dad said, “You know, I was thinking, we should just go live at home and go out to restaurants for our meals. It’s so nice at home.” He was serious.

“Dad,” I said, “you need the care you’re getting here. You couldn’t possibly get out to restaurants two or three times a day.”

Mom just ignored all this.

Dad can barely move. He tried to sign his name on a form; it was a vague scrawl. His hearing is worse. Mom is slipping too, partly because this is hard on her.

Today Dad said, out of nowhere, “I hope we go out gracefully.”

Mom responded loudly, so he could hear, “Out of where?”

“Here. This world.”

My early musical training on the piano and viola included only basic music theory. I never learned to analyze harmonic progressions. I can tell you what key a piece is in based on the key signature, but music doesn’t stay put in one key. Once we start moving around to relative minors or subdominants, I’m lost. Likewise, I know about the sonata form fundamental to symphonies, concertos, sonatas, string quartets, almost anything classical. I know that we begin with exposition, then move to development, then to recapitulation, then (often enough) to a coda. But inside that structure, I can barely map my way.

When I play in an orchestra, I just follow the notes, measure by measure, line by line. Keep counting. Attend to what’s next. Violas rarely play the melodic lines atop the orchestra’s sound. We mostly fill in the middle, shaping harmonic currents, providing rhythmic texture. So I just do my job, dwelling within the architecture of the music, only dimly understanding it. Like wandering in a cathedral with terms like “apse” and “clerestory” in your mind, not knowing where those labels affix.

Poco meno mosso

Dad less and less present. Every bodily need a major ordeal. Humiliation. You eat what they put before you. Or don’t. Dad can barely transfer from chair to chair. He needs someone to pull down his pants and pull them up again when he uses the bathroom. His breathing is labored. He does not remember what he or you just said. He is withdrawing to some place of silence beyond the margin of this frantic world.

Sitting with them at dinner, I listened as the four other people at the table—Mom, Dad, Louann, and Chuck—discussed what they had for lunch. None of them remembered. They remarked on the food at hand—no one was a fan, but the soup and cake were both good. Then someone brought up money and they all fretted about who takes care of their money. Could they trust the residence that billed them, or the relative who paid the bill? Neither, entirely. But what could they do?

Louann’s sister would be coming Monday from the hospital to the rehab unit. Her children wouldn’t be visiting. They never saw their mother. Wasn’t that terrible?

“Honor thy father and mother is the commandment.”

“I can’t imagine.”

“I would see my mother no matter what.”

“Two sisters of mine were divorced and I still don’t understand it.”

“Some of us cry for our husbands every day.”

“How long was Sylvia sick before she died?”

“Six or seven years.”

“But the last two were the worst?”


“Crying won’t bring them back.”


They follow the schedule. They eat what’s put before them. They wait.

For what? The inevitable.

From The New Grove Dictionary: “Save for the functions of expansion … and ‘peroration’ …, the structural significance of codas is not well understood.”[3] While playing a symphony for the first time, you don’t know how many more pages it will take to get to the end, even if you know the music in your ear. Focused on the page, you just keep playing, keep turning each page when you reach the bottom. Codas themselves, especially in last movements, can take up many lines, even several pages if they involve festivals of scales, numerous tempo changes, or other twists and turns. Eventually, you will get to the end of the piece. Eventually it will make sense. Meanwhile, just keep playing.

Molto vivace

Mom and I keep reassuring each other we did the right thing. After examining Dad, the nursing home doctor—God bless him forever—told Mom directly and emphatically: “Don’t feel guilty. You did the right thing.”

Dad did not get angry, as we feared; he wilted into compliance. I had promised him that the nursing home staff remembered him from his weeks in rehab last year, and they fully delivered on that promise. The moment we arrived, a bevy of staff people—all middle-aged women—welcomed him. “We’re so glad you’re here,” they cooed.

All the anguish leading up to that moment and then such kindness. I nearly burst into tears.

Dad seemed defeated for the rest of the day. He didn’t understand what was happening, yet he did. He looked so weak in the wheelchair, head drooping, hunched over. He wanted to sleep all the time. No turning back now. No more fight.

I think of Jesus telling Peter: “Someday others will wrap a belt around your waist and take you where you do not want to go.”

According to Mom, Dad has taken up “sobbing” all the time about being there. By which she means “complaining.” I don’t like it here, he says to her. Why can’t you sleep here with me, why can’t you take care of me, I can walk fine, something funny is going on.

Mom’s world contracts again, two rooms to one. Yesterday as we moved her into her little apartment adjacent to the nursing home, she commented frequently on how there was no room for her stuff, mostly her clothes. I found in her closet back at Covenant Village probably a hundred hangers. One hundred empty hangers. We took them all along, because what else could I do? I put them in boxes. Now they’re in her storage unit on the second floor.

In drama, a denouement. Necessary, though post-climactic. Fortinbras arriving on the scene. We haven’t cared about him, but now we need him. Hamlet is dead, and someone has to clean up the mess, arrange the funerals, take over the governance of Denmark. In Lear, a failed coda. Edgar does not want to take over the shattered kingdom. “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” No reiteration of themes or humorous variation or big flourish. Fragments come to rest where they lie. Bewilderment, desperate sadness.

Moderato assai e molto maestoso

Dad’s roommate, whose name was John, died in the night. Just slipped away. His widow, a frail little woman who lives in an apartment near Mom, told Mom that she had nothing for John to wear in the casket. All their possessions are still in their home, which they vacated in haste, and which is now closed off by the heavy snow. It seems they have no children, at least nearby, to help them. I suppose in such circumstances, the funeral home will loan them something. No, not loan: donate.

“It’s a blessing,” Mom said about John’s death. He was more than ready, a shell taking labored, rattling breaths. When I was visiting Dad last Saturday, John was asleep in bed, curled up like a dried leaf. We ignored him.

We’re told he was a veteran, a marine. Imagine him young and hale in 1945. Now imagine him this week, alone, lifted over the threshold by death’s slightest breath. “He was a Christian,” my mom remarked. “It’s all right,” is what she meant.

I am beginning to understand why John Donne wrote, in his final sermon, “Death’s Duel,” that the way we leave this life does not determine the value or quality of our living. People die in all sorts of meaningless ways, ways that have nothing to do with the way they lived. Accidents, diseases, at the wrong time and place. Comically, tragically, stupidly. By violence. Therefore, Donne writes,

make no ill conclusion upon sudden death nor upon distempers neither, though perchance accompanied with some words of diffidence and distrust in the mercies of God. The tree lies as it falls, it is true, but it is not the last stroke that fells the tree, nor the last word nor gasp that qualifies the soul. Still pray we for a peaceable life against violent death, and for time of repentance against sudden death, and for sober and modest assurance against distempered and diffident death, but never make ill conclusions upon persons overtaken with such deaths; Domini Domini sunt exitus mortis, to God the Lord belong the issues of death.[4]

Even the preacher who dies in the pulpit (which Donne nearly did), or the scholar at her desk or the climber on the trail—it may be poetic, but it doesn’t sum up the whole life. Nothing does that, not even an excellent biography. Though that may be better than nothing. Or maybe worse. It depends. In any case, the end of the story sometimes does not fit the story. At least, not without some gesture of gentle artifice.


A dream: I am standing at a kind of indoor crossroads. Cars, as on a Disney ride, come around a corner. They come one at a time, slowly. I am waiting for the car with my father in it. As I imagine him, he’s not at all like my real father—younger, darker. I am anxious. I want to greet him and I know I’ll only have a moment—the cars move on. A few others are waiting for their own. I don’t even know what I want to say to him. It’s too late anyway—he’s dead. The cars carry the dead. Then the cars start coming faster, carrying individuals and whole families, one after the other. Others are waiting, too, and asking me things; they want my help. “Where do I go?” I don’t know! I’m just waiting for my dad. Old women in wheelchairs. They crowd me, as if I am Odysseus at the trench of blood in the underworld. The alarm goes off and I wake up panicked.

Dad is much worse. His eyes barely open. He doesn’t register when he looks at you. He moans all the time, a low, shuddering plea for “heeeeelp.” He doesn’t even know what he wants. He’s just dying, that’s all. Probably not imminently. Chronic dying. His motor coordination continues to deteriorate. He could barely lift a cookie to his mouth. Couldn’t find his mouth.

He never wanted to leave his home. He wanted to die there. Maybe we should never have called 911 the night this whole slide began—when was it? Three years ago.

In liturgy, the sending. We gather for worship, repent, hear the word, share the sacrament, and then, Go ye into the world and do the work of God. At death, then: Go ye out of the world, for your work is done. Thanks be to God.


Dad asleep in his bed at the nursing home today. The aids have lowered the bed near the floor lest he roll out, though he doesn’t have the strength to move. He lay there with his hands pulled up to his chest, curled inward, almost fetal. His legs were stretched out under the sheet. He wore a shirt, but no pants, only an adult brief. For a moment, I could see him in a coffin. But his color was good, and he was breathing, shallow and fitful. We didn’t disturb him.

Mom says he sleeps all the time now. He doesn’t recognize her anymore. His spirit is being spooled in, like fishing line.

Panic attack in the middle of the night. I’m barely holding it together. I wasn’t able to go in to work all morning. My friend called and asked how I was doing. I told him the truth. He prayed for me over the phone.

From The New Grove, on recapitulation: “Hence, when the return finally arrives, it functions as a relaxation of tension or as a triumph over difficulties.”[5]

That’s the basic impulse of musical structure: tension and release. Dominant seventh to tonic. Question to answer. However dissonant, angular, rhythmically off kilter, the tensions are purposeful, interesting. Music is built by stacking these up, spinning them on the axis of some tonal system, and eventually, bringing them to rest.

Neither trumpets nor mourning, just quiet.

I saw him on Sunday, as usual. He seemed thinner, frailer, dryer even than the week before.

Then tonight, just as we sat down to eat, a call: “Your father has taken a turn for the worse.” A nurse named Jean matter-of-factly listed a number of indicators: limbs cold, skin mottled, breathing irregular and far between. I started getting ready to come over, then Jean called back: he’s gone.

We fear death, prepare for it, take care to avoid it. Imagine it in a thousand ways in our literature and art. But then it comes, humble and ordinary.

The spooling is complete, the end of the thread trailing away, away from earth. What next? There is no next. The cadence, then silence.

The last three days blur together. A swirl of images.

Fingering the ties at Kohl’s, trying to choose one to match the suit jacket Mom saved for him. I will purchase a tie, hand it over to the funeral director; it will serve a brief purpose and then disappear into the ground.

Tears while going through photo albums to prepare for the funeral. A haphazard pile, no system to them, no system to my search through them for pictures to display.

Tears during the funeral service when my boys sang, when Jacob played, when the congregation sang.

My two older brothers, walking together from the chapel to the gravesite. They’re graying now but the same familiar strides. I see the pair of them walking ahead, an alliance I have always watched from a distance, from behind.

That beautiful wood casket lifted by the excavator into the vault, the vault sealed, the steel cables gripping it, the vault guided expertly into a rough-cut hole in the ground. Cold, rainy, as a burial should be. Gusts of wind. One gust blows off Gina’s hat. Once the vault is settled in the hole, the guy steps right onto it to unhook the cables. The funeral director watches—he must, by law.

That open hole in the ground.

Took Mom to the doctor. She seemed pretty roughed up, as if she’d been through an earthquake, which I guess she has. I told Mom it would be a couple weeks before she starts feeling better. She underestimates, I think, how hard this hits, even though there’s relief, too. She’s weak and her speech is slurred almost beyond recognition. Is there any life left in her?

Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5 ends with one of the most bizarre codas in all the literature. Several minutes of gradual crescendo culminates in a stately, tiered brass chorale over marching timpani booms, then the orchestra abruptly stops. Then six gigantic, staccato chords, with ample silence in between. It doesn’t seem to fit, as if Sibelius grew tired of the thing and just slammed down a quick cadence. It’s so strange, the audience barely knows what to do.

Never, never, never expected this. A fall, a trip to the ER, x-rays, a somber consult. I thought Mom would have a few years to enjoy life again. But as she murmured in the ER room, “It’s not to be.”

Now that she is settled in hospice at the nursing home, I feel relief. I think she does, too. She seemed to relax into it when we arrived. They all know and love her here, from her years of volunteering and from eighteen months of visits to Dad. At the care meeting, the staff around the table, tears in their eyes: “We want you to know,” they said, “we’re all just sick about this.”

I had to explain to her again today that she has cancer. I had to look her in the eyes and say it. She comprehends in flashes. She’s in and out of comprehension, in and out of consciousness.

On Friday when I came to see Mom, she woke up for me. After a few minutes of orientation, in which I had to explain again how sick she is, she became entirely lucid. She knew where she was and what was coming. I told her I would miss her terribly and we both cried. As children must do, I assured her I would be OK.

She fell asleep. I ran some errands and came back. She had awakened again and was still clear and feisty. Picky about food, gossipy. I had gone to get her rings and watch, so we talked about those. We laughed and joked.

I went home feeling we had said our goodbyes.

Today she was very, very sleepy. I let her know we were there but she didn’t wake. She was exhausted from yesterday, ready to turn inward. She’s drinking a little, barely eating at all.

Dying can be a private thing. It doesn’t have to be a group activity. Some people want to die in the quiet, alone with God.

I was there from five to eight-thirty. It was terrible. Deeply unconscious, labored breathing. That’s what it was like: like watching labor.

It’s not easy to die. The body fights.

I could hardly speak, so I sat in silence. Held her hand. She would take a few gasping breaths and then silence. I could see her frantic pulse in her neck and chest, then a kind of click in her chest and a few more deep, gasping breaths. I could almost see death coming over her, pinching the corners of her open mouth.

I was there alone. I felt so very alone.

No idea how long this could go on. Should I go home and come back tomorrow? I went home. Barely slept.

The vigil is over. At dawn today.

Ron and I went to sit with her body a while. She looked so much better, at peace and still. While we were there, the hair lady arrived for Mom’s weekly hair appointment. We all laughed: if she could, Mom would insist on keeping the appointment. The woman paid her respects and left. Ron read Psalm 90, prayed a beautiful prayer. I wish I could remember that prayer. It was perfect.

Raining again. After the guy in the sweatshirt guided the vault into the hole and released the cables, we all stood in silence for long minutes. Finally I walked up to the grave and tossed in the red rose I had plucked from the casket flowers. Then I turned back to Ron and buried my face in his shoulder and wept.

My heart is full, my mind a jumble of memories and images. I can hardly walk straight, I’m so exhausted.

Yet I feel an odd and resilient gratitude. Yes, that it’s over. Yes, for their long lives, for my own life, for all I was able to do for them these last three years, though it bent me over with bewilderment and pain. But grateful now for the way these last years are coalescing in my mind into a sensible form. I can see the demarcations now. The end section began here and went through these stages, and concludes here. This extended time of diminishment and confusion—it was, I am beginning to perceive, part of the whole.

Molto meno mosso

Today I drove to the other side of town to pick up Mom’s mail. I haven’t cried in days. I decided to stop and look at the grave. Like a double bed, freshly made with sandy soil. Their dates clean and new on that gravestone.

The sun was out, a strong breeze blew.

Silence. Gone. I imagine their bodies under the ground, in the vaults, in the coffins. Desiccated and shrunken, cold and dead. The faces and hands I knew so well. Their ways of moving and speaking.

The silence is what hurts.

Driving around the West Side, the weight of those jumbled memories presses on my heart.

I need silence. I need time and silence to go into myself and open the rooms, open the boxes of memory. Sort and arrange. Assemble the fragments together and understand it all. Find the themes that return and vary and resolve, somehow, in the final measure.




The tempo markings in this essay are derived directly from the fourth movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

[1] James Webster, “Sonata Form,” The New Grove Dictionary of Music, Oxford Music Online.

[2] Joseph Kerman, “Notes on Beethoven’s Codas,” Beethoven Studies 3, ed. Alan Tyson (Cambridge, 1982), p. 141, qtd. in Robert G. Hopkins, “When a Coda is More than a Coda: Reflections on Beethoven,” Explorations in Music, the Arts, and Ideas: Essays in Honor of Leonard B. Meyer, ed. Eugene Narmour and Ruth A. Solie (Pendragon, 1988), p. 393.

[3] James Webster, “Sonata Form.”

[4] John Donne, “Death’s Duel.” Sermon on 68:20. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

[5] James Webster, “Sonata Form.”