My Uncle Brian continues to slip away, his brain addled by advancing dementia. You might recall the post I wrote in February about my uncle and his robotic puppy.
Brian now lives in a small group home. He likes helping with simple chores like folding towels and drying dishes. Perhaps best of all, the household includes a real dog.
When family members visit, Brian’s face gives away the question in his head: Who are you? He sometimes grows impatient with having company. “Well, I’m expecting an important phone call,” he’ll say after a short while. That’s code for “This visit has lasted long enough. I want you to leave.”
I rely on old family stories for most of my interaction with Brian. It’s tempting to try to engage him by starting with, “Do you remember when … ?” But it’s better if I begin by saying, “I remember when …” Sometimes a memory is sparked and he joins the reminiscence. Mostly he just listens.
Often I talk to him about the time he took me to a performance by classical pianist Van Cliburn. The concert was somewhere in Detroit in the mid-1960s. I was probably around 12 years old.
Brian had no interest in classical music—he still doesn’t. But he knew that as a budding pianist I would be interested. I cherish the memory of that outing.
Van Cliburn’s launch to stardom came in 1958, when he won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, a surprise victory for an American during the Cold War era. It was six months after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Cliburn was 23.
Four years later, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was created in his honor. The Boston Globe once called the Cliburn Competition “a cross between the Miss America Pageant, the Olympic Games, the Academy Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize.”
Tomorrow marks the start of the 15th Van Cliburn competition, held in Fort Worth, Texas. Thirty of the world’s finest young pianists (ages 18-30) perform in the preliminary round. That field will be narrowed to twenty, then to twelve, then to six for the finals. Gold, silver, and bronze medals will be announced June 10th. The first-place winner gets $50,000 and three years of commission-free career management, ensuring a busy schedule of international performances.
I’m grateful to my uncle for nurturing my interest in playing the piano by taking me to hear Van Cliburn all those years ago. Brian doesn’t remember. That’s okay. I do.
Paulette Bochnig Sharkey