Feature

When a lifelong pianist's memory fades

When Steve Goodwin’s memory began to fade, his family feared losing his beloved compositions forever. Then a professional musician offered to bring his songs to life again.

All his life, Steve Goodwin had been a private man. No matter the circumstances, he'd say he was doing just fine. But as he sat in his Wilsonville, Oregon, home that Monday morning, he wasn't fine.

Over the weekend, he'd argued with his youngest daughter, Melissa. The blowup ended when his daughter, tears in her eyes, opened the front door of her home and told him to leave.

As is the case in all families, they'd had minor disagreements before. But Saturday's battle had been raw. Steve knew he needed to set things straight. It was time to reveal his secret.

His wife, Joni, called Melissa, who lived three blocks away. After she arrived, they gathered in the living room and made small talk. Then, from a shirt pocket, Steve pulled out his handwritten notes.

Mom and I saw a neurologist. I have a spot in my brain. I am being honest. If this progresses into Alzheimer's, I know what it is like. I saw my mom. I experienced the pain of her personality changing, her being unkind to me and saying hurtful things.

If I ever do or say anything hurtful, I want you to know that I am sorry. No matter what I do and say, you are my little girl and I love you.

For Melissa, the bitter news explained so much. She'd first noticed changes the previous summer. She'd been at her parents' house, and she'd asked her father to play his piano, something he'd done all her life. Steve was a software engineer by profession, but music was his true passion. Growing up, Melissa and her sister fell asleep each night to his songs. Decades later, the music allowed Melissa, now in her late 30s, to forever be the little girl who so loved her father.

On that day, she'd watched in confusion as her father, always so smooth and proficient, fumbled and stopped. He said he hadn't been practicing. Now she knew the truth.

More extensive tests revealed that Steve, then 65, had early-onset Alzheimer's, a disease passed genetically from his mother. By the time his mother died, at age 74, she spent her days, in silence, staring out a window. She didn't recognize her son. Once an accomplished musician, she didn't know what to do with a piano.

Now, it was his turn. A grim fear took hold within Steve.

The disease, Melissa knew, would block out all her father had ever been. Her father's essence was his music, the soundtrack to her life. She'd taken it for granted. And now the music was dying.

The music and Steve's inspiration remained a mystery. He was the only musician in the family. No one else spoke, or understood, his language.

Melissa thought about hiring a professional pianist to work with her father. But she figured most would require a musical score. Her father had none. She needed someone who could pull the music from him, and also respect and treat tenderly the composer's vulnerable soul. A proud man, Steve hadn't told anyone outside the family about his diagnosis.

Whenever Melissa approached her mother, Joni changed the subject: Let's not ruin this good day. Instead of looking to the future, Joni focused on the present, protecting Steve and his dignity. He used to cook dinner, but now he didn't remember if he'd added salt, or whether the recipe called for salt. He tested her patience by asking the same question repeatedly.

Joni missed hearing him at the piano. His music represented a life together: courtship, marriage, family, buying a house, grieving over the death of a pet, empty rooms when the girls left for college, and now, the joy of being grandparents.

Steve's life, as is the case with many men, had been defined by what society calls success: money, power, and an impressive résumé.

"Steve was a freelance software entrepreneur," Joni said. "He made a comfortable living, but we weren't rich. But he always believed he had it in him to create something special with his software. He talked about his ship coming in." But before his projects launched, she said, a big player in the competitive industry would beat him to the punch.

Joni had always told her husband his true gift, even if no one outside the family heard it, was his music. "He'd say, 'Sweetie, thank you very much,'" Joni said. "Then he'd get back to his software to pay the bills."

Just like her father, Melissa had told no one what was going on. Not even her closest friend, Naomi LaViolette, who knew only that Melissa's father was dealing with a medical issue.

They had become friends three years earlier in one of those strange and fortuitous moments where two unrelated lives become intertwined. Their kids attended the same preschool and they'd see each other in the parking lot.

One day, Naomi, a deeply private woman, surprised herself when she began crying after Melissa asked how her day was going. Instead of saying fine and getting in her car, she said she was going through a divorce and was afraid.

They went on walks, talking about life and struggles. Over the years, the two women had family dinners and outings. Melissa watched Naomi's kids when Naomi needed time alone or had to work on her career.

She was a pianist.

Naomi started piano lessons at 4. Blessed with perfect pitch, a genetic trait some researchers say is found in only 1 in 10,000, Naomi could identify a musical note by hearing it played once. At 7, she discovered she could learn a piece of music by listening to it. As an adult, she earned a master's degree in classical music and could play anything from jazz to pop to gospel. She performed in clubs and at festivals, released her own music, and was featured on CDs with other musicians.

In the summer of 2015, the two women met for coffee. Naomi casually asked Melissa how she was doing. This time, it was Melissa who cried. She told Naomi about the diagnosis and the music, how her father no longer played the piano, and how the music would be lost. Naomi, who'd had no idea that Steve was a pianist, wanted to help.

"I told her that I could learn his music, even by listening to parts of it," she said. "If he could provide anything, we could work together."

While grateful, Melissa declined Naomi's offer. Her father had never played for anyone outside of family and friends. With his skills now fading, she doubted he would subject himself to such embarrassment. As the disease progressed, Steve was growing more defiant. He didn't want special attention, certainly not anyone feeling sorry for him.

Music was no longer talked about. Joni had barred Melissa from raising the subject.

But during a phone call, Naomi brought up the music once more. Melissa said she'd think about it.

A month later, Melissa learned her father was scheduled to take a test to see if he was sharp enough to receive an experimental drug that might slow the pace of the disease. Steve had taken the test twice. Both times, he had failed. This was his last chance.

To help her father relax, she took him on a hike the day before they had to be at the doctor's office. As she pulled into the driveway, she brought up Naomi's offer.

For a long while, Steve was silent.

"Then he asked me why she'd want to work with him," Melissa said. "He said it would be a waste of her time."

Why do this? Because, his daughter said, she cares. A long pause. And then ...

"Yes." And Steve began to cry.

After dropping her children at school, Naomi drove to the Goodwin home, where Steve, Joni, and Melissa waited. They talked honestly about the future. Although Steve had received the experimental drug, his brain was not responding.

Naomi told Steve she'd love to hear him play. Steve moved to the piano and sat at the bench, hands trembling as he gently placed his fingers on the keys.

Naomi discreetly slipped a small recorder near the piano. Starts and stops and mistakes. Long pauses, frustration surfacing. But Steve pressed on, for the first time in his life playing for a stranger.

That night, Naomi pulled out the recorder. She listened just as she had as a child and later as a student to transcribe the jazz solos of Horace Silver, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk. She understood Steve's music. She found hints of themes, counterthemes, harmonies, and rhythms.

"It was beautiful," Naomi said. "The music was worth saving."

Her responsibility, her privilege, would be to rescue it. The music was still in Steve Goodwin. It was hidden in rooms with doors about to be locked.

Every other week, Naomi and Steve met in his home to spend hours together. He'd fumble at the piano, then she'd take his place. He'd tell her what he remembered and tried to answer her questions. He struggled to explain what he heard in his head. He stood by the piano, eyes closed, listening to his own work, for the first time being played by someone else.

Steve and Naomi spoke in code: walking bass lines, playing just off the beat, intervals, moving from the root to end a song in a new key. Steve heard it. All of it. He just couldn't play it.

The disease, though, took a toll on Steve. One afternoon, he could remember how he began and then ended one of his compositions. But the middle, no matter how hard he concentrated, was lost.

At the next session, Naomi asked Steve if they could work together on the middle section to save the song. He agreed. With Steve's input, she created the passage. Steve loved it, said it was what he would have played if he could. He insisted that she be credited as a collaborator on the piece.

And, then, another miracle. Working with Naomi had stirred within Steve the belief he could compose one last song. One day, Naomi received an email. Attached was a recording, a testament to loss and love, to the fight. Steve called it "Melancholy Flower."

Naomi hit Play.

She heard multiple stops and starts, Steve struggling, searching while his wife called him "honey" and encouraged him. The task was overwhelming, and Steve, frustrated and angry, said he was quitting. Joni praised him, telling her husband this could be his signature piece. Keep going, she said, keep going. He did.

It would be the last song Steve Goodwin would ever compose.

Through last year and into 2017, Naomi figured out how to play 16 of Steve's favorite, and most personal, songs. She scored the music for future musicians. With Naomi's help, the Goodwin family found a sound engineer to record Naomi playing Steve's songs. Joni thought that would be the end. But it wasn't.

In the months leading up to the 2016 Oregon Repertory Singers Christmas concert, the director asked Naomi, the group's pianist, for song choices. She said she had a special one in mind: "Melancholy Flower."

She told the director about her project with Steve. The director agreed to add it to the repertoire. But to make it work, Naomi would have to add lyrics and a choral arrangement. She asked Steve's permission. He considered it an honor.

After the concert, Naomi told the family Steve's music was beautiful and professional. It needed to be shared in public.

The family rented a former church in downtown Portland and scheduled a concert. Word got out. By the day of the show, more than 300 people had said they would attend.

By then, Steve was having a hard time remembering the names of some of his friends. He knew the path his life was now taking. He told his family he was at peace.

Steve arrived and sat in the front row, surrounded by his family. The house lights dimmed. Naomi took the stage. Her fingers. His heart.

Excerpted from an article that originally appeared in The Oregonian. Reprinted with permission.

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