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The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A MemoirBy Kathryn Betts Adams, @Copyright 2023, 2024, All rights reserved



CHAPTER 1: Jersey Outliers

Both of my parents were born in New Jersey during the Depression into archetypal 20th-century-children’s-book-American families: white, middle-class, Protestant, with a mix of Northern European heritage, mostly English and German—a touch of Greek on my father’s side for the dark wavy hair, Irish and Dutch on my mother’s for the pink skin tone. No one was rich, and although no one was desperately poor, everyone in those families was expected to live frugally and make sacrifices. Children in my parents’ era weren’t overly praised or doted on; they were supposed to respect their elders and keep their opinions to themselves—or else. ~~~


Praise for The Pianist's Only Daughter: 

"Adams' sharp prose unflinching portrait of aging and a not-always-flattering picture of medical care in the United States..." ~Kirkus Reviews
"Ultimately, 'The Pianist's Only Daughter' stands out among other memoirs for its compelling storytelling, nuanced exploration of universal themes, and the author's unwavering honesty and vulnerability."  ~A Look Inside: A Book Review Blog 
"Adams' book not only is an eloquently written memoir, but also a significant book about caregiving." ~Amazon Customer Review
"The Pianist’s Only Daughter' drew me right in and kept me engaged throughout. The descriptions are vivid, making me feel like I was right there, experiencing the life of a girl growing up with two very smart and creative parents. It also provides an inside view of the challenge of helping parents through aging, and serves as a good companion to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal."  ~Amazon Customer Review 
"There were...moments where I laughed, cried, raged, and laughed again. Adams writes with a refreshing candor that strikes a reader as wholly authentic, and with a clear voice and a rollercoaster of a story to tell, she's someone I would be happy to listen to a whole lot more going forward. Very highly recommended." ~ Jamie Michele for Readers' Favorite

My father, Donald, was born at home in his parents’ bed in Absecon, near Atlantic City. He emerged in a caul—the amniotic sac intact—like a butterfly still wrapped in its shiny chrysalis. A sign that he was special. His mother, my Grandma Mina, once showed me the dried up remains of the caul in the little velvet box where she’d kept it. Mina’s own ambitions had been thwarted. She was a talented pianist and singer whose mother had died in childbirth when she was a teen, leaving Mina to help with the new baby and other younger siblings. She married my grandfather, Wayne, right after high school. He worked as an optician in his family’s eyeglass business, while Mina taught piano lessons at home and sang soprano solos at their Methodist Church.


Five years younger than his only sibling, a sister, Donald spent much of his childhood playing outdoors with his cousins. They got into all sorts of mischief riding their bikes around the neighboring Absecon meadows. Before the end of elementary school, Donald had broken his arm not once or twice, but three times. The last time, he fell out of a tall pine tree in the backyard. He went inside to tell his mother he was hurt, but she shushed him and made him go back outside till she’d finished her chat with a neighbor. Mina finally came out to see him holding his painful arm. “Not again, Donald?!” she tsked.


That family didn’t hold back; they yelled. At unpredictable intervals during Donald’s adolescence, Wayne would turn mean and call him names like “Worm” and “Idiot.” But at the same time, Mina began to recognize her son’s musical gifts and Wayne joined in the pride at his accomplishments. By high school, Donald had outgrown the local piano teachers, was appointed accompanist to the school chorus, and mastered difficult repertoire. He became something of a star in the family and in the community around him. His sister was expected to marry and stay close to her mother; she studied bookkeeping so she could get a good job. My father was expected to become a concert pianist. ~~~


In the north of the state, my mother had an entirely different kind of childhood. Eleanor Jane—later just Jane—was the middle child in her family, born in Scotch Plains. Her mother, Rennie, was the tenth child of an upstate New York Irish and Dutch farm couple. Born into no-nonsense, Rennie became a nurse. Jane’s father, also named Don, was from a more prosperous family that owned the Newark Steel Drum company, which he came to run with two of his brothers.


When her little sister Ann was born, tiny and with a mild birth injury, Jane was sent to kindergarten a year early. She’d remember her elementary school days as a blur; she felt like she could never catch up and fit in with older classmates. Ann recovered well and grew to become a regular playmate despite their four-year age difference.


As an older woman, Jane the poet would write of these games and her memories of childhood in her poem: When we were kids, You were the pretend orchestra Sitting on the steps and sawing away To Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony On your imaginary violin. I, the distinguished conductor, with my knitting-needle batonSupplied the drama as well as the beat.You were the Puritan congregation,A whole church of captive listenersTo my brief but earnest sermonAnd the intoning of ‘Here endeth the word.’~ Jane Colville Betts, from Little Sister, (2007) 


Their much-older brother shipped out to serve in Europe during World War II when Jane was turning eleven. Like many American children at the time, Jane helped her mother tend a victory garden of vegetables behind their house. The family lived under a pall of worry that their oldest might not make it home—and then when he did, he was different. In a family with little tolerance for drama, my uncle suffered from battle fatigue, what we’d now recognize as PTSD and depression.

A conscientious child, Jane was also imaginative, extroverted, and sometimes silly—not too different from the adult she became. As a teenager, she was a bit of a daydreamer who eagerly read classic novels like Girl of the Limberlost and Anne of Green Gables, stories that romanticized girls and young women doing brave things. She kept little notebooks filled with poetry and decorative drawings. But Jane’s conventional parents didn’t have much appreciation for the fanciful things their daughter loved. Sympathetic adults outside the family—the high school principal and his wife who lived next door, and the young minister of their Presbyterian church—encouraged her interest in books and her own writing.


My grandfather didn’t believe that girls needed to go to college, but something gave my mother the wherewithal to recognize that she wanted to participate in intellectual life, and she stood up for herself. Her father relented when she chose a small women’s college not far from home. She enrolled at Wilson College in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, in the fall of 1948.Jane thrived as a student on the quiet green campus where she majored in English. She loved the traditions there that now seem especially quaint, like circling the Maypole in white dresses and giving each girl a special nickname. The Chair of Wilson’s English Department kindly critiqued her poems and stories, exchanged witty literary letters with her during the summers, and encouraged her to see herself as a poet and an English scholar. As a graduation gift, he gave her a rare 1922 Shakespeare & Company first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, a prized possession for the rest of her life.

Going directly on to get her master’s degree in English at Columbia University in New York, Jane’s year at that much bigger school in the big city showed her the possibility of a life among poets and writers. Just 20 years old, she was slim and well built, with long, blondish hair, fair complexion, big pale blue eyes, and lovely white teeth. Yet she was refreshingly unselfconscious about her appearance. It’s no wonder she found herself attracting the attention of men who were suddenly everywhere in her classes and the wider world, very different from her sheltered undergraduate years.

Once when I was in high school, I mentioned to my mom that we were reading a poem by E.E. Cummings for English class. At this, she off-handedly said that she had met him at a reading in New York during her time at Columbia and he’d taken an interest in her. “He liked me,” my mom said, and rolled her eyes, meaning it in a certain way. Then, with a strangely coy seriousness, she added, “Something happened.” She wouldn’t share more. This was her mysterious side, a hint at the inner life she kept concealed. I could only guess that disappointment and disillusionment at her encounter with the much-older poet—something in how he had treated her—must have outweighed her excitement about being noticed by such a literary giant, or she might have told me the full story. ~~~


Rather than going to college, Donald studied with prominent piano teachers, commuting to Manhattan for weekly music lessons and classes. For spending money, he gave piano lessons to local schoolkids and played with dance bands in Atlantic City and up and down the Jersey Shore. With thick jet-black hair, big hazel eyes and dark lashes, a compact athletic build and an expressive piano playing style, he drew female admirers any time he performed.

When he was drafted into the Korean War, Donald’s piano teacher Mme. Hedwig Rosenthal wrote a letter to the draft board, asking that such a talented young man be exempt from military service. He was not released from service, but as a result of that letter, Donald’s reporting date was postponed two months to accommodate his planned New York debut recital. A review in the New York Times, subtitled Pianist Gets Deferment from Draft Board to Present His Recital at Times Hall, noted: “The fact that he wanted to do his very best in his fleeting opportunity before being absorbed into the Army was apparent in the way he played. He put his soul into his performance.” (January 31, 1951).

During Basic Training, destined for combat infantry, a stroke of good luck changed Donald’s life. On a smoking break at a train stop, he ran into an Army officer who knew him from music gigs back home. The chance meeting led to my father’s deployment orders being changed from combat in Korea to the Army band in Yokohama, Japan, where he would play clarinet and piano, welcoming foreign troop ships. He’d dodged whatever tragedy might have been. During the year there, he performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Yokohama Symphony Orchestra in concert. Far from home for the first time, he dated a Japanese girl, but left her behind when he shipped back to the States. I have one small black-and-white photo from his Army days. In uniform, he’s holding a lighted cigarette, smiling—his stance full of confidence and swagger.




Part 4—Nocturne

Chapter 23: Such a Sweet Personality…

Woodbury’s rehabilitation unit for Mom seems warm and friendly. From all that I observe, the staff doctor, the aides, nurses, dietary staff, social workers, and physical therapists are kind to her. Unlike the last nursing home, the floors are carpeted, and the people caring for her habitually lower the bed to very close to the floor to protect her from falling. They also use a special mattress with subtly curved sides to help keep her in bed while she sleeps, because her main problem continues to be forgetting about her impaired ability to stand and walk reliably. I had hoped that might change, but it hasn’t. Before the fall that broke her hip, she was gradually declining physically and cognitively, and now she simply doesn’t seem to recall that she injured herself and had surgery and that she’s unstable on her feet. But at least here, Mom is kept safe and supervised throughout her day and overnight.

The unit is on the first floor of the building, so when I enter, I find Mom sitting alone in her wheelchair right at the front reception desk under the watchful eye of the receptionist. She might be holding a Reader’s Digest, or more likely her own poetry book, open across her lap. Her book is the thing she most likes to keep nearby and re-read frequently, reminding her of who she used to be. When I arrive, I kiss her forehead.“Hi! There you are!” She half-smiles up at me and slowly says, “Hi. I’ve been reading.” I hastily push her wheelchair back to her room, away from her lonely outpost in the public eye. I wish she didn’t have to be there at all. But I know that I’m not here all the time and this is what her life is now.

On this particular morning, I’m here to attend Mom’s first care conference with the doctor, nursing supervisor, and social worker. We gather around a desk in the social worker’s small office, where everyone starts by saying that they like Jane very much. “She’s got such a sweet personality,” they say. But, the social worker says, her cognitive abilities are quite variable and cannot be relied on. She’ll seem to be in her right mind—but then she won’t. She continues to forget where she is and the important fact that she’s recently had a broken hip and cannot safely walk.

The doctor believes the Parkinson’s disease is causing some dementia. It’s not Alzheimer’s disease, but it’s noticeable just the same. I’ve been aware of my mother’s confusion, anxiety, and forgetting, but as her daughter, I’m more tuned in to the moments when she is lucid, when she is her “old self” —the person I know and love. I find myself wanting to say “Yes, but . . .” about her abilities, my daughter’s heart overcoming any professional wisdom here.


Understandably, family members tend to carry the person’s personality and history in mind when interacting with someone with dementia, seeing their loved one as a whole person despite cognitive failings. But from the staff’s perspective, the dementia diagnosis is paramount in creating a care plan, no less than the physical and occupational therapies to improve her mobility. So, the doctor says she has added that diagnosis to my mother’s chart now: “Parkinson’s-related dementia.” On the positive side, all of us at the care planning meeting agree that Mom seems to be getting better in many ways with the care and attention offered here. She’s eating well and has put some much-needed weight on her gaunt face and figure. She tries hard in her therapies. And thank goodness, she is usually cheerful.~~~


In the mid-afternoons, Dad walks over to visit Mom in the nursing home and then pushes her wheelchair through the hallways and into the elevator up to his apartment. In the evenings, sometimes he puts a simple meal together for her, or he goes down the hall to his building’s dining room to pick up a take-out dinner to share with her. He’ll play a piano piece for her, or they’ll watch TV together, he in the recliner, she in her wheelchair. It works out beautifully until my father gets into trouble trying to help my mother in the bathroom.


Twice, he has to phone over to her unit and ask for someone to come help when Mom gets onto the toilet from her wheelchair but cannot get back off. She cries and begs for help, but all he can do is try to tell her what to do—he is physically unable to lift her. The staff of the nursing home, echoed by me, strongly recommend he stop helping her with the bathroom. It’s no t long before they discourage him from taking her to his apartment at all.~~~


Physical therapy (PT) is a big part of Mom’s rehabilitation routine, and early on, the hope was that after her hip fracture repair healed, she might be able to walk with a walker and return to some sort of normal life. The physical therapists here and at the previous nursing home have been working with her to strengthen her legs and arms. They offer her a lot of encouragement, and although her hip is still painful, she can walk a few minutes with the walker with someone alongside to spot her. But then, after a few weeks in Woodbury’s rehab unit, her progress stalls and rapidly backpedals. She becomes hesitant and falters, afraid to use the walker.


Watching a couple of sessions as the physical therapist works with Mom, my father becomes obsessed with what he thinks is the incorrect way they are trying to teach her to use the walker. He believes he knows better than they do how to help her. As he describes it, the physical therapists have Mom push the walker out in front of her and then take steps to catch up; he thinks they should have her keep her arms bent so the walker remains near her chest, and she walks along with it. I agree that their way does sound a bit counterintuitive.


“But it’s more that she just can’t learn the physical skills very well anymore; it’s the Parkinson’s,” I say to him more than once, hoping he’ll let it drop. I try to reason with him that these people are licensed professionals in PT; they know what they’re doing. But when my father is certain he knows best, there is little I can do to convince him otherwise. So instead of letting it drop, Dad spends hours at his desktop computer, crafting a two-page letter to the director of PT, which he prints out and hand delivers to the PT office. The letter states that as a piano teacher for over sixty years, he knows how to teach, and then he outlines how he has observed that these physical therapists aren’t doing their work correctly and he knows better. He demands that they teach Mom his way.


Within days of Dad delivering the letter, the director of PT calls me to say that she can no longer ask for extensions of Mom’s Medicare coverage for therapy because of her limited progress. And since this is the only therapy Mom’s been getting for a while—having been released from speech and occupational therapies earlier—her rehabilitation stay will end.


“This is a lot sooner than the 100 days covered by Medicare that we had expected,” I say to her, wondering how much Dad’s insulting letter has figured into the PT director’s decision to stop working with Mom. His ego has led to the very outcome he and I both have dreaded: Mom will be discharged from rehab without learning to walk, and we have no power over the decision.


“That 100 days isn’t a promise, of course,” the director responds crisply. “The Medicare coverage only lasts as long as the person’s rehabilitation keeps progressing. I’m sorry, but that’s the rule.”


Dad blames the PT methods for this failure to progress. He wants to keep the argument alive and tries to insist they reconsider, but they won’t. The director of PT tells him she can no longer discuss it with him.


When Mom’s Medicare-covered skilled nursing rehabilitation ends, the nursing home we’ve been so happy with gives us more bad news. The social worker calls me to explain that because of her Parkinson’s dementia and her vulnerable physical state, Mom has to move. I know that the facility has two other floors for long-term care residents, some who pay privately and many on Medicaid.


Unfortunately, the social worker says gently, the care team has decided Mom needs more supervision than they can offer in their “regular” long-term care unit where the higher functioning, but physically frail, permanent residents live. They need to place her in their third-floor dementia unit.


Once again, it won’t be up to us. I feel as if I’ve just been told my mother died or something equally dire, a level of sadness and dread welling up that I haven’t yet felt at any point in this whole terrible last few months.

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