He started playing the piano at age four. At eight years old, Leon Fleisher made his public debut in music performing with the New York Philharmonic. The director called him “the pianistic find of the century” and soon he was accepted to study with some of the greatest teachers of his time.
His star continued to rise in his twenties as he signed an exclusive contract with Columbia Masterworks. Particularly acclaimed for his interpretations of Bach and Beethoven, in the classical music world, he was becoming known around the globe as the “next big thing.”
And then, when he was in his 30s, at the peak of his career, something happened. Over a brief period of time, he gradually lost the functional use of his right hand. It simply wouldn’t work. Doctor after doctor couldn’t diagnose the problem. Physical therapy didn’t help. Counseling wouldn’t bring it back. Medications failed to make a difference.
Predictably, he sank into a depression and wondered if all was lost. I don’t know this for sure, but I would imagine suicide could have been a real option. It appeared his career was over.
Can you imagine it? What if you lost the very thing that allowed you to do your job, to make a living, or to offer your gift to the world?
A singer loses his voice.
A dancer loses her foot.
An artist loses her eyesight.
An audio engineer loses his hearing.
What would you do? How would your respond?
After a while, Leon began to slowing find his way through and found that he loved to compose music. Then he discovered his love for conducting, which he dived into as well. While still playing the piano, he developed proficiency playing with his left hand alone.
Soon, his world renown returned, this time for his beautiful and intricate left handed concerts. Take a look a Leon Fleischer performing in his seventies:
So, here’s the rest of the story. When Fleischer was in his seventies, after more than forty years, the cause of his hand disorder was discovered and in time, the use of his right hand returned. In early 2000, Fleischer embarked on yet another world tour to promote his new CD, “Both Hands.”
Before you read any further, I want you to sit with this story for a few minutes.
A man had it all, then lost it all, wandered in the wilderness, found something again, and late in his life, was given even more. It’s a rich story of hope. I have wept over the beauty of it all.
I wish that I could say that every story ends like this. Sadly they don’t. I know plenty of people for whom tragedy has struck a dissonant chord, and that chord will likely never resolve this side of heaven. There are some things in my own life that I feel that way about. Sometimes life doesn’t take that turn.
So what do we do when tragedy strikes and takes away the equivalent of our right hand – our job, our marriage, our reputations?
I’d like to suggest a prayer that the Benedictine monks pray during times the call “Desolation.” Desolation is when things don’t work – when life, relationships, God – all seem disconnected at best.
When that happens, our natural prayers are usually variations of the word “Why?”
Why this now?
The Benedictines suggest a different question. They ask us to pray this simple prayer, “God, what do you have for me here?”
Do you notice the difference? While honest, the why questions presume we are entitled to something and the current problem has no place in our life or the universe.
“What do you have for me here?” presumes that there is a larger story told by a storyteller who loves us and is far more creative in his telling than I would ever be. It also presumes that if my right hand ceases to function, unknown to me, sixty years later, someone I’ve never met might be writing a blog because my story touched him and gave him hope.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer in one of his prison poems, wrote this in the weeks before he died, “That which is lost will return to us again as life’s most living strain.”
Bonhoeffer died before I was born and thus far, Leon and I have not crossed paths. However, in the mystery and mingling of stories that weave in and out of one another, they are dear friends who have taught me to lean into loss and ask a different question.