At the age of 63 I started taking piano lessons. My teacher, Ida Goldberg, usually limited herself to children, but she made an exception for me. One of the kids had his lesson right after mine and Ida thought it would be fun if we both played duets. “The girl is so strong. So determined,” she said. “She really wants to play the piano. She couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital so she could start classes again.”
That’s how I met Michelle.
Michelle was tiny. We shared the piano bench, angled it so she could reach the keyboard and give me room for my comparatively huge legs, and we worked our way through “Yankee Doodle” and “Skip to My Lou,” gaining mastery each time. Improvement was very important to Michelle. It wasn’t that important to me. I just cherished the time with her. I was struck by this little girl, 6 years old, a woolen watch cap covering her head and bald from chemo, boldly playing her part with her tiny hands. Continued treatments for her leukemia had bloated her small body, stunted her growth, and made her bones fragile. She wore a plastic corset under her blouse to protect her ribs. None of that slowed her down. We were an unlikely pair, separated by half a century and several feet tall. The next time we tilted the piano bench, I said to her, “You grow or I shrink.” She laughed and laughed.
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Michelle was born on September 18, 1997, less than three months after her parents Mark and Yulia Bar and sister Janie came here from Israel. Mark and Yulia are from Russia and Janie was born there. In 1991 they emigrated to Israel and six years later they came to Columbus.
Michelle started learning the alphabet when she was 2 years old. At 4 she was reading with ease. She spoke both Russian and English. She was less fluent in Hebrew but could read it fairly well. Janie taught her sign language after learning it herself in high school. She says when Michelle was 5 or 6 years old, she was the queen of multitasking. “Usually she would watch TV, read, sit on the computer and have a Game Boy or something in her hand at the same time,” Janie recalls. “Plus, she would be fully aware of any conversation that was going on in the room next door.”
Michelle was only 2 years old when she was first diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. ALL is the most common form of childhood cancer, affecting one in 1,500. Remarkable advances have been made in treating the disease, with child survival rising from under 10 percent in the 1960s to 90 percent in 2015.
After one round of treatment, Michelle was in remission. She relapsed when she was 4 years old, requiring a bone marrow transplant. We started our duets when she wasn’t 7.
Ida and her husband Gene are also Russian Jews and immigrants to the United States from Israel. For many years, most of Ida’s students were children of the Russian Jewish community in Columbus. Janie Bar began teaching at age 7, just after her sister Michelle was born. Ida remembers Michelle’s bright eyes, alabaster skin, and curly dark hair. Wearing a pink snowsuit, Michelle “looked like a swollen ball.”
Janie gave up piano to pursue ballet in a big way. Michelle was willing to do both. “She wanted to do everything Janie did,” Ida recalls. When Michelle was 4 years old, she asked Ida after Temple, “When will you start teaching me?” Leukemia restrictions delayed her start until she was 6 years old.
She was an avid student and started out with two classes a week. Ida arranged her time to be separate from other students’ classes so she wasn’t exposed to any of their germs. Michelle climbed onto the piano bench and Ida placed a step stool under her feet. Ida wrote notes on the music in Russian, and when Ida misspelled a word, Michelle noticed and corrected it.
Compared to me, Michelle was an experienced pianist. She has the melody and I have the accompaniment. We spent part of a class together each week, playing duets at the end of my class and the beginning of hers. Making music together was a radiant moment when all that existed were the notes on the sheet and the melody we made from it.
Over time, Michelle met my two youngest sons, Austen and Andrew. We were all invited to a birthday party at her home, a celebratory event attended by many people. Michelle had worked with Janie to put on a play in which all the young guests acted their parts. After a short rehearsal, the adults were treated to a performance. Austen remembers that he was a Greek god who made coins disappear. Andrew remembers the cake.
I was an anomaly among Ida’s students, particularly noticeable at the twice-yearly concerts: a bald man with a white beard, older than the parents in the concert hall. The program was put together to the best of our ability, with the virtuosos, teenagers who had studied with Ida most of their lives, performing at the end. I was always at the beginning. I dreaded these considerations. I was always so nervous that no matter how much I practiced, I usually failed my performance.
Unlike me, Michelle loved to perform. Ida recalls that Michelle called all the medical staff she knew from Nationwide Children’s Hospital to come to her first concert and was thrilled when they turned up in large numbers. She and I performed duets, and her impatience with imperfections came to the fore as we prepared our concert numbers. Once when we were practicing “If I Were a Rich Man” I messed up the last chord. I looked at her and said in mock horror, “Oops.” Michelle gave me a stern look and said coldly, “It’s not my fault.” I did better at the recital.
Our repertoire expanded and we performed in more recitals prescribed by Ida. Our crowning performance was a rousing version of “La Bamba”.
It’s been more than a decade since Michelle and I sat at the piano together. So much of that time has slipped away from me. But the pieces we played together bring them back. As I hear the lively musical cadence of “La Bamba” in my head, I can recall both of us sailing along her notes, Michelle playing the melody and I pounding the bass line. The collaboration—the Mexican song-turned-rock-n-roll classic that blossoms into rhythmic vitality in front of a packed audience—is just a kind of magic. Growing up I knew all the songs we played together – “This Land Is Your Land”, “Home on the Range”, “Casey Jones” – but now they’ve changed. Like rubbing Aladdin’s lamp, they bring Michelle back to me.
Ida gave me the best gift when she set me up with Michelle. This tiny girl (everyone at Children’s Hospital called her Shorty) taught me to appreciate life—this moment, this opportunity to live it to the fullest. Michelle was totally immersed in the world, in the people around her, in the beauty and richness of life. she was having fun Leukemia slowed her down, but it didn’t fucking stop her.
Music was our currency, our medium of exchange, and it negated our differences in age and size. I shared her friendship with many others – especially the medical staff at Children’s Hospital where she spent so much time in treatment. She collected nurses’ pager numbers and called them to her room at dance parties. During her bone marrow transplant, she plastered the walls and windows of her sterile room with pictures (mainly fish, her favorite animal), letters, and stories. She used her IV pole as a ballet barre and practiced her first and second positions. When the bone marrow infusions finally ended, Michelle played the Beatles tape her aunt Sasha made for her and danced with an oncologist, placing her tiny feet on his as they twirled around the room. Her rehab therapist named her daughter Sydney Michelle and when she got sick, Michelle worried it was her fault. The therapist replied, “No, she will be better. And she survives because she’s named after you.”
She survived. But Michelle didn’t. She died on July 31, 2008, a month and a half before her 11th birthday. During her final days in the ICU, she used sign language to communicate with Yulia. She had purple glitter polish on her fingernails.
Michelle would be 23 now, through high school and college, and starting a fulfilling, vital, and productive life. All of this was denied to her. How do you measure a life well lived? Michelle measured it every day.
At some point during our multi-year collaboration, Michelle made a greeting card for me. In it she wrote: “I’m so happy to play the piano with you! I’m having so much fun! I was so happy to meet your family! You play so well I can’t even begin to imagine how well you play!” I love her creative spelling. I can hear her saying the word out loud. Imagine. Just like I hear her say the other words. Happy. Fun. Good. Again good.
She decorated the card with a flower and a fish as round and compact as herself. The fish appears to swim away.
This story is from the October 2021 issue of Columbus monthly.