“Let’s go see Hairspray this afternoon,” I said to my husband.
“Are you insane?” Tom replied.
I expected many losses when I learned that I had cancer, but one caught me completely off guard: I lost my love of music. Well, maybe I didn’t lose my love exactly. It was as if I had locked it away somewhere safe until I could put that whole cancer business behind me. But what would happen if I never could put cancer behind me? If I lived the rest of my life under its thrall, would I never enjoy music again?
The first indication that Music and I might have to part ways occurred a couple of weeks after my 2007 diagnosis of an incurable but, thankfully, slow-growing form of pancreatic cancer. Unfortunately, at the time, I was back in school working towards a Ph.D. in—wait for it—music.
One night, in an analysis class, we deconstructed Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata. As I listened to the signature ostinato grow in intensity, a pipeline of tears filled up behind my eyes and threatened to burst. What are the odds that I’ll live to complete my doctorate and teach this piece? That was when I knew that music had to go. Not only did I not want to feel such powerful emotions, but I also felt like music was the key to unleashing them.
Beginning with my earliest memory—watching Oklahoma at Jones Beach in New York when I was three—music defined me. I attended theater camps and competed in classical voice and piano competitions throughout high school, worked professionally in musical theater in my twenties, and pursued a doctorate in music theory in my thirties. But Beethoven’s sonata unleashed emotions I had tried to suppress—reminding me that I would never be cancer-free—and for the first time in my life I wanted nothing to do with music. I could handle listening to Top 40 or some random Euro-techno-pop tune on the car radio, but anything that had once been meaningful, like Broadway music, evoked too many emotions that I simply did not want to feel.
Over the next few years I stuck with my studies to keep my skills honed and forced myself to listen to pieces assigned for classes—assuming that one day my mind would embrace music again. It didn’t. In January 2011, I finally accepted that there might never be room in my life for both tumors and music. I took a leave of absence from school to see if I would regret leaving music behind, but rather than regret, I felt peace. That week, I sold my piano and started writing a book. By clearing away the dead leaves of music, a new passion germinated.
A year later I was feeling exceptionally healthy—since a surgeon removed the primary tumor from my pancreas, the small metastases on my liver and chest had not grown—and I figured that because I was doing so well my brain must have green-lighted music once again. So on a whim one Sunday morning, I bought matinee tickets to see Hairspray at Signature Theater near our home in northern Virginia.
My husband was leery. Tom grew up with music as well—he trained on reed instruments in childhood and later picked up piano, guitar, and drums by ear. Though now an attorney, Tom worked for years as a jazz musician and later became an actor and award-winning musical director. Similar to me, Music began tormenting him after my diagnosis, but rather than feel sad when he heard the drive of a major-ninth chord, he would seethe. I knew that he still couldn’t listen to SiriusXM “Broadway’s Best” in the car without turning red and starting to shake (they do play more Ethel Merman than anyone should have to endure), but I figured enough time must have passed for both of us to handle a live contemporary show again.
“Hairspray is campy and fun,” I said when he worried that the show would upset me. “How could I possibly get depressed from that?”
Halfway through the opening number where Tracy Turnblad, a 1960s high-schooler with dreams to dance on television, sings, “Good Morning Baltimore,” I felt my throat constrict. By the third song, “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” I realized that I was not experiencing joyful tears. In their bubblegum voices, Tracy and two of her classmates were pleading with their moms to let them grow up. It’s a fun number with a hook that never lets go. Mamas: “Stop! Don’t! No!” And the girls: “Please!” But I wanted to pull the plug on the whole production by this point. I was thinking: “Stop [singing]! Don’t [make me sit through this]! No [more, I can’t take it]! Please!” Music broke out of its lockbox and brought with it repressed emotions.
Not wanting Tom to worry (and also because I felt extremely foolish), I pretended to scratch my cheek so that he wouldn’t see me wiping away tears. My subterfuge was made easier when he left to visit the restroom during intermission.
In the second act, my misery ran at a sort of medium drip until Motormouth Mabel, an African American record-shop owner fighting for race equality sang, “I Know Where I’ve Been.” Her gospel voice was so emotive that I lost control. I felt like I was in a scene from Glee—me, spotlighted in a pitch-black auditorium, saltwater pouring down my cheeks, reflecting on how the ticking time bomb on my vital organs would one day start to count down again.
Three numbers left. Almost to the curtain. I pulled myself together for the first two, but the rich Broadway sound of the finale, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” finished me off.
I exited the auditorium before Tom, and covered my face in my hair when I told him that I was headed to the restroom. I needed to wash the tears from my face, but when I saw my reflection in the mirror I knew that there would be no way to hide it—I looked like an extra on The Walking Dead.
Once we were in the courtyard in front of the theater I caved: “Tommie, I can never see a show again!” The pipe erupted.
“Oh my god, what happened?”
“I’m never going to survive this cancer, am I? I’m fooling myself into thinking I’m healthy. As soon as the music started I lost it.”
He squooshed me into him until I calmed down a bit.
“I thought it was just me,” he said. “All I felt was pure anger when I heard the music.”
“Wait.” I stepped back. “In the encore when that chorus girl was standing right in front of us and I was bawling my eyes out, you were sitting there looking pissed?”
“Yeah, I was staring straight ahead furious.”
As we walked back to our car, we laughed (through some more tears) and discussed whether it was time for one or both of us to try to work through these emotions with a therapist. But we’re fine most days of the year. The only times we might crack are when it’s time to return for scans at Johns Hopkins, or on the rare occasion when we listen to a song that once was meaningful. We agreed that it’s safer to stop the beat than unearth shunned emotions.
Hairspray will likely be our last show. We joke that 2007 was the year the music died. I can now say that 2012 was the year we buried it.
About Tracy: Tracy Krulik is a freelance writer who reports regularly for Washington Post Express. Author of the eBook I Have Cancer. And I’ve Never Felt Better! Krulik lives with two cats, four bikes, and one husband in northern Virginia.