The character of Natasha, the renowned pianist suffering from early-onset Alzheimer's in my book The White Piano is not an easy one to develop. The primary problem is that she has no voice. She is utterly silent, which makes her son hope—at first—that she can be reached, that he can 'save' her.
Here we see Ben during his first visit with her after ten years of absence:
There is no way to tell if she has heard me. Her gaze is fixed, as steadily as before, on the same small pane of glass, through which the sun is blazing; which makes it hard to figure out what she sees out there.
I push forward, aiming to view it, somehow, from her angle, which at first, is too hard to imagine:
In my mind I try, I see a map, the entire map of her travels around the world. A whole history. It has been folded over and again, collapsed like a thin tissue, into a square; which is suspended there—right in front of her—a tiny, obscure dot on that window.
And inside that dot, the path of her journey crisscrosses itself in intricate patterns, stacked in so many papery layers. And the names of the places, in which she performed back then, in the past—London, Paris, Jerusalem, San Petersburg, New York, Tokyo—have become scrambled, illegible even, because by now, she can no longer look past that thing, that dot. She cannot see out of herself.
She is, I suppose, confined.
Here is another excerpt, She Is Looking Out the Window:
I worry about mom, about the little things, which to someone else—someone who does not know her as I do—may seem trivial, insignificant. I worry she is missing her pearl earrings. I must find them for her. The little hole in her earlobe has shrunk away, turning somehow to flesh.
In a whisper I say, “Mommy?” and wonder how the air vibrates over the tender membrane of her eardrum, how it changes into noise, how she gets it when pitch rises, when it falls.
Can she sense the change?
At what point does it translate, somehow, into meaning? By what path does it penetrate, going deeper? Does it excite the nerves, fire signals up there, between regions of her brain? Does it make some sense, at least at times? Is there any point in talking to her? Is she listening? Can she detect the thin sound—scratched like an old, overused vinyl record—which is coming faintly from behind, from the far end of this space? Can she understand the words? Is there sorrow in her? Is there hope?
Throughout the book, we keep coming back to visit her with Ben, and from one visit to another, we can realize a change in her. Here is an excerpt another chapter, Bei Mir Bistu Shein:
Stirring out of the chair, my mother opens her eyes. At first I want to cheer her on, to cry, Come on, bring them to their knees, now! Show them who you are, what you are made of! Play, mom, play for me!
And it is then that she drops her chin, as if she were a broken marionette, into an unbearably silly, openmouthed grin. It is babyish at best, and lacks any hint of comprehension.
Then she lifts a tremulous hand—on which a steel triangle is hooked—and jerking a little metal wand, strikes it once. The thing gives a high pitched, flat tone. It is a dead sound, meaningless, perhaps because it occurs entirely out of context, chiming noisily when no one even expects it, when no one but me is left there to listen—let alone imagine how she could play.
I dream, as I must, of her fingers darting, soaring in a dazzling blur, long after the cover has been pulled over the keys of her white piano.