At age twenty-one, while she was working with the legendary Nadia Boulanger in France, concert pianist Carol Rosenberger was stricken with paralytic polio—a condition that knocked out her “piano-playing” muscles. But Rosenberger refused to give up. Over the next ten years and against all medical advice, she struggled to rebuild her technique and regain her life as a musician. She did indeed find her way back, receiving critical acclaim for her performances and recordings. Beautifully written and deeply inspiring, this is Rosenberger’s story of how she achieved the seemingly impossible: to play again.
I’d been playing the piano for as long as I could remember. My earliest memory is of the keyboard high above my head as I stood in front of it, holding onto it for support. I still remember the excitement of reaching up to the smooth white keys and pressing one of them. The sound drew me into it; I floated with that sound, as it seemed to fill me and the space around me. Even then, I couldn’t get enough of that sound and the thrill of producing it.
After nineteen years of bonding with the instrument and many performances over the latter half of those years, I still felt that way about playing the piano. But now it was more than my greatest joy. It was me. It was my very identity. If anyone had asked me that key psychological question, “Who are you?” my immediate response would have been, “I’m a pianist.” Then I might have thought to add, “I’m Carol Rosenberger.”
I was “on my way,” as one says of a concert career. Literally, I was on my way to Europe, where I planned to enter some of the big competitions, which have served as important springboards for young talent.
I wonder if there is a time for every young person when the dream seems perfect—when one has experienced enough to know what is possible and has not yet discovered what is impossible.
It’s incredible, as I look back on the day when the most shattering event of my life occurred, that I had no premonition of disaster, no vague unease. Instead, I felt almost euphoric that warm August morning as I climbed the elegant curve of the steps outside the Palace of Fontainebleau in the beautiful little French town of the same name.
I don’t think it’s the coloring of sentimental memory that makes me remember this as one of the best days I’d ever had at the piano. I was working on the Chopin sonata that I had played for “Mademoiselle” — the great Nadia Boulanger — and with which I was planning to enter a competition in three weeks’ time. Though it’s perfectly logical that I would have been playing the Chopin that day, it does seem a strange coincidence. That piece, with its life-death juxtaposition in the powerful Funeral March, formed an eerily apt musical setting for the sharp turn my life was about to take.
I remember how satisfying it was to dig my hands into the rich figuration of the first movement. It was going particularly well. This sonata had been one of my biggest successes in public performance, but I felt that now it was flowing better than ever. A heightened vision of the piece was forming in my mind, and I felt just on the brink of realizing it.
Suddenly a sharp pain shot through my left hand.
It was a kind of pain I’d never felt before. I don’t know how I knew, but I knew it wasn’t a muscle ache. I’d had those on occasion when I’d plunged into practicing after a few days away from the piano, or when I had practiced too many octaves at one sitting. But this was different. Something about it made me think of the Novocain needle in a dentist’s office.
I knew I should stop practicing for the day. Protecting my hands was an automatic reflex. I avoided sharp knives, kept at a safe distance from a closing car door, and had developed a similar list of automatic responses that any serious pianist would recognize. You just don’t take chances with the investment of a lifetime.
I got up from the piano and walked around the room, shaking my hand and swinging my arm. Even though I knew it wasn’t a muscle ache, I couldn’t think what else to do. But the pain didn’t stop.
The pain woke me up the next morning. It was more intense and had continued spreading up my arm to my left shoulder and into my neck and upper back. I had a severe headache, too, which seemed to be connected. It was bewildering. I couldn’t imagine what I could have done to hurt myself to this extent. I felt abnormally tired—and dizzy, too, when I tried to get out of bed. I sat on the edge of the bed and stared out the window. The morning was bright and clear, but I felt enveloped in a haze. The only thing that was really in focus was the pain.
I lay face down on my bed and pushed the comforting warm hot-water bottle onto my upper back, where the pain was most severe. “Please, Hottie,” I said to it, “Do your stuff.” When I was a small child in Michigan, my mother used to bring me a hot-water bottle on the cold winter nights. She would slide it into my bed and put it at my feet. As soon as she had kissed me goodnight and left the room, I would pull the hot-water bottle up and put it beside me on the pillow, its head and neck out of the covers and the body of the bottle tucked in. I would pat it comfortingly. “Now, Hottie, you can breathe, too.”
I was hoping that Hottie would now return the favor and relieve the pain. But I soon noticed something else. There was a regular, rhythmic twitching or jerking sensation along with the pain. It felt as if I were bouncing up and down on the bed. I don’t know how long I had been lying there when my friend Martha Ritchey knocked and came in. She took in the hot-water bottle and my prone position.
“Are you worse today?” she asked, and when I nodded, she felt my forehead. “Well, no wonder, you’ve obviously got a fever. I wish one of us had a thermometer!”
“Don’t worry about that,” I told her, a little impatiently. “The problem is the pain.”
“Would it help if I massaged your back?” she asked. I was sure that it would. But she stopped almost as soon as she had started.
“Carol, there’s something very strange!” she said, sounding worried. “Your muscles are jumping and jerking!” So she could feel it, too.
Martha gently replaced the hot-water bottle and said she would be back in a few minutes. She returned with a thermometer and two other friends, Marge Marçallino and Carol Stein. I lay there with the thermometer in my mouth and listened to my three friends talking in low tones. It was good having them all there; they could talk with each other and I didn’t have to reply.
Things were beginning to blur. Someone was notifying Mademoiselle, and someone else brought me some food, which I didn’t even want to look at. Carol returned from her telephone call to a Dr. Lipsitch in Paris.
“He told me you should be brought to the hospital right away!” she told me, impressed with the order.
Marge and Martha helped me into two sweaters and a pair of slacks over my pajamas. I wanted another pair of socks, too, as well as my coat. It seemed inconceivable to me that everyone else could be comfortable in their light summer clothing.
I noticed as I got up that I seemed to have lost control of my body. The pain and the muscle jumping had taken over, shaking me continuously and playing their cacophonous tutti inside me.
Four people were trying to help me down the steps—practically carrying me. Everyone seemed to have forgotten how to smile; they all looked grim. Oh God, I thought, they’re scaring themselves. They’re overdramatizing the whole scene. I wondered why I couldn’t stop them, until I realized that I was leaning heavily on them.
They took me to a small private room in the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine on the outskirts of Paris. The room looked out on a garden surrounded by trees, and there were neat borders of yellow flowers under the trees. It was sunny and green and too bright. I felt drab and even more miserable in contrast. Inside the room, everything was crisp and white, and I was suddenly aware that I hadn’t combed my hair or had a bath for what seemed like a very long time. I didn’t belong in this pristine atmosphere. Why had I let them bring me here?
A nurse who looked scrubbed and energetic and spoke with a British accent came in to welcome me. “What are your symptoms?” she asked. My mind was working too slowly.
“My symptoms? Well, uh . . . I seem to be twitching . . . ”
“Twitching?” She laughed and I could almost feel myself squirm. I must have used the wrong word. Maybe she thought I shouldn’t be here, if all I was doing was twitching. But she was already helping me out of my slacks.
“May I leave my sweaters on?” I asked. “I’ve got chills.” That was probably a symptom, too, I thought, after I’d said it.
“Oh, yes,” I remembered, “and pain . . . ” but she was nodding, as if she already knew that.
The bed was smooth and white and cool, while I was nothing but pain and muscles jumping, sweat and chills. My rumpled bed at the Hôtel d’Albe had felt more appropriate.
I faded in and out of my feverish fog. At one point a young intern came in with a chart and a pen in his hand. “Take this off, please,” he smiled pleasantly, pointing with his pen to my outer sweater. I struggled to remove it.
But that wasn’t enough. Now I was to remove the other sweater, the socks, the pajamas, everything. My hands were trembling so much that the smiling young man had to put his pen and paper down on the chair and help me. With every layer we removed, he seemed to find it more amusing. I must look ridiculous with all this, I thought. He probably can’t believe how cold I feel. It occurred to me that I had put the thicker socks on over the thinner ones, just as I used to do when I went ice-skating. He handed me a hospital gown—only a hospital gown, to replace all of this?
“I’ve been having chills,” I explained again.
“Oh, you’ll be warm here,” he assured me, still laughing. I thought to myself that he wouldn’t find it so funny if he felt this cold.
Then a short, stocky nurse came in and told me I would have to be weighed. As she was helping me out of bed my left leg seemed to give way and I lurched to the left. I probably would have fallen if she hadn’t grabbed me, her strong grip digging into my right arm. As I looked over at her to apologize, I noticed that her expression was severe and her eyes frightened—the same look my friends had had when they were helping me out of the d’Albe. She steadied me, helped me over to the chair, and said she would be right back with a wheelchair.
“No!” I tried to shout at her. “I can walk! I’m just a little weak!” But she was resolute, and into the wheelchair I went. Evidently I had failed in the one chance she was going to give me to hold myself up on my own two feet. As she wheeled me down the hall, I hunched down in the chair and hoped no one would see me. Surely this was all some kind of fearful comedy.
I had not really recovered from the humiliation of being wheeled to the scales when Dr. Lester Lipsitch swept cheerfully into my room. He had a pleasant face and a resonant voice that made him sound very confident. I could tell from his speech that he was a New Yorker. He had his own list of questions, but it seemed to me that the intern had asked many of the same things. I wondered vaguely why they couldn’t have gotten together over this. But now he wanted more than answers to questions. He wanted me to move my foot.
“Push up,” he said, and resisted my foot so that it was almost impossible. “Hold. Good. Push away from me . . . hold . . . good. Push toward me . . . hold . . . good.” I pushed and pulled in every direction and position, with legs, arms, head and torso. My legs trembled; my arms trembled more; but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Pull your abdominal muscles in,” he ordered, his hands on my belly. I pulled. The muscles shook. “Pull them in,” he repeated. I pulled again. He glanced at me and his look wasn’t cheerful. Did he think I wasn’t cooperating? Something was wrong. But then he smiled quickly. “Good,” he said.
How could it be “good” so suddenly when his expression had told me clearly that it had not been good the instant before? But my private fog rolled in again and I let his smile take over. He had obviously been giving me muscle tests, and the “good” must mean that I had passed them.
“We are going to keep you here for a few days,” Dr. Lipsitch said cheerfully. “We don’t know what you have, but we’ll get you well as soon as we can.”
A few days? “I’m entering a piano competition in three weeks,” I told him anxiously. “Do you think I’ll be all right by then?”
He was still cheerful. “We can’t be sure of that right now. I just want you to rest. I don’t want you to get out of bed at all for the next few days.”
Soon the pain and haziness took over again. At one point a nurse brought dinner, but it seemed too much effort to eat. She also brought a sleeping pill. Maybe that would shut out the pain for a while. Maybe I would feel better in the morning.
But when the nurse woke me up at dawn to take my temperature, the pain and muscle jumping were still there. I thought irritably that if she had only let me sleep a little longer, maybe some of the pain would have gone away. Then another nurse came in with a basin and towel. She handed me a warm cloth. I started to wipe my face but my hands were trembling and it seemed hard to get the cloth in the right place. The nurse took the cloth out of my hands and finished giving me my “bath.” How I hated having someone else bathe me. I began to suspect that I might be even weaker than I was yesterday.
Around noon my door opened to another figure in white. I glanced up and then looked again in amazement. It was Martha, gowned in a long white hospital coat. She laughed at my surprise, and said she had come in on the train. I knew it was a long ride, and was so grateful to her for coming that I was close to tears.
“Where did you get that?” I asked, indicating the hospital coat.
“It was hanging outside your door. The nurse wouldn’t let me come in without it. There’s also a bowl of disinfectant sitting there. I’m supposed to rinse my hands in it when I leave.”
“French hospital procedure?” I wondered aloud. She shrugged. “Quaint, isn’t it?”
A nurse came in with my lunch tray. “Help yourself before I contaminate it,” I suggested, as soon as the nurse had left. “I haven’t been hungry.”
But Martha shook her head. “No, I think the hospital staff should be aware of your lack of appetite.”
“Oh,” I had to laugh, “I doubt if anyone here has heard of my legendary appetite.” In my only other hospital experience, a tonsillectomy at age two, I had supposedly amazed the nurses by eating a full breakfast the morning after surgery. I could remember very few occasions in my life when I hadn’t felt like eating.
I looked down at my lunch tray and grasped the fork. I tried to lift a bite of salad as far as my mouth, but it was too much effort. I put the fork down to rest my arm for a minute. It was odd how heavy the fork seemed. The food looked less inviting.
“I just don’t seem to be hungry,” I told Martha.
“You seem to be having trouble lifting the fork,” she observed, with her serious look. “Why don’t I try feeding you?”
That was a startling idea. Yesterday I would probably have refused, but today it seemed logical to let someone else lift that heavy fork. Strangely enough, with Martha doing the work, I was able to eat the entire lunch.
One evening when the night nurse was changing my damp hospital gown she relaxed her grip on my shoulders for a moment. I tried to maintain my sitting position but seemed to have no control. I fell backwards on the bed. She looked startled.
“I seem to be . . . paralyzed . . . or something . . . ” I said, by way of apology. I was also expressing for the first time a fear that had been pushing its way through the brain fog. It seemed as if my condition was expanding beyond the category of mere weakness. I wanted to discuss it with her but her angry glare stopped any further conversation.
Suddenly I realized that for the first time in my conscious life I was as dependent on someone else as a small child would be. She and the other nurses, all of them strangers, had the power to enable me to sit up, turn over, take nourishment; without them I couldn’t move. And yet from childhood on, I had always been referred to as “so independent.” I had always felt that I could handle difficult situations. “Here! Let me! I can do it!” had been my most characteristic response. How bewildering that now all I could do was cry.
I seemed to have lost control, not only of my muscles, but also of my emotions. I cried if the nurse was abrupt with me. I cried if I tried to turn over and couldn’t; I cried because I couldn’t lift a teacup. It was as if my emotions had been scraped raw; there was no longer that protective insulation that one never notices until it has vanished. What should have been a minor irritant felt like a major emotional upset. It was further upsetting that I couldn’t discuss my fears with anyone. I didn’t want to worry Martha or Marge; the doctor insisted I was doing well; and the night nurse was angry with me for using the word “paralyzed.” I felt more lonely and isolated than ever.
One evening I decided to call Martha at Fontainebleau. There was a phone by my bed, and by using both hands I could get the receiver to my ear, but the switchboard refused to put the call through. Though I really didn’t want another encounter with the night nurse, I rang for her to straighten this out.
“I need . . . to call . . . ” I began, when she came into the room. But she interrupted me.
“No calls after 9:00 p.m.,” she said, looking less angry than the other night, but still severe. Then her voice softened a shade. “I’m sorry but it’s the rule.”
I cried a long time that night from sheer panic and rage. I had never felt so alone. I was alone in a foreign hospital, alone in a foreign country. I felt out of touch with everyone close to me. And now they wouldn’t even let me touch base with a phone call.
When Dr. Lipsitch came in the next morning I tried to tell him in my increasingly shaky voice about the phone call incident. The weakness in my abdominal muscles was making it hard for me to get out more than a word or two in one breath. I had noticed that my breathing was becoming shallow. Stranger still, my voice was sounding increasingly high-pitched and thin. I knew enough about singing to be aware that I was instinctively placing my voice higher in the facial “mask” in order to be heard at all. But it made me sound somewhat childish.
“Am I . . . in some kind . . . of prison?” I heard myself say in this strange child’s voice and, to my horror, started crying again. I couldn’t seem to stop.
Dr. Lipsitch turned to the nurse. “She may call outside anytime she wants,” he ordered. I was so grateful to him for that kindness that I kept on crying. I didn’t know how to explain to him that any emotion at all seemed to end up in the same place.
A day or two later Dr. Lipsitch swept into my room with a broad smile. He seemed pleased about something, and came over to my bed and took hold of my hand. This was certainly not his usual procedure. Wasn’t he going to give me the muscle tests today, I wondered?
“Your fever has dropped this morning,” he said, smiling warmly down at me. The tone of his voice, and the thought that perhaps this strange illness was at last relaxing its grip, made a surge of emotion shoot through me and tears spring to my eyes.
“From now on,” he continued, “you’ll stop getting weaker and start getting stronger.” He seemed so sure of what he was saying! The relief of it made me unable to say anything. Then he gave my hand a reassuring squeeze.
“We didn’t want to tell you until your fever had gone down. What you’ve had is an attack of polio.”
None of this could be real, could it? He was standing here telling me I’d had polio, but the sun was still bright and he was still smiling and I was still me, somewhere underneath the weakness and the trembling and the weepiness. My polio must be different from anyone else’s polio.
In the midst of this unreality, one all-consuming question was pushing its way into my consciousness. I was afraid to ask and yet was compelled to do so. I couldn’t conceive of a negative answer.
“I’ll be . . . able to . . . ”. I hesitated. I had been going to say “play the piano,” but Dr. Lipsitch jumped in with his own interpretation.
“You’ll be able to walk out of the hospital when you leave.”
Walk? It had never occurred to me that I might not walk again. That shocking thought crowded out everything else for the moment.
The doctor went on. “You’ll be weak for a while, but from now on you’ll start getting stronger again. You’ll be able to live a normal life.”
He gave my hand another reassuring squeeze. That must be the answer to my question. A normal life was piano playing and a concert career. So this “weakness” must be temporary?
As I look back on that morning, I wonder what was in the doctor’s mind. Was he trying to reassure a weak and still very ill patient that life would go on? Preparing me for a gradual letdown rather than giving me a sudden shock? Or had he not taken in the fact that I was a concert pianist?
Did Dr. Lipsitch see me as lucky that I would be able to walk with only slightly paralyzed legs? And did he view the more severe paralysis of my back, abdominals, shoulders, arms and hands as less important? I had told him I was a concert pianist. Didn’t it occur to him that my entire piano-playing apparatus had been destroyed?
“Ravishing, elegant pianism” wrote The New York Times of American pianist Carol Rosenberger, whose four-decade concert career is represented by over thirty recordings on the Delos label. Many are enduring favorites worldwide, and have brought her a Grammy Award nomination, Gramophone’s Critic’s Choice Award, Stereo Review’s Best Classical Compact Disc and Billboard’s All Time Great Recording. Carol has been the subject of articles in many leading newspapers and magazines, and as an artist teacher, was a faculty member of the University of Southern California and gave performance workshops nationwide. With Delos founder Amelia Haygood, Carol co-produced many recordings by world-class artists. After Haygood’s death in 2007, Carol became the label’s director.