Achillea’s Waltz – The Story Behind the Song

The cover art for the Achillea's Waltz single. A couple dances inside a snow globe. A butterfly hovers outside the globe, and the base of the globe is decorated with Achillea millefolium, small white flowers that grow in clusters.

At the end of my first few ballroom dance lessons, my instructor Zana would ask me whether I had a favorite dance yet. I had picked up the activity as a way of relearning to enjoy touch after coming to dread it due to eighteen straight months of primarily interacting with medical personnel, so overcoming my fear was my main priority, with dance being a means to an end. I would soon have an answer for her though, albeit through unusual means.

In the Belly of the Beast

Shortly after my first ballroom lesson, I’m booked to go in for my latest batch of MRI scans. It has been at least a year since I last found a new mass, but my medical team ultimately decided it would be worth monitoring the existing masses for any changes on an annual basis for at least a couple years. As usual, I stayed up the previous night tossing and turning, overslept the morning of the appointment, and piled into the car with my mom still half asleep, but too wired with anxiety to catch a few more minutes of rest before we arrive at the hospital. As someone who experiences chromesthesia, the flavor of synesthesia that causes one to experience sound as colors, I used to genuinely find these scan relaxing. The pulsing light of the scanner’s drone would surround me, leaving me feeling like I’m floating in a sea of green. The sensation was so hypnotic that I often rolled out of the machine feeling more relaxed and refreshed than when I went in. But all that changed nearly two years ago, when I went in for the first in this current string of scans, only to encounter a head coil for the first time without warning. The metallic hunk of metal was placed over me before I could realize what was happening, leaving me pinned to the scanner bed from the shoulders up. I count myself lucky in that I don’t really remember any of my cancer treatment given how young I was when first diagnosed, but this simple action set off every psychological alarm bell that I’ve carried with me since childhood in ways that left me damaged in ways I am still fighting to repair years later. There were certainly many moments that contributed toward my newfound aversion to touch, but this is easily the one I can point to when identifying where that fear started.

As we pull into the hospital parking lot, I lift my bag into my lap and begin rummaging through the small arsenal of medicine bottles that occupies the main pocket. I find what I’m looking for: a small round container, in which are fourteen small Ativan tablets. I fidget with the bottle for a moment, considering what I’m about to do. I don’t have much of a choice, but I hate the idea of being sedated in a medical setting. I am, after all, the nutcase who was insane enough to get a wisdom tooth pulled with no sedatives, just so I would remain in control of the situation during the procedure. (On a related note, this was the first time I got to turn the tables on my dentist and terrorize him for a change, a feat which amuses me more than it probably should, even to this day. I’m not saying it was me, but that poor man retired shortly after that procedure.)

Six months earlier, my attempt at getting desensitized to these scans through EMDR therapy had crashed and burned when the therapist blamed my atheism for my mental health problems, so I would have to make do with my new little sedative friends. I take a moment to utter a silent curse at the aforementioned therapist, then down one of the small pills with a gulp of water. Knowing that the revolting odor of antiseptic awaits me just inside the nearby double doors, I pop several Listerine strips into my mouth and quickly fit my mask over my face to trap the minty scent I know will block out that dreaded stench. And with that, we’re off, making our way through the maze of check-in windows as we get closer and closer to radiology.

Eventually, I’m called back, and I get up to follow the tech to the scanner suite. My mom stays behind, respecting my strategy of going into these things alone so I can force medical personnel to address me directly, instead of my companion as often occurs for disabled patients. As we walk down the hallway toward the control room, I do my best to explain to the tech what triggers me, but I already feel my speech slurring and the world beginning to sway. We turn a corner, and my ears pick up the distinctive “squeak, hiss, squeak, hiss” of the scanner’s helium pump. It used to always amaze me how such a massive machine could make such a dainty sound, but this hospital’s machine has always sounded downright menacing to me. I feel my heartbeat and breathing speed up. I deposit anything I’m carrying that could be attracted to the giant magnet in the next room, and take the earplugs the tech holds out to me. I’m momentarily relieved when he allows me to insert the small foam cylinders into my ears on my own, allowing me an extra bit of independence, and one less reason to be touched.

As we make our way through the doors between the control room and the scanner room, I brush off the usual warnings about loud noise with a crack about being a pro at this, me being a member of a metal band and all. Then it’s onto the scanner bed, head in cradle, and pillows stuffed beside my ears to further dampen the sound. I’m vaguely aware of the coil coming down over me, of the tech screwing it into place. The Ativan is most definitely working its magic by the time the bed slides into the tube where I will lay for the next hour.

My memories of the scan are hazy. Vague flashes are most of what remains. The tech respecting my wishes and calling out to me over the scanner’s intercom to update me on how many minutes are left until I can get out of there. Occasionally dozing off, only to be jarred awake every time the machine hiccupped back to life at the start of each scan sequence. Trying to calm myself each time this happens by letting myself succumb deeper into the Ativan’s blissful numbness. Trying to keep my mind from wandering anywhere near the fact that I’m stuck inside a giant magnet unable to move, unable to defend myself should something go wrong.

There is one distinct memory, though. With another hiccup, the scanner begins to bang around my head. Somewhere in my memory, the part of me that innately tunes into anything resembling a metronome picks up on the triple meter feel of the scan sequence. One, two, three, one, two, three. My first ballroom lesson still fresh on my admittedly cloudy mind, something clicks into place and I realize, “Hey, that’s a waltz!” Now the counter in my head is joined by a second thought pattern. Left forward, side, together, right backward, side, together. The two loops of memory run through my head, keeping time with each other and becoming intertwined as my ears start to hear music that isn’t really there.

As abruptly as it started, the scan sequence is over. I briefly consider complaining with something along the lines of, “hey, I was using that!” But the thought of forming words feels like too much effort, and I let myself sink back into the hazy numbness.

The Music in the Madness

When I get home, I head straight for my bed. Between my lack of sleep and the Ativan still doing its thing, I crash into sleep that lasts for nearly thirteen hours. In the days that follow, I find myself regularly reaching for the sedatives, as I’m desperate for some relief from the aftereffects of the scan. Loud, sudden noises trigger panic attacks. Sleep is hard to get, and even when I have it, it’s inevitably interrupted by dreams of my first encounter with that damned head coil. And to a deeper level than I had anticipated, the fact I couldn’t remember the majority of the scan screws with my head. I had lost control of the situation at the hospital, and it troubles me to realize I may have not been able to advocate for myself and my needs.

Somewhere in the fog, I find myself repeatedly picking out the music that I heard during the scan at my keyboard. A sixteen-measure loop begins to form, albeit through sloppy recordings captured on my phone. As my life slowly begins to drift back toward “normal”, the music continues to take shape and grows.

I sit at my computer several weeks later, putting the finishing touches on what will become the scratch tracks for the final product. These are they cheesy sampled/programmed instrument tracks that will slowly be replaced with recordings of the real instruments once the song is ready for production. A ding from my phone alerts me to the arrival of my friend Heather, who is meeting me for lunch. As we drive to the restaurant, I excitedly share my vision for the song that is fresh on my mind. The color scheme is a nod to the experience that spawned it: a soft white Rhodes electric piano part that matches the color of my ballroom instructor Zana’s voice, paired with the deep green of a cello in the lead role to match the drone of the MRI scanner. I’m fascinated by a video that I found of someone programming an MRI machine to play music, and seriously consider handing the lead to a green synthesizer patch instead. It feels quite poetic to let a machine speak for the damage that another machine caused.

When Heather returns me home, I invite her back to see my new home studio. After giving her the tour of the pile of instruments I have amassed over the last twenty years, I offer to show her the recently finished scratch tracks. I let the project play for a few moments, then get up from behind the desk and offer to show her what I’ve learned in my dance lessons. With a nervous laugh she agrees. I take a few moments to slowly guide her through the basic box step that was running through my mind when I wrote the song, and we prepare to begin as playback approaches the main part of the song.

“Ready?” I ask.

“MMhmm,” she replies, and I can already sense her getting nervous. That nervousness flares into outright panic when I lightly tap the rhythm with the hand at her side. Her voice rises to a pitch I don’t think I’ve ever heard in the nearly fifteen years I’ve known her as she realizes what pace we’re aiming for. “No, wait, not that fast!”

It’s too late to turn back, and as the first step comes around, I feel her hesitate, then lose her balance. She lets out a small scream, another sound I’ve never heard in all the time we’ve known each other, and I quickly slip the hand at her side around to her back to direct her fall toward me. By the time she stumbles and comes to land against my chest, we’ve both realized the ridiculousness of the situation, and are both laughing uncontrollably. In the wake of the first head coil scan, I had seriously considered taking Heather up on her offer to accompany to future scans because I knew I could trust her to think straight should I start to panic. Now I’m incredibly amused that all I had to do was ask her to dance with me for her to react like I’ve asked her to jump off a cliff together.

As we remain pressed against each other, I feel our chests heaving with laughter. She ducks her head into my shoulder, and the thought of her trying to hide a blush I can’t see to begin with makes me laugh even harder. The music continues to play through the floor monitors near our feet, and the song approaches my favorite point where the melody soars. As the programmed cello slides into its higher register, something inside me breaks. I freeze, feeling the tears beginning to pool on the surfaces of my prosthetic eyes. After a moment, Heather straightens herself and looks back up at me and freezes as well. There are so many things I wish I can say in the moment, and I will say them later. But knowing that any attempt to put words to the emotions running through me will result in me falling apart completely, I settle with a sheepish smile and manage to choke out, “Don’t worry, I’m a happy crier.”

“Good, I thought I stepped on your foot,” she says. “I mean, I know I did, but …”

She trails off, and I want nothing more than to reach out and hug her, but I still can’t move. Several things had become clear at once. I realize I cannot remember the last time I genuinely laughed. As in, can’t-catch-your-breath laughed. I realize I had forgotten that touch could be playful and fun. How could I have forgotten such a simple yet invaluable thing? And I realize that I’m not going to let a machine speak for my pain. This is my pain, my voice, and I know it can be mine only if it’s coming from strings under my fingers. With that, the waltz became my favorite dance.

As the melody hits its highest point, it feels like a stone has smashed through the blacked out windows I had been hiding behind, letting light flood in. The kind of light that’s painful to look at after so long in the dark. But it’s time I begin getting accustomed to it again. No matter what I tell myself, there was definitely light, and it was time to stop ignoring it.

The Flower That Heals

Later, as I reflect on what to name the song, I scan through lists of flowers and their symbolism. I have my ballroom instructor Zana to thank for the experience I’ve just shared with Heather, and the experience speaks for itself and why Zana has more than earned her spot on the December’s Daisies album. I narrow it down to white flowers to match Zana’s voice, and eventually land on common yarrow, otherwise known as Achillea millefolium. These clusters of small white flowers have historically been used in herbal medicine, and have therefore come to symbolize healing and rebirth. A theme that certainly fits the individual.

As I write this, I can say that I have come a long way, and still have a long way to go. I have the strangest quirks when it comes to touch and close physical proximity with others that I’m still trying to get over. I get antsy if someone is standing close to me while I’m sitting, a circumstance that is too similar for my comfort to how I feel at a doctor’s office. I get easily startled if I’m touched and don’t expect it. As a blind person, this is how people often get my attention, so it is problematic to say the least. On the other hand, I have genuinely fallen in love with dance. Dancing requires close enough contact with a partner that their movements can easily be sensed, meaning no surprises. I now once again welcome the hugs I had come to shy away from. Healing is a process, but for me it’s now a process that’s being guided by someone who knows what she’s doing. There aren’t enough words to say thank you for a thing like that, so music will have to fill those gaps!

Final Notes

The cover art for the Achillea's Waltz single. A couple dances inside a snow globe. A butterfly hovers outside the globe, and the base of the globe is decorated with Achillea millefolium, small white flowers that grow in clusters.

The full arrangement of the song is still very much a work in progress along with the rest of the album, but I wished to share the material as I work on it. That’s where the idea of the “monochrome” editions of the songs came to me. These are solo piano arrangements of a selection of the songs, or “black and white” arrangements as viewed through my synesthesia experiences. Achillea’s Waltz (The Monochrome Sessions) is now live, and can be purchased or streamed on all major digital music platforms. Links to some of them are at the bottom of this post.

I would also like to thank not only Zana, but the whole family of instructors of students at JT Ballroom Dance Studio. It takes some special people to help me reap something that is so beautiful and precious to me out of one of the most stressful and terrifying experiences of my life, and you all more than stepped up to the plate!

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