For many years I believed integrity was the unflawed quality of things that had never been broken. Then the cello came to me.
The cello appeared almost by accident, a gift from a woman who was at first uncomfortable meeting me. A year and a half later she offered an invitation to dinner before I moved away. Though my skills as a leader seemed adequate, my inner life didn’t seem to match what was required outwardly. I was going back to school to work on the inner life. As we sat in the living room after the meal, listening to the stories of each other’s lives, Anne asked
“What are your goals?”
Among others I thought more significant, I mentioned the desire for a string quartet in the family.
“Which instruments are included in that?” she asked.
“Two violins, a viola and a cello.”
“Do you have them?”
“Two violins.” I replied. “I need to find a viola and a cello.”
Anne excused herself for a moment and disappeared down the basement stairs. When she returned she carried a dusty and creased canvas bag in the obvious shape of a cello. Loosening the straps she released a relic. The neck was broken at the base and held on with coat hanger wire. The top was cracked and the bridge had split. The strings that remained, were limp and lifeless. A hole had been punched in the side like the jab of a spear to make sure it was dead.
“If you want it I would like you to have it” Anne said.
The cello had belonged to Anne’s mother, Dr. Savage. That woman had cared for souls and bodies by opening both the first hospital and the first church in town, years before. I thanked Anne sincerely. The cello was hidden treasure, an instrument with more than potential, it had a story. I wondered where the holes and cracks came from — who broke the neck? What kind of doctor drills holes through the head of a cello and fixes it with a coat hanger so she can play again?
I dragged the cello around for a decade with pieces and parts tucked in the pockets and folds of the canvas bag. The instrument found its home in garages, crawl spaces and closets for the next five moves. Some day I would fix it.
I had cancer. Then surgery, and then radiation. Worn out, and broken. That’s when I began the restoration. I stripped off the limp strings and ran my fingers over the cracks and holes. I cut away the old coat hanger and the neck wobbled like a spinal cord victim released from traction. Wiggling and prying, I separated the neck from the body and then the fingerboard from the neck. I took my time. I didn’t want to inflict more damage in my attempts to make things better. (The physicians oath said “Do no harm”) The neck had sheared in two where it met the body. The pieces clutched at each other with slivers of wood and topical applications of glue but there was no strength. I prised the pieces apart with my hands. Picking away the old bits of brittle glue I got down to the wood that had always been there. A knot had hidden in the core. It didn’t matter. I could fix it. There are better glues now. Adhesives that mingle the fibers of things being joined. Joints stronger than the pieces joined. Clamping the parts together I waited. There was no hurry. The goal was not a deadline. When the joint had cured, I drilled a hole through the centre and inserted a hardwood dowel. You can’t see it. But it is there. I covered the hidden strength with the fingerboard and remounted the neck to the body. There was a new dignity to the instrument. It held its head up.
Over the following weeks I pressed the cracks together and pulled out the punched-in hole. The time came for varnish. I didn’t want to mess that up and got a good book on refinishing from a friend and read it. I roughed the surface, tinted the light spots and purchased a bottle of varnish no bigger than a drinking glass for more than the cost of a good gallon of paint. After each coat I roughed the finish and applied another. The final coat had to dry for a month. I painted the bathroom one afternoon while I waited.
The next step took faith. Methodically, I scoured the head and body of the cello with fine steel wool. The finish that had been clear and glossy was scratched flat. After steel wool I used powderized pumice to buff the scratches to indistuingishable fineness. Next, I washed the powder from the surface and persistently buffed the finish with soft cloths until a glow emerged where gloss had been. The chastising had removed the glare and released the beauty of the finish.
I found a set of strings and a used bridge and fit them in place. As I turned the tuning pegs in the head and the strings came taught—I wondered if the neck would hold. The body creaked in protest, and settled. I perched on the edge of a chair in the living room, bow in hand, with the cello cradled between my legs. Drawing the bow across a string, rich tone flowed from what had been battered and broken. The music was back!
The Latin word from which we take integrity, holds the meaning of unimpaired condition, something that is complete, sound and pure. It is an attractive picture of goodness.
The Latin verb for integrity tells a different story. Integro means to renew and restore, to make whole; to repair, to repeat or to begin again. Everything of integrity needs renewal and restoration.