by Marc and Julie Anderson
TOPEKA — It’s just one chapter in the book of his life.
That’s how Michael Flax, a member of Christ the King Parish in Topeka, recalls an accident that almost cost him the one pleasure he cherishes most — playing the piano.
At 56, Flax has been playing the piano for 51 years.
“I begged my parents [for lessons]. They made me wait until I was five,” Flax said.
He was thrilled when his parents finally allowed him to give the piano a try.
“Some people had a restaurant — a café kind of thing — and they had an old piano. They sold the café and they were moving,” he said, “and asked my dad to store their piano.
“It was this big, beautiful piano which I still have in my house.”
Netta Curry was his first teacher. Flax admits at first he found her approach unusual.
“I didn’t get to play the piano for a very long time,” recalled Flax. “She taught me to read music and music theory first, which was a really strange approach, I thought at first.
“But when I was ready to sit down and play, it was easy. I learned to read music before I learned to read words.”
Flax took piano lessons from Curry on a regular basis, sometimes five times a week.
“When I was 15, she moved away,” he said.
Flax and his parents hired another teacher who sponsored him for a musical competition and worked with him for the next two years.
But on July 31, 1978, just before his senior year in high school, an event changed his life forever.
“I worked in a grocery store, and I was working in the meat market,” he said, “and I was just grinding hamburger.
“I wasn’t careful enough. My hand got stuck in the machine, and by the time I got it shut off, it was too late. So, my hand was stuck.”
A doctor came from down the street and extricated Flax’s hand from the machine as carefully as possible.
Later that day, Flax underwent surgery to suture what remained of the fingers on his right hand.
Although he had the presence of mind, even in the moment, to ask someone to call his piano teacher and cancel his lesson, it didn’t really register that his lessons might be over for good.
“‘Oh, Michael,” he remembers the doctor telling him very gently. ‘You’re not going to play again.’
“I guess I didn’t understand that.”
After a week in the hospital, Flax returned home.
“I was sitting in the house when I thought I have to go and see the piano,” he said.
“And I did.
“And I did my crying there.”
Despite heavy bandages on his right hand and arm, Flax attempted to play a few chords with his left hand. Finding he was able to play a chord or two, Flax became impatient about the removal of the bandages.
“I was in a hurry to get the wrap off, which was going to be months, but I could play a little bit,” he recalled. “As the bandages got smaller, I could play a little bit more.”
Sometime after the accident, one of his sisters-in-law’s parents celebrated their 40th anniversary. They asked him to play for their anniversary Mass.
“I had played at my church since I was 9,” he said, “but my first go-back to playing at church was for their anniversary.
“It was very sweet. It was very, very sweet.
“And it’s a great story.
“But it’s not my whole story. It’s one chapter of it.”
After playing for the anniversary Mass, Flax said he became more determined than ever to return to playing.
“I thought, ‘I cannot not do this.’ So, it just became natural to try,” he added.
Later, when a music teacher at school asked him to play “Silent Night” at the annual Christmas program, Flax said he found it easy. The piece is played in thirds, meaning every third key is played.
As a result, for most of the song, the shape of the pianist’s hand stays the same.
“My hand fit just perfectly,” he said.
Since that Christmas, Flax has played the piano and organ regularly at whatever parish he has found himself, playing for Sunday Mass, as well as countless weddings and funerals.
He’s also participated in other musical events, like fundraising concerts. Although his life turned out differently than he expected, he said the accident was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“If I could change five things about myself, this wouldn’t be one of them,” he said. “And I wouldn’t want to go back and change it.
“I like where life has led me. I’m glad I get to participate in church.”
Ironically, the doctor who told him he would never play again later married his aunt.
“He became my uncle,” Flax said with a smile.
He played at their wedding.
The accident, Flax said, changed his life’s trajectory, but it didn’t define him. As a former teacher and now a principal at Santa Fe Trail Middle School in Carbondale, Flax said he tries to inspire those around him just like others helped him.
“I had a good support system to get through school,” Flax said. “And I already made up my mind [the injury] wasn’t going to dominate my life.”
As a middle school teacher and principal, he’s tried to instill the same attitude in his students and staff.
“I’ve always been kind of compassionate, but I’m far more compassionate now,” he said. “I don’t believe that someone else sets limits. I’ve set my own limits.”
And his handicap is its own opportunity, in a way.
“It’s a great example for kids,” he said. It sends the message that “because you have this, or because this is harder for you because of this, don’t let someone else determine your limits.”
“I always address it up front with kids,” Flax said. “I don’t want them to be afraid.”
Although many people find it difficult to teach middle school, Flax loves that age range.
“Middle school kids are my favorite,” he said.
Flax tries to teach students, parents, teachers and coaches the kids they see in front of them are constantly changing as their life stories unfold.
Every morning at the school assembly, he discusses a character-building trait. His staff jokingly refers to it as his “daily mini-sermon,” but Flax said it’s important to instill kindness at an early age.
“Just be kind,” Flax says he tells the kids. “You don’t know what happened before when you do something to someone else. I want them to be kind.”
He, in turn, urges his teachers to be the same to the children in their care.
“Don’t judge a kid’s story,” he advises simply, “by the chapter you walked into.”