“The last piano solo that I played with two hands was ‘My Tribute,’” Ruthie LaFreniere says softly. Her good hand—the right one—curves loosely around the handle of her cane, and one can picture that hand, joined by the left one resting in her lap, singing over the keys of a grand piano to deliver the grand hymn.

Ruthie was an accomplished pianist in 1983 when she learned that she would need brain surgery to remove a bleeding tumor. The surgeon warned her that because of where they’d have to cut into the brain, “there’s a chance you’ll become paralyzed on the left side.” But sitting there in the sterilized plastic chair thinking about her two middle-school-aged daughters and the tumor in her brain, Ruthie didn’t really hear it.

“Although I learned to walk again with a brace, I never regained the use of my left arm,” Ruthie says. She speaks with a patience and deliberateness that one suspects she didn’t have 30 years ago. “But thankfully God had given me a stubborn nature.” She pauses. “Let’s find a better word: He had given me a great deal of persistence.”

That persistence allowed her to walk out of the hospital after two months and attempt to get back to raising her daughters. But in every room of the house, she encountered things she could no longer do. “How do I take a cup of coffee from the kitchen to the living room when I need my only hand to use a cane? How do I fold fitted sheets—which is hard enough to do with two hands?” How could she be a good mother when she couldn’t French-braid hair, couldn’t carry a full laundry basket, couldn’t clap at sporting events or concerts? “How do I be a mother without doing? That was my challenge.”

But Ruthie learned that persistence is not always enough, and that the most painful challenges in her life would not be physical ones. “Two years into my recovery, my marriage ended, and that was worse than brain surgery.” There is no bitterness in her voice—only a residual heaviness. “Two years after that, my oldest daughter left me to live with her dad. That was worse than brain surgery and divorce.” Persistence alone couldn’t restore her marriage or bring her daughter back. But she learned that the Lord could restore her joy. And slowly, piece by piece, he restored other aspects of her life as well.

Although Ruthie could no longer play the piano, she could still teach. She had been teaching piano and voice lessons since she graduated with a degree in music performance from Western Baptist (now Corban University), first on staff at the school and then out of her home. “When I finally came home from the hospital, my voice and piano students wanted me to teach them again.” Ruthie would sit at the piano and use her right hand to demonstrate techniques and play chords for her students. “Pretty soon I found myself doing more and more,” she says, as if her right hand began acting of its own accord, playing up and down the black and white keys and experimenting with new patterns and sounds.

The right hand kept playing until, 15 years after her surgery, she decided to attempt a one-handed piano solo. The song she chose? “My Tribute.” It took her a year, practicing and adapting until she felt the song sounded complete.

Ruthie has been playing one-handed piano ever since, sometimes rearranging familiar songs, but often composing her own music. When asked about the music she writes, she says, “It’s a mixture of some jazz elements, some Latin rhythms, and more contemporary sounds,” and one almost sees her sway gently in her chair to a syncopated rhythm only she can hear.

Jazz had come back into Ruthie’s life in the figure of a man named Paul (who, Ruthie swore, was the best jazz trumpet player in the Willamette Valley). They met at the Rickreall Pageant where she was directing the choir, “and it was an immediate zing!” They married a few years later.

Even through the paralysis of her left hand, the loss of her first marriage, and a series of additional surgeries to treat a bone spur in her shoulder and arthritis in her right hand, God had continued orchestrating Ruthie’s life, rearranging it until it was complete. Having the use of only one hand hasn’t slowed her down; rather, it has inspired her to share her story and her life with more people. In addition to teaching private music lessons, she also teaches two Bible studies for women, participates in chapel at the Simonka Place every month, and ministers to people who are homebound. “So I’m pretty busy,” she laughs.

But she wasn’t too busy to add one more special performance to her ministry—this time in support of Corban University. Like many alumni, Ruthie has stayed connected with the college over the years. “I have such wonderful memories, and still have contact with the students I taught forty years ago. What a blessing!” So on Saturday, October 21st, Ruthie in turn blessed Corban by performing a benefit concert to raise money for the school to put toward purchasing a grand piano.

She began with Bach, then Mozart, playing rondos, waltzes, and etudes. If you closed your eyes, her arrangement of Beethoven’s Für Elise sounded as though it were being played by two hands, not one, as her right hand kept dancing to the left to hit the low notes. At one point, Ruthie turned to the audience and said, “I skipped 12 notes in that song. Could you hear them?” She would call Paul onto the stage to accompany her for a few numbers on the trumpet, then good-naturedly wave him offstage when he was finished. She shared that Paul had been diagnosed with lung cancer years earlier and had had his right lung removed. “So I’m playing with one hand, and he’s playing with one lung,” she laughed.

The last part of the concert comprised some of Ruthie’s favorite hymns: “He Leadeth Me,” “Change My Heart, O God,” and “It Is Well with My Soul.” After a jazzy rendition of “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder” (which Paul accompanied with gusto), she paused and turned to the audience. She had been sharing her story, piece by piece, throughout the evening: her surgeries, her struggles folding fitted sheets, and the lessons God had taught her about patience and abiding in Him. “For this next song,” she said, “I’m going to really pound on these keys. But it’s not to show off.” She paused, smiled thoughtfully. “It’s because this is the best way I know to thank God for the things He has done for me.” She turned back to the piano and began to play “My Tribute.”