There’s Magic in Music, or, Old Lives Matter

A darkened nursing home.  Elderly citizens sitting motionless in their wheelchairs.  Parked like forgotten shopping carts.  Hanging still like waiting fish.  The TV is off.  It doesn’t matter they’re facing a blank wall anyway.  Mom, Ellie and I walk into the room, my grandmother trailing behind with her walker.  Stubbornly refusing her wheelchair as always.  It dawns on me this is why.  I find new respect for my 97 year old grandmother on this visit.  Good for her for not budging even though it inconveniences others.  Bully for her for not giving in.
She gets up to play the piano and mom and I join in, singing a little.  Mom doesn’t really want to at first I can tell, we’re both kind of shy.  But I remind her, no one here can HEAR us well anyway.  And even if they did they won’t remember us when we leave.  So we sing.  And a nurse comes in to turn around the wheelchairs so their occupants can see us and the baby.  And there are smiles on previously empty faces.  Twinkles in eyes that were dull before.  Ellie ‘sings’ with us, ‘Ba, ba ba ba ba ba baaaaa’.  Grammie stops.  For the first time ever Ellie makes the sign for ‘more’ for something OTHER than food.  I am astounded.  I feel a little buoyant despite where I am.  There is something happening here, something special.  Something magical.  It might be our bright shining faces but I suspect it’s the music.  Music awakens the dormant.  Speaks to the speechless.  There is something powerful and mysterious about the way music affects us.  
One of the ladies with Alzheimer’s suddenly bursts out with ‘Sweet baby, sweet baby, pretty baby, ka ka ka ka ka ka ka.  She wants, she wants, two girls and a box, a box, a box, two girls in a box.  Such a sweet baby.  Sweet baby.’  She claps.  Ellie claps back.  She claps again more excitedly.  We talk to her a little.  She seems to appreciate the interaction.  I had no idea alzheimer’s affected speech.  The nurse tells us there’s nothing there, she doesn’t know what’s happening and I think she couldn’t be more wrong.  She knew there was a baby.  The words she must have said a thousand times over her life came to her.  Sweet, pretty baby.  The words of a mother, and a grandmother.  Of a kind person.  Of a PERSON.  
I wanted to shake my head and tell that nurse she was wrong.  Just because the connections have failed and she can’t string the words together intelligently doesn’t mean she can’t communicate.  She was communicating right now, and the light that came into her eyes!  What’s wrong with these people they can’t see that?  Is the definition of communication so strict you can’t see she’s talking with her HEART?  Her name was Eleanor too.  Maybe that’s why I felt a connection to her.  Or because she was dressed so nicely.  She kept picking at her skirt.  Or because she is the mother of someone we used to know.  Someone who may not have time to visit every day.  Or every week.  Or at all, for all I know.  (Which I don’t).  But who am I to judge?  It’s a broken heart that looks on a parent who doesn’t know you anymore.
Grammie called later, after we’d left, and said she was feeling lonely after the visit.  No doubt.  If I could bundle her in my suitcase and take her home with me I would.  Airport security may have issues with that.  (She keeps complaining she’s cold ma’am, and she keeps asking Gracie in luggage if she’s seen her glasses…)
Her ‘treat’ drawer was empty.  We left a chocolate bar and some chips.  I hugged her again.  I didn’t cry.  (I never cry at important, actual heart-wrenching moments.  Only at long-distance commercials.)  I’m at peace with that.
Grammie doesn’t have a TV in her room (her choice) or a computer (that might be pushing things for a woman who can remember when electricity was new and running water was for ‘rich folk’.)
So she doesn’t know I’ve written this entire blog about her, really, and for her.  Our relationship is totally uncomplicated, undemanding.  I’m the darling granddaughter who can do no wrong and she is the sweet grandmother who made me PJ’s out of old curtains and fed me chocolate chips whenever I wanted them.  Who helped me practice my piano lessons.  Who let me do cartwheels and somersaults in the living room.  
Thanks Grammie, I love you.

5 thoughts on “There’s Magic in Music, or, Old Lives Matter

  1. I loved this! I know it is about aunt Marie, but it is also about you with your insight, robust, heartwarming perspective. Love you forever and so happy for the joy Ellie brought!


  2. Angie I couldn't agree with you more. Music is a language for all and it awakens something inside. I have sat on the piano bench with your grandmother and together have sung the old songs of the church. She loves to play and sing and we often talk of the good old days when we attended Bloor Street Pentecostal Church. She is a wonderful Godly lady.


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