I believe in the healing power of music.
Three and a half years ago I arrived at my parents’ house in Michigan from Denver carrying a small portable CD player and two CD’s. My father had suffered a stroke and after monitoring the situation by phone for several days, I was flying in to assess the damage and see what could be done to help him.
I walked into the dining room to find my dad slumped over the table with his head in his hands. Unlike many stroke victims my dad’s speech was spared and he suffered no paralysis, but he paid with his memory and half of his vision and he was weak on his right side. He didn’t recognize any of us, or his home, or himself. He knew nothing. He gazed up from the table through a deep fog when I talked to him. He was depressed, baffled by his condition and his surroundings. He could talk, but couldn’t follow a conversation.
Dad used to walk around singing and whistling old Bing Crosby tunes. And once on a visit home from college I spied an old trombone sitting around and my dad explained that he used to play it when he was young, in tribute to the musical icon of his youth: Glen Miller.
I was hoping that maybe he could find something familiar, a memory to cling to in those old songs. And if not, I hoped that music appreciation didn’t necessarily require memory. Maybe what he liked before he would like again.
So I hooked up the CD player and as Bing Crosby began to sing “Swingin’ on a Star” my dad lifted his head from his hands and turned in his seat to face the music. He nodded approvingly and then started to sing along, every word to every song. He stared at the speakers as if Bing himself were standing there. From the fog of a life forgotten he clung to each note and lyric like they were old friends. And if Bing was an old friend, then Glen Miller was clearly family. He turned to me and said, “I think this is some of the best music ever written.”
Over the next few days as we lined up doctors and therapists we continued to play music and dad improved. By the time I flew back to Denver, he had stopped talking about wanting to die and had started talking about wanting to live. When he was singing along with Bing he was lost in the moment and not worrying about his past or his future. And maybe that’s the magic of music: its ability to draw us into the moment where we forget about our troubles and just live.
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