I believe in the power of music to connect us to memory in a way that can transcend time and disease.
I first noticed this on the day I helped my family pack up my grandmother’s house as part of her transition to a nursing home. In packing up her sock drawer I found a ring box. Folded up in the slot where the ring had been was a piece of paper on which she had written “John sang ‘Why Don’t We Do This More Often?’”
I asked my grandmother, “Nana, is this the box for your engagement ring?” “No,” she said. I asked, “Nana, did Pop sing to you when he proposed?” “No,” she replied again. “Nana,” I asked, “Did Pop sing ‘Why Don’t We Do This More Often?’” The next of line of the song streamed out of her in a rush, “‘Just what we’re doing tonight.’ Pop sang that to me the night he proposed.” And with just that one line of the song she was reconnected to my grandfather and to her memory of that summer night years ago.
As my grandmother slid deeper and deeper into the haze of Alzheimer’s, I would often use music to try and call her back to me. There were nights I would visit her after dinner and she wouldn’t know me – wouldn’t even acknowledge my presence in the room. I would take out my mandolin and sing the songs my grandfather used to play on the piano – “The Wild Colonial Boy” or “Whiskey in the Jar.” And very often, after a few songs a light would come on her eyes, “Kara” she would say in bewilderment, as surprised to see me as if I had materialized from thin air.
Somewhere in a place the disease hadn’t yet touched lived my Nana’s memory of music. And by remembering a song she could sometimes remember the people she once sang with – me, or my mother, or my grandfather.
My Nana passed away several years ago and in June I gave birth to my first child. Each night before I put my son to bed, I play the mandolin and sing to him. I play because he loves it, but I also play to create a very particular connection between us, a connection built on music. I believe that if on some dark night in the future I can’t remember who he is, or even who I am, he will be able to sing these songs and I will return to him, if only for a little while. This I believe.
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