My mother sits in a wheelchair, propped up with cushions and blankets. What used to be a smiling face is devoid of emotion or recognition of her surroundings. I have come for a brief visit, long enough to hold her hand and tell her I love her. Maybe I would say a few other things, but I wouldn’t expect a response or any kind of interaction, because she is now unable to communicate. Because I can’t see her face or read her expression, I know it’s not going to be an easy visit. Then the music therapist arrives with her portable keyboard, and relief washes over me like a summer rain. The last time she visited my mother, Mom could interact to some degree. She even poked around a little on the keyboard, and the music therapist played the melody along with Mom and graciously called it a duet. Mother beamed with the pleasure of being in the company of another musician, someone who spoke her language. She was the happiest I had seen her in months. But not so, this day. The therapist unpacks her keyboard and sets it up so she can see the music and Mother’s face at the same time. She plays the first song and sings with her lovely melodic voice. No reaction. Undaunted, she sings another, and I try to sing along, but almost immediately, I choke up, because music has that effect on me when I am consumed with grief or joy. My heart aches, because Mother can’t play the piano anymore or sing or even hum along. Seeing that Mother needs a little more encouragement to be engaged, the therapist suggests I sit closer and hold Mother’s hands. Somehow, during the next song, I tell myself to pull myself together and sing to Mom. She can’t sing, so I’ll have to sing for both of us. I request a song that I know Mom likes and that I know the words to, “Ain’t She Sweet.” It’s an old standard, and it’s a little peppier. I belt it out for all I’m worth, and I’m praying that I’m getting through. Then we end with a few hymns. One of Mom’s favorites, and mine too, is “In the Garden,” but I only know the first verse. But I do know a little harmony for that one, so the therapist continues to play the second verse. Hearing that I don’t know the words, she feeds them to me before each line, so it sounds like I know the whole song. I’d never sung all the verses, and I have to tell you that the experience was at least as healing for me as for my mother, if not more.
Music is the expression of our hearts and souls. It is an international and Omni generational language. We sing lullabies to our babies; we sing camp songs around the fire; we sing love songs as we snuggle on the dance floor; we sing the blues; we sing patriotic songs to express our gratitude to our soldiers and veterans; and we sing hymns to our weary parents. Even though my mother doesn’t make a sound, I know that in her mind, she is singing with me. She and I have just spent an hour together in a more intimate way than we ever could with words. Her love of music is one of her legacies to me.
It’s a legacy I cherish and hope to pass along.