Flashback December, 2013: “Do you want to try playing Ms Patti?” Eric the Piano Man questions, gentle yet intent. The benefits of music for Alzheimers patients is well known to all except perhaps people who have dementia.
“I don’t think I can. I don’t know how,” Mom replies. She adores singing, knows the words to hundreds of songs, still remembers them mostly. But she never learned to read music or play an instrument. Now she’s 85 and in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Her language skills are beginning to evaporate – she rarely completes a sentence anymore. It seems unlikely she should be able to play the piano at this stage, even as she’s coming ’round the mountain.
Eric is undeterred: “I think you can Ms Patti. Do you want to give it a try?” He is soft yet insistent, slyly shy in the art of persuasion. Angels are like that. They ambush you quietly, make you believe you can do things you think you can’t, then disappear without a trace once you’ve conquered the unconquerable. I know it for a fact. Experienced it myself, yes ma’am.
Eric the Angel sits at the piano; Mom reposes in a big old blue armchair beside it in the living room of The Home. I’ve placed the chair slightly off right angles to the piano so Mom faces Eric’s profile as he plays. When he turns to sing with her, long-buried lyrics float to the surface of her receding memory, dance to his tune and in the process create a magical duet. Like Caroline and Gaby (the other earthbound angels with whom we’ve crossed paths on this Alzheimer’s journey) Eric connected with Mom within seconds of meeting her. The instant bond deepened quickly through their shared love of music. She trusts him. He might just succeed in convincing her to play.
This is our third weekly rendez-vous and things are going well – hardly surprising given the benefits of music for Alzheimer’s patients. I knew Mom would love this “music therapy,” just as she does Thursday morning sing-alongs, but I never dreamed just how much happiness private sessions would bring her. Seeing her transformed by the achievements she experiences as she sings with Eric is so moving I can hardly find the words to describe how grateful I am. Now she may play!
“Do you want to try Ms Patti? Eric persists.
“I guess I could,” Mom relents. She’s always been the type to grab life by the horns. I help her from the armchair and slide her onto the bench beside Eric. She sits for a minute, stroking the tops of her legs up-and-down-up-and-down-up-and-down as people with Alzheimer’s often do. It’s almost like a meditation. Or an endless prayer.
Eric waits, patience being a virtue of musical angels in particular. Finally, Mom lifts her right hand and touches the piano, tentatively at first then with increased confidence, clearly enjoying the feeling. Her bright pink nail polish is Valentine’s Day fresh against the white and black keys. She lifts the other hand. Sets her fingers down one after the other.
Eric anticipates her next moves and improvises alongside her. The result is lopsided and quirky. The notes (even to totally unmusical me) are disjointed. There’s no rhyme or reason to the melody. Yet I am captivated. My heart is in my throat. This haphazard bit of music is among the most poignant I’ve ever heard: a unique creation in this special time and space, a piece that has never been played before and will never be played again. It was born of Alzheimer’s disease, unconditional love, compassion, determination, empathy and courage: an ode to the fully realized potential of a single moment, a tribute to that which will soon be gone and forgotten.
There is great beauty in that. Great beauty indeed.