“Grandma?” I manage to squeak out.
My lower lip quivers slightly while remembering this vibrant woman from my childhood, where visits to her home included observations of productive task completion accompanied by constant singing or whistling. Watching her vivaciously fly around the large house was entertaining in itself. No amount of toys, books, or television shows could lure me away from listening to the sound of her voice as she cleaned, cooked, and laundered clothes; the soprano timbre had a lyrically quick and pleasant vibrato. After she completed the day’s chores, she sat down on the piano bench to play and sing through her favorites hymns. I watched her hands in awe, wishing I could one day master those black and ivory keys with as much ease and passion. I stood by her side, waiting to request my favorite tune, Alley Cat; she never needed to ask my preference but always did regardless.
“Grandma Sarah?” My hand hesitates while reaching out to touch her hip, not wishing to cause further pain to the sensitive lower back sore where a pillow props her weight. Instead I reach higher and gently rub her bicep, “Grandma?”
Stroking her arm, I lean forward to see the purple bruises from the onslaught of intravenous needles during the hospital stay. A welling of tears run over the brim of my lids and down my cheeks as I continue patting her arm. I test the weight of my hands over several minutes, waiting for her to awake upon my touch.
My heart sinks in my chest. The amazing woman before me had a beautiful life she could no longer remember. From U.S. Cadet Corps nurse, to labor and delivery nurse, to school nurse while raising four children, she spent her entire life taking care of others. Her Alzheimer’s diagnosis came after months of rapid deterioration in functional skills, and nine years later she still suffered. I owe much of my success as a music educator to this phenomenal woman. Her passion for music was tangible throughout her life, which transferred to my mother and down to me. What could I do to possibly repay the euphoria of my world as a happy band director?
Unable to draw a response both verbally and in physical touch, I open my mouth to an old melody:
“Meet me tonight in dreamland, under the silv’ry moon,
meet me tonight in dreamland, where love’s sweet roses bloom,
come with the love light gleaming, in your dear eyes of blue,
meet me in dreamland, sweet, dreamy dreamland,
there let my dreams come true.”
Mimicking the tone color of the recording sung by Judy Garland, I heard the ballad countless times in my youth. It never aged for me, nor grew tired in the sensory follicles of my ears.
Gazing out the window over my shoulder, I opt to sing through the tune again at an increased volume, feeling comfortable in solitude with the acoustics of the room. Midway through the second line, I see slight movement in my periphery. Stunned to near silence, my voice wavers but I do not stop singing. Her left shoulder leans back toward the mattress slowly, then her head tilts to the sound of my voice. The aged lines of her pale face come into view just as her eyes subtly crease to reveal the sapphire irises. Her left hand gently lands on the mattress before I take hold and caress the backside with my thumb, making soothing circles. The wrinkle in her forehead indicates an attempt to bring my face into focus without her glasses and a genuine effort to recall who is singing at her bedside.
I finish the last line of the song, “Hi, Grandma. It’s Denise, your granddaughter.” I massage her hand in both of my own, but she does not respond. Unwilling to let the opportunity to experiment pass, I decide on an upbeat melody she repeatedly sang to all her grandchildren in our youth:
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
you make me happy when skies are gray,
you’ll never know dear, how much I love you,
please don’t take my sunshine away.”
While continuing the folk song into the second verse, my disposition falters to tears once again witnessing one of the greatest affirmations of my entire existence: my grandmother was attempting to murmur the lyrics! The singing continued for over an hour as I superseded the emotions and revelation shaping itself in my mind. Every song presented was relevant to her upbringing, from The Andrew Sisters to Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby, yet mixed with several of her favorite hymns.
In all my music training, I never before realized a response could be as overwhelmingly prominent in a dementia patient. The epiphany of this event equally angered as it did inspire. How could I have missed this in all those years of study? What is it that causes this intense reaction? I preach the power of music to my students every day, but never before grasped its innate ability to bring one back to lucidity, if only for moments.
As any optimist would resolve, I poured my efforts into action by analyzing current research. It is there I found my answers: The last portion of the brain consumed by Alzheimer’s Disease is the medial prefrontal cortex where autobiographical information can be retrieved when familiar music is presented. This region has the power to bridge connections with emotions felt from those memories, creating an overwhelming response in patients. Findings from studies within the last five years alone have sparked current trends in music therapy plans, such as mp3 and iPod playlists full of tunes specific to each individual. Care givers and researchers alike are seeing results.
Music is powerful. Our mind yearns for the emotions associated with each varying canvas of notes and rhythms, as well as the unique way it heals. As I witnessed with my grandmother only six months before her passing in 2010, music is the food of love as a true gateway to lucidity. Therefore, it is my plea, along with thousands of music educators across the world, that we continue traditions of music excellence in our schools and within our homes to ensure connections to our families, their thoughts, and their minds until the end of natural life.