Mom couldn’t read music, but she played the guitar and the piano by ear, and she had a beautiful singing voice. When they were young, she and her sister Fay sang duets in church, and Mom often led the congregational singing when no one else was available. It must have taken an enormous amount of strength to overcome her natural shyness and insecurity to stand up in front of people every Sunday, but music and Jesus were important to her.
Mom told stories of Saturdays, after all the chores were done, when friends and family gathered for a night of music. Her uncles brought their guitars or fiddles, and she joined them as they played and sang until long into the night. Mom continued to play until her fingers bled, and she sang as long as anyone was up to sing with her. But somewhere along the line her passion was buried under self doubt, worry, and fear.
By the time I was old enough to remember, Mom no longer shared her musical talent in public. She joined in the group singing at family gatherings or congregational singing at church, but she no longer sang solos or duets with Aunt Fay or anyone else. Her guitar was relegated to the back of her closet and was only dragged out when I begged hard enough for her to play a song for me. She played the piano more often than the guitar. She sometimes entertained us with a few “honky tonk” tunes she remembered from her youth, but more often, she played and sang old hymns while I sat on the bench beside her and sang with her. As I got older, she taught me to sing alto, and we sometimes harmonized for hours. After I started taking piano lessons and spent more time practicing, she spent less time at the keyboard and soon gave that up, too.
Through the years family gatherings were more likely to center around the TV than the piano, and she and Dad stayed home more, so she sang less. But when they came to live with David and me, they started going to church with us regularly, and once again, Mom and I sang side by side. She struggled with some of the contemporary choruses, but she remembered the old hymns.
The senior adult ministry at our church had a monthly luncheon. It always included some sort of entertainment, and once in a while that took the form of a hymn sing. The audience called out requests and everybody sang along. It was one of Mom’s favorite events. At one hymn sing, someone requested “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” It was one of “our” songs, one of the first songs we sang together. As we sang, our eyes met, and just for a moment, her eyes cleared and my mother was there, as she had been before Alzheimer’s. It didn’t last long. As the clarity faded from her eyes, she continued to sing, but I couldn’t make a sound past the lump in my throat. A couple of years later, there was another hymn sing, but Mom didn’t show up. Oh, she was physically present, and she sang along, but she stumbled over some of the words, and when our eyes met, there was no clarity.
In May when Dad died, I spent a lot of time at Southridge where she lives, just sitting with her. One afternoon we were in the common area, and the TV was on one of the Gaither Gospel music shows. Without conscious thought, I started singing along, and Mom joined in. Her words were garbled and incoherent except when she came to the word “Jesus.” There was no connection between us, but every time Jesus’ name came up in a song, she smiled and sang out clearly and with conviction.
Mom still loves music, and as the Sandi Patti song says, “There is strength in the name of the Lord.” Between music and the name of Jesus, Alzheimer’s doesn’t stand a chance.