There’s a viral video going ‘round, a clip from an upcoming documentary “Alive Inside” about (their description) “the power music has to ‘awaken’ minds considered closed.” The “subject” is Henry, an older man in an assisted living home. When his nurse speaks to him, he answers to his name, but the other queries leave him confused. His daughter describes her memories of her once-vivacious father, the type of man who would break out into a full rendition of “Singing in the Rain” in the middle of a sidewalk. The camera pans to Henry in his heyday, a tall, strapping and well, hell, attractive man, and then back to him now, in his wheel chair, head hung low, seemingly closed off to the world. It’s hard a contrast.
Enter music. Henry’s nurse gives him an iPod Shuffle full of his favorite songs and he lifts his head, his eyes open wide. He taps his feet, shuffles his legs, rocks his body. They’re not drastic movements, but I imagine in his mind, he’s swinging around the street poles with his kids again or transported back to some Cab Calloway dance, limbs askew, doing what we’d now call “getting it in.” This time when he talks he’s animated, eyes open and full of energy, maybe something akin to being his old self.
I couldn’t stop myself from crying, a mixture of joy, a bit of marveling at the power of music, but a bit of fear too. I’m on what some call “the better side” of 30, beyond the “Forever Young” stage, and lately I’ve been thinking more about inevitability rather than invincibility.
I’ve started doing things I never thought I would too, like staying up at night thinking about my legacy, pondering with great seriousness what to do about three grey hairs (pluck, dye, ignore?), groaning like my grandmother used to, saying, “Lord, give me strength!” when I try to stand up after falling out after a good run. I used to think people were lying about the changes that come after 30. They weren’t. And it all makes me wonder how I’ll end up, well, at the end.
My grandmother was already in her sixties by the time I entered the world. I saw the pictures of her as a young woman; trim waist, full Marcel-curled black hair and a jubilant smile that few people wear after 25, the age when most have seen enough in the world to dull the glow just a bit. By the time my grandmother and I met, her curves had filled out, and her full hair was thin and grey.
She was the First Lady of her church, its organist and choir director. She maxed out at five-feet, but behind her back the kids in the youth choir mocked her catchphrase, a threat of “I’ll break your leg!” when they acted up. No one really thought she’d do it, but then no one acted a fool long enough to test the theory. It was Detroit in the 80s, even ladies could get a little gangster when need be.
I was around 12 and she was in her 70s when my family noticed her short-term memory was failing. She would consistently forget where she left her purse, the car keys, or if she added salt to the neck bones. We figured it was a symptom of advanced age. She had my grandfather, who was still operating on all cylinders, so we didn’t worry so much about her. Years later, her doctor informed my mother that we’d missed the early stages of Alzheimer’s, not that there was much we could do about it anyway.
In my mid 20s, I sat in the second row next to my grandmother at my grandfather’s funeral, directly in front of the casket. She couldn’t remember that my grandfather was gone and didn’t recognize “that man,” as she put it, “who’s laying up there.” So there we sat in a surreal moment with her oblivious that the stranger laid out for his Homegoing under a purple drape not five feet in front of her was her husband of six-plus decades.
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