“Many people die with their music still in them. Why is this so? Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it, time runs out.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., writer and physician
On Sunday I sorted through several years of blog posts looking for a story to use for my storytelling class. I found it. Below is an expanded version of an experience I had with one of the students who was non-responsive during the class. It’s a testament to the power of music in every phase of our lives.
I started a busy week of yoga teaching at New York Methodist Hospital. I went to the Geriatric Psychology Unit. Because it is an acute care facility, I always have a different group of patients whom I work with in a small group class. Their cognitive and physical abilities vary widely.Their illnesses are both fascinating and heart breaking to witness. My mind can’t help but go to the thought that some day I and / or the people I know and love may find ourselves in this same situation of loss as the years tick by.
Ruth was one of the students in the class. Though she could hear me speaking, my questions didn’t register in her mind. There was a piano in the room where I was teaching the class. After class was over, Ruth slowly shuffled to it and she played a church hymn that she probably learned as a young child. Every note was perfect and she played with emotion. Her shaking hands steadied. Color came back to her cheeks, and for a moment she seemed truly alive. I was astonished and asked Caroline, the recreational therapist, why Ruth could play the song perfectly but not answer me when I asked, “How are you?” Caroline had a very simple answer. “Music is the very last thing to go from the mind. Reasoning, logic, math skills, speech, and even emotion can be gone, but music sticks with us until our very last days.”
I’m certain that there’s a very sound, neurological reason for this. Maybe musical ability is stored in an area of the brain that is not affected by the loss of cognitive ability from aging. But I think there’s a more mystical, maybe even spiritual, reasoning. It provides a beautiful and powerful justification for making creativity and the arts a very necessary part of our lives at every age. We are literally and figuratively wired for music. When everything else falls away, and I mean everything, we can take comfort in the idea that music will become our final voice to the world.
Holmes’s well-articulated concern has been a part of my life for a long time. I don’t want to spend any time getting ready to live. I want to live now, this and every moment. I don’t want that music stuck in me, never to reach the ears of others, whether it’s actual music or the work I’m meant to do with my life. My electric piano arrived this week, and I’m starting on my childhood dream of learning to play. When I sit down to practice my simple beginner scales, I think of Ruth. And Holmes. And the great continuum of humanity that has shared and reveled in music since our very beginning. I try to let the music come through me rather than from me. Somewhere out there is a cosmic symphony playing along. I just want to tap into it.
Ruth passed away a few weeks after she played her hymn on the piano for us. I’ll never forget that hymn, nor the lesson she taught me by playing it. Her music lives on in me, which is the most any of us can hope for.