It’s been several months since I’ve written about L~, the former art teacher and painter diagnosed with early stage Alzheimer’s whose favorite question at the start of any creative project is, “What’s the point?” Despite my best efforts and those of her wonderful aide A~, nothing we did had captured her imagination or enthusiasm. We enjoyed our time together but L~ was easily frustrated by her inability to draw realistically, and resistant to doing anything of a playful or abstract nature. Having her reconnect with her old artistic self may have been the goal that her daughter and I had, but it had zero appeal for her: it was as if she was saying, “Been there, done that.” I was beginning to think it was either a hopeless cause or a total failing on my part.
In February, I gave L~ and A~ an artist sketchbook and asked them to make daily entries on its pages. I showed them other journals, and demonstrated how they could use lines, drawings, shapes, patterns, colors, numbers, words, collage, folds, etc. alone or in combination, depending on their mood and inclination. The important thing was to put something down on the page each day, even if it was only an “X,” a slash, or the word “NO!” to take the place of an AWOL muse.
L~ didn’t understand and needed lots of hand holding. “If you don’t know what to do,” I suggested, “just write, ‘I don’t know what to do.’” After much hesitancy, she began scrawling something on the page. I wasn’t able to read her words until she showed them to me. She had written: “Shall we dance?”
I got up from my chair and extended my arms. “Shall we dance, madame?” I asked. L~ accepted my invitation and we fox trotted around the kitchen, joking about what L~’s husband, S~, would say if he suddenly appeared. L~ told me that when she was younger, she loved to dance — everything from ballroom dancing to the Charleston to the jitterbug.
It was a revelatory moment that made me realize a change in direction might be in order, a shift from the visual arts to music and dance.
Since then, we’ve been exploring our newfound interest from different perspectives, some more rewarding than others. L~ loves banging away at a small electronic keyboard I bring, but only for short stretches. (It turns out she also played the piano for many years.) When the three of us improvise on other instruments or percussive objects, she goes her own merry way, oblivious to what A~ and I are doing. On occasion, we dance to big band music that I’ve burned to a cd.
After discovering that L~ had regularly performed in community musicals and operas, and seeing family photos of someone who could easily have passed for a Hollywood starlet, I gained a whole new respect for the life she had led. Among my favorite videos were a few I was certain would spark her interest. [Readers are definitely encouraged to follow the links.] This master class with a youngish and endearing Stephen Sondheim is as delightful as it is educational, but watching it, L~ could only ask in frustration, “What lesson are we supposed to learn?” I thought Tony Bennett’s duet at the age of 85 with Lady Gaga might inspire her but Gaga’s turquoise hair was all she could focus on. Mandy Patinkin’s exquisite version of “Younger than Springtme” proved a dud, and Leonard Bernstein’s “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide fared only marginally better.
Now we spend most of our time singing classic songs from the Broadway stage (e.g., The King and I, My Fair Lady, Oklahoma, South Pacific, West Side Story) sans musical accompaniment. (“Wunderbar,” from Kiss Me Kate, is an all-time favorite of hers; opera, I’m afraid, is above my pay grade.) L~’s voice is well past its prime and mine never had one so the windows remain closed lest neighbors think there’s a cat fight going on outside. But we have lots of fun and the difference in energy is like night and day. L~ doesn’t ask, “What’s the point?” anymore. Instead, she throws herself into each song and exults in her singing with a lightness that was missing in art. As we become more familiar with the lyrics, I encourage her to bring more expression and feeling to the words. I’m wondering if a karaoke machine is next on the agenda.
Several days ago, L~’s son J~ came by to join us. It was sweet to watch them pore over the music together (like studying some ancient text), reminisce about family life (as a youngster, he used to hang out under the piano as she played), sing duets, and hear her happily say to him more than once: “I didn’t know you were so interested in all these songs.”
In the realm of “priceless,” watching a 94 year-old who knows whereof she speaks belting out this South Pacific masterpiece is right near the top:
There Is Nothing Like A Dame (4:08)