I wrote this piece about ten years ago, when I was working as a music therapist in the hospice setting. Spending my 20's with people and families who were facing the end of life had a tremendous impact on me both personally and professionally.
Being around dying taught me so much about living. I learned how meaningful our memories are, and how narratives and stories help us make sense of our lives. Yet I also came to understand in a new way the importance of the present moment, and how for many, that is all that exists.
Francis is wearing a plaid dress and white slippers with bright red strawberries. Her hair is thin and white, pulled straight back. The top of her head is streaked with orange, like a single bunch of long brittle pine needles gathered from her widow’s peak and spreading to her ponytail. When I say her name, she looks at me as if she knows me. Offers her smile as freely as a child. But we’ve never met.
“I came to see you today because I heard you used to sing in the choir,” I tell her.
“Oh” she answers. Her eyes are proud.
“You love to sing?”
“I love music.”
I unzip my guitar case and starting tuning the strings.
“What kind of music do you like?” I ask.
“Delicious music” she proclaims, all lips and tongue, as if she can still taste rich dominant sevenths.
As I finish tuning my guitar, I try to distill a hint of this ripened woman. Who carved those deep laugh lines in her eyes? Are her hands calloused from years of diapers and pins or fishing nets? What secrets did she whisper in her lover’s ear?
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“I’m not……” “I just don’t…..” She looks at me like she’s never thought about it before.
“The Bronx” her caregiver calls from the other room.
I start singing “East Side, West Side, all around the town…”
She catches it and holds on “…on the sidewalks of New York!” She laughs. “Yes, yes!”
We do this for half an hour. I start a song and she immediately joins in. Her eyes alternate between laughter and tears. Her strawberry toes are dancing.
I place a small harp in her lap and strum up the strings. She struggles to pull her hands out from under her nubby afghan.
“Now, let me just.” She reaches a finger out.
I reach my hand around to the other side of the strings and we dance around each other for a few moments. When her attention wanes, I find the melody to You Are My Sunshine. She hums along, her hand suspended in the air. She starts to sing “You’ll never know…” I chime in when she gets stuck. “…how much I love you…”
“What does that song make you think of?” I ask.
She looks down. It is there, but in a language she no longer understands.
“Maybe you used to sing it to your children,” I suggest.
“Maybe I did” she whispers. “Maybe I did.”
I don’t think Francis answered a single question about her life.
She’s 97 years old, but she only knows this moment.
And this moment is delicious.