82: The Pianist

82: The Pianist

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

The Pianist

All deep things are song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us, song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls!

~Thomas Carlyle

The floors of the old church creaked and popped as we maneuvered the antique piano across the scarred floorboards. The piano was an ornate upright, a remnant of the days when piano keys were made of ebony and ivory. I’m certain it outweighed a Volkswagen Beetle. It was a treasured donation to an old country church built in the 1870s, which had just undergone a restoration after a half-century of neglect and storm damage. I couldn’t wait for music to fill the sanctuary again.

My aunt, Alison, and her husband, Don, had recently arrived from Ohio for their annual visit, each thousand-mile trip made incrementally more difficult by Don’s advancing Alzheimer’s. Although he had medication to manage the disease symptoms, the changes wrought by the passage of each year were painful to watch. As half a dozen of us carefully moved the piano across the floor, rolling it over pieces of thick plywood to avoid putting too much weight on one floorboard, Don stood silently at the back of the church and watched.

A scientist with a doctorate in polymer chemistry, Don was slender, with a full head of white hair rivaling Toscanini’s mane. His illness had gradually robbed him of the ability to make conversation. He kept a small notebook in his shirt pocket on which he noted the date and day of the week. Sometime during the past year all names had deserted him, except for Alison’s. She was his anchor, and he kept her in sight as much as possible, becoming uneasy when she made trips to the bathroom. My heart went out to her in her state of constant vigilance. Yesterday we had found him outside searching through the wrong car for his jacket.

The call for help to move the piano had resulted in the gathering of a small crowd, many of whom made polite attempts to initiate conversation with Don. But his repertoire of stories had diminished and the conversations didn’t last long. He wandered outside under the shade of the live oaks, but returned often to mark the slow progress of the piano and our attempts to center it on a sheet of plywood in the front corner of the church.

Music stitched together Don’s family. He and each of his four children played instruments with professional expertise: piano, violin, viola, flute. They sang in their church choir. I’ll never forget his look of pained horror when we celebrated the birthday of one of our grandchildren a few years back with a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.” We are a large, multigenerational family and sang hopelessly off-key, our tempo far too slow. Don made us start over while he conducted.

When the piano was finally installed, we adjourned to a shady spot under the trees and broke open a cooler of sodas. A homecoming celebration was in the works, with invitations going out to all who had ties to the old church during its long history as the center of a tiny Texas community. As we discussed plans for the event, music began to waft from the open windows. Mozart. Heads turned and conversations halted. Even the birds stopped singing. “Who’s playing that?” someone asked. It was Don.

I know that people with Alzheimer’s lose recent memories first while retaining memories from the distant past. Don’s early piano studies were firmly entrenched. He had no sheet music; the complex sonata was still fixed in a part of his brain not yet damaged by the disease.

We drifted silently into the back of the church, doing our best not to disturb him, but he had closed his eyes and was lost in the music.

“How do you do that?” my brother asked when Don got up from the piano stool.

“It’s what I’ve always done,” he said.

It has been nearly three years since that day, and Don has since moved into an Alzheimer’s facility that can provide the specialized care he needs. He still plays the piano in the recreation room to the delight of other patients. And whenever I slide the dust cover off that old church piano, I think of the day he proved to all of us that amid the fog of Alzheimer’s, the light of music was still shining.

~Martha Deeringer

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