The rest of the family was out for the night, leaving just the two of us, eating silently at the dining table. The silence was punctuated by a question: “You are having exams now, is it?”
“No, por por. I graduated from university already.”
I thought I saw her brow furrow slightly in confusion, but I couldn’t be sure if she had heard me and had nothing else to say or if she had already slipped into another space in her head – into another time, perhaps.
A few minutes passed and she asked, again, “You’re having your exams now, is it?”
This time I hesitated and then responded, “Yes.”
My doctor friend had mentioned before that some doctors believe it is better to join Alzheimer’s patients in whatever reality they’re in than to continuously shock them out of it.
I stumbled on my reply, evidence of a lie not well-thought out.
She might have noticed if her mental capacities allowed her to. But then I wouldn’t be lying in the first place.
We finished our dinner in silence, as though the conversation never happened.
After clearing the plates, I went upstairs to my room and picked up the guitar lying on my bed. Soon after I began to play, my grandmother’s head poked in through the doorframe.
“Can I come in and sit for a little while?”
I sat tentatively on my bed, watching her hobble in. Suddenly, she turned around and said, “Wait, I wash my face first.”
She liked to hear me play the guitar for some reason. Whenever she heard me playing, she would stick her head in and watch me. Sometimes she would comment, stating the obvious: “Playing music ah.” I’d never really know what to say. Sometimes she would offer a compliment before retreating to her room: “Very nice.” It always felt awkward, somehow. I suppose I didn’t know what to make of it, since I could hardly trust that she knew what she was saying these days. Sometimes, like tonight, she’d ask to come in and listen.
I heard the water in the bathroom sink stop running and waited to see if she would come in through the bathroom door that connected our rooms. She opened it and looked in, without saying a word. I kept playing, not really turning around, and she retreated, closing the door. Just as I was wondering if she had forgotten that she’d wanted to come in and listen, she came in again through the front door. She took a seat on my bed, and like always when I had an audience, I didn’t know what to play. I was usually singing when she asked to come in, but once she sat down, it felt weird to keep going. Intrusive. Or maybe I felt I’d been intruded upon.
I had just restrung my guitar a couple of hours earlier and had to keep retuning it as the strings slipped. I was doing just that, preparing to play, when she abruptly said, “Play a song.” It came out sounding like a command, and in another context, someone might have considered it rude. The thought crossed my mind for a second and I wondered if this was the effect of her Alzheimer’s and old age or if she had always been awkward at expressing herself. Both seemed equally plausible and equally sad.
I knew I was unlikely to get a proper response, but I asked her anyway, “What’s your favourite song?” I had to repeat the question twice.
“Anything will do. I can’t remember,” she said as she arranged herself to lay down on my bed.
She hardly spoke anymore, except to ask whether we were going to church tomorrow (regardless of what day it was – she couldn’t remember), whether lunch or dinner was ready, whether I was doing work, whether I was sleeping, to let me know for the 1000th time that she wasn’t locking the bathroom door so I could go in whenever I needed or to occasionally talk back to my mum. There were a few more, like, “Where are you sleeping tonight?” (In my room) and “Where is your room?” (Next to yours, Por Por) and “Where’s my room?” (Upstairs; come, I’ll show you), but for the most part, she had a fixed repertoire of phrases. Conversations lasted a few exchanged lines; ten was long.
I began to pluck the notes of “Amazing Grace”, trying to think of songs she would know. I hadn’t really expected any visible response or sign of recognition, but on my third time through the verse, she began to sing along.
I dared not look up. It seemed like a sacred moment, somehow, and I felt simultaneously uncomfortable and honoured to be sharing it. Singing has always been an act of vulnerability for me. It is through singing that I express the deepest longings of my heart; through singing that I allow emotions otherwise kept hidden and suppressed to take tangible form. That’s why worshipping through song is so sacred to me. It’s also why I like to do it in private, when I’m alone.
After playing through “Amazing Grace” a few more times, I figured it was time for a different song. I played through “It Is Well With My Soul,” which she seemed to recognize, but couldn’t quite call to mind. With “Blessed Assurance,” she hummed through bits of the verse and then sang the chorus, “This is my story, this is my song, praising my Saviour all the day long…”
I looked over at her singing with her eyes closed, trying to guess what was going on behind them. There seemed something especially poignant about her singing these hymns. Perhaps it was because she hardly spoke, and even when she did, it was difficult to discern whether or not she was fully present. Oftentimes, her words made no sense, or she’d stop in the middle of a sentence, the words lost in the mess of her mind. But this – she didn’t remember all the words, substituting “da da da” when she forgot, but there was something about the way she was singing. Like these words, unlike most others that came out of her mouth, could be trusted, because they were Truth. Like these words and melodies had endured through the years and through the debilitation of her mental facilities – they were, and represented, something constant, something true. Someone true.
Perhaps because of that, they grounded her, even as the words she wanted to say floated out of her grasp, as the world around her flickered between times and places in her mind, as the people before her shifted in and out of past and present versions of their selves and their relatives. I wondered if these songs transported her to any specific memories – a wedding, a funeral, a time when these very words gave her the strength she needed to carry on.
I hope they brought her some peace tonight.
Not for the first time, I realized how little I knew of her life, and of who she was. I had never really interacted that much with her, and as the disease set in, she became more of a stranger, as my last hopes of getting to know her faded quickly away with her memories, locked inside the frail and fragile shell that remained.
One of the last few songs I played was “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” Again, she only knew the chorus, but when she reached the end, she started again. I followed, now accompanying her, helping to facilitate what I hoped was a beautiful experience with the Divine. It occurred to me that this was what I loved about leading worship. It isn’t that worship cannot happen without musicians or someone leading in song; it’s just that sometimes, we need someone to walk us through the door, and as worship leaders, we get the immense privilege of witnessing people come alive as they enter into that secret place where it’s just God and them, and all else fades away, including, I have to believe, our physical and physiological limitations. There, if just for a moment, we catch a glimpse of heaven, where all will be made perfect and we will see Jesus.
I was reminded that somewhere behind the stuttered and sometimes incomprehensible speech, behind the inexplicable impulses to eat – always and anything, behind the often improper and inappropriate behaviour, behind what is so easily perceived as a burden, is a human being, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image. The eyes that glaze over when spoken to are the same eyes that once saw the horrors of war. The hands that now shake visibly are the same hands that once held a needle steady and skillfully sewed the clothes my mother wore, and the dresses that my grandmother still wears every day. The person who stands before me is not everything she used to be, but just because those things are harder to see now doesn’t change the fact that she is still a human being in need and deserving of love and care and perhaps more grace. And so I pray, God, increase in me Your love.