By Jenny Bridle

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If you didn’t notice that famed American physician and writer, Oliver Sacks died at the end of August, you wouldn’t be alone. Although we have the library of great books he wrote including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, which became the Academy Award winning film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, you may not have known who Sacks was and the enormous influence he had on contemporary Neurology as well as on various therapies designed to help those with mental illness. For those of us with family members diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, perhaps Sacks’ greatest contribution was to advocate for music therapy for everyone challenged by their mental health and especially by neurological problems that affect memory.

Not long after my mother was diagnosed with “mild cognitive impairment” and “probable Alzheimer’s,” I remember standing beside my barn door, my horses looking at us, asking her how she felt. “Like I’m floating,” she said, looking away. Unthinkingly, I asked her if she was afraid, but she didn’t respond. Instead she sort of fell into me and allowed me to wrap my arms around her and stand there for what seemed a very long time. We both knew what was coming. We just didn​’t​ know how long it would be before the disease finished taking her apart from the inside out.

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Later, when she was in the nursing home, small pieces of what made her the opinionated and independent yet loving and compassionate woman I had known all my life began to disappear until, eventually, she didn’t know where she was. Having grown up the daughter of a country doctor who managed a tuberculosis hospital, she informed me on one visit that she was there, at the Muskoka Sanitarium waiting, she said, “For Dad but maybe he’s not coming. Everyone here is so sick. I’m so glad you’re here.”

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Finally, — and it’s selfish to say — in what was the hardest part of her illness for me, she didn’t know who I was either. Still, even with the loss of self, there was one thing about her that remained the same for the longest time — music. Like a true friend or a faithful spouse, music kept her company as the rest of her diminished into nothing so that, even if she would sort of squint at you, trying to decide who you might be, she could be suddenly animated in front of the piano and play as if she really was Arthur Rubinstein.

https://youtu.be/lIA9QNHsAf0

There are times when you struggle with music in your life. Whatever you’re hearing it’s not connecting enough or it’s connecting too painfully. Sometimes, listening to music is like reading old love letters, looking at old photos, what you’re hearing makes you feel vulnerable, shows you what you lost or gladly gave away. And there are times, when music says what nothing else can, when it reaches in and touches a part of you that has lost its way or that you didn’t even know was there.

This is how it was with my mother. She was like an Oliver Sacks’ patient. At one of the nursing homes she briefly lived in, she was taken to weekly “music therapy” sessions. Here, she started out singing – the session leader would play an old song on the piano and sing and she would join in, not missing a word, completely in tune and in time, as if her memory — who she was, had been — was still intact. In these sessions, it would be as if she was awakening from the nightmare that was becoming her daily existence. For those few moments she seemed happy. Unafraid. Aware. She was herself again.

Annie's Wedding

Finally, in March this year, after what seemed a very painful eternity, she died and was at peace. Last month, my family travelled across the country for the interment of her ashes. The ceremony took place at a small community cemetery in the shadow of the Pacific Mountains. After sleep walking through most of it – the cancelled flight, getting lost looking for the hotel, the too-quiet service, the almost overwhelming family tension – I took my daughters to their grandmother’s favourite place of peace and meditation.

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Standing there, looking out over the river, the mountains in the distance, I missed her so and imagined the music she would want me to hear in that moment.

My mother never knew anything about Social Media, Facebook, Twitter – her illness began to steal her away years before any of these were invented. But, knowing her, she would have taken to Twitter like a woman possessed and she would have a loved the last tweet Oliver Sacks posted before he died.

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