The priest’s wife handed me her half full can of beer. It was Christmastime, and the beer she was offering was a Texas IPA, sweating seductively on the table between us. I brought the can to my lips and the slightly bitter taste of the half-warm beer filled me with relief.
I needed a drink. It was 7 p.m., and I’d arrived late. We would be heading out to sing carols at the Alzheimer’s unit of a local nursing home, a well-appointed facility near the neighborhood in Houston where I am a music minister and where the priest’s wife’s husband is rector.
The nursing home smelled faintly of Clorox and overcooked vegetables—as I suppose all nursing homes do—but I had been unprepared for the regret that hit me with that smell.
My estranged father had died in a nursing home in the New Jersey town where I grew up, just two months earlier. It wasn’t a place as nice as this, though I couldn’t say for sure because I never visited him there. He’d been admitted six weeks before his death, when he fell in his second floor apartment and his landlord, hearing the fall through the thin floor, called the paramedics.
I didn’t know a thing about it until he’d been admitted to the hospital, and a friend of his called me. The hospital discharged him to the nursing home, but they’d referred to it as a rehab facility, at least when they pitched it to him. They had promised County Manor was temporary. A place to get his strength back. But at eighty-eight, with stage 4 cancer, a liver shot through with tumors, and less than 20% kidney function, the chances of him going home were slim.
Once inside the memory unit, I began to sweat. I sweat because the heating was turned up to high, and because I was positioned beside the choir director—an impeccable soprano whose vocal precision and cheerful disposition filled me with existential dread. I saw the sheet music. Though technically I am a professional musician, I knew there was no way in hell I would be able to hit those notes.
While I mouthed the lyrics to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman” I noticed that several of the residents who had been looking unblinkingly into the middle distance were slowly beginning to sing. An older man in a Margaritaville T-shirt and baseball cap was trying very hard to make eye contact with me as he sang. I focused on other things. The beige carpet. The fake plants.
When the next song began, I let my eyes drift over to the man in the T-shirt. By then, he was singing with gusto, the dull synapses revived, the molting hippocampus sprung back to life. He sang and sang, like a canary in a coal mine.
Music, specifically song lyrics, are stored in a different part of the brain than other memories. Something happens when pattern and rhythm are married to melody. The brain hides that information in the prefrontal cortex, among the last regions to atrophy in Alzheimer’s patients.
The man in the Margaritaville T-shirt appeared, at least to me, to have been restored to his former self, or what I imagined was his former self. His body swayed in the tan recliner. His foot tapped. His eyes stayed locked on mine. The IPA sloshed in my belly and heat crept up my face.The last time I talked with my father, he sang a deflated chorus of “Luck Be a Lady” to me over the phone. He was a big fan of musicals, especially Guys and Dolls and after my parents’ bitter divorce he joined a local theater company. I hadn’t seen him in seven years, but he’d called to invite me to his performance. My father knew every word to every song in that show, but he forgot my birthday.
He’d also forgotten how punishing he’d been, especially to me, while my parents marriage was unraveling. I declined his invitation to the show, but all those years later he still knew every word to the song, and sang it for me whenever I let him.
I did visit him in a nursing home once, after he’d had surgery.
“Pray with me,” I’d said, sitting on the edge of his bed, on the thin cotton blanket, holding the copy of the New Testament that I’d picked up in the airport.
My conversion to Christianity was something he accepted with suspicion. I had already become an ordained minister by the time I told him about it. He thought it was some kind of a punch line, have you heard the one about the Jewish girl from New Jersey who becomes a Christian minister in the South?
“And ask for what?” he said after my offer of prayer. “What would I ask of God?” A yellow plastic water pitcher sat perspiring on the table beside his bed.
I couldn’t answer him. I looked down at the paperback Bible in my hand.
“Forgiveness?” I squeaked.
But the truth was I was there with my father not because I knew anything about forgiveness, but because my faith instructed that if I behaved as if I did, eventually I would. Forgiveness was the only way to untangle the knot of us.
“I’m not ready for this,” he replied, and reached past me for the TV remote.
Though I hadn’t seen him in three years, I bought a plane ticket to New Jersey to visit him at County Manor. I would help move him out of his second floor apartment, and break the news that he wouldn’t be going home.
I bought the ticket for the first weekend in November. On the second to last Sunday in October, before sunrise, I got the call that he was gone.
That night in the memory unit, the man in the Margaritaville T-shirt sang “Silent Night,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Away in a Manger.” He sang like it was the thing he was made to do.
I sang, too. Maybe singing for someone else’s father was what I could do. And maybe that was enough.
When the music stopped, the smile remained on the man’s face, the spark in his eye still shone. His smile only began to fade as our small group, the cheerful choir director at the helm, filed slowly past him, past the dining room, through the hall and out into the cold Texas night.
Cameron Dezen Hammon is a writer and musician living in Houston, Texas. Her work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Butter, The Houston Chronicle, Gigantic Sequins, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA from Seattle Pacific University and is at work on a memoir about religious culture shock. Follow her @camerondhammon.
Above image by Rick Harris, used with permission under a Creative Commons License.