Play 'Misty' for me

Play 'Misty' for me August 31, 2011

I linked yesterday to Dennis G.’s mordant, but wincingly apt joke that Fox News has come to be something like “Nickolodeon for people with dementia.”

That’s a bitter joke on a couple of levels but still, I think, a funny one. Dementia is a heartbreaking thing and thus, in a sense, no laughing matter. Yet the sadness and heartbreak of it can also come wrapped up and mixed together with levity amidst the gravity.

At least that’s how it was with my friend Myrt. She never cared for Fox News, preferring detective shows. We’d sit and watch CSI (jokingly referring to William Petersen’s character as “Quincy”) and lots and lots of Law & Order. I think Myrt kind of had a thing for Jerry Orbach. Every little bit she’d lose track of the story and ask for a recap. Then she’d say, “Did I already ask you that?” and laugh, long and genuine, prying delight from something that wasn’t really delightful. And then, five minutes later, she’d lose track again and ask, “What’s Quincy doing?”

Myrt was a terrific piano player. She knew and loved the whole American songbook and could spend hours at the baby grand playing all the old standards. After she’d lost just about everything else to her dementia she still had that. We would wheel her up to the piano and she’d sit blankly, hands in her lap, until someone started to sing. “There’s a somebody I’m longing to see …” And she’d be off, playing with as much style and pluck as ever. And then, “In olden days a glimpse of stocking …,” because she always used to like to mix in some up-tempo numbers.

The one song she didn’t like to play was “Misty.” The extended family living in that house included her oldest daughter, Jenny, who suffered from schizophrenia. “Misty” was Jenny’s favorite song and she would sing along, loudly, whenever she could convince her mother to play it. That took some convincing, because Myrt always thought the song was kind of sappy and because Jenny didn’t quite have the range for the high parts.

But eventually, as she slowly forgot so many other things, Myrt also forgot about her distaste for “Misty.” I’d sometimes arrive to find that Jenny had parked her mother in front of the piano. “Looook at meee,” Jenny would sing, “I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree.” And her mother would start to play.

And then, of course, after they finished poor Myrt wouldn’t remember what she’d just played and Jenny would just start in again from the top. “Looook at meee …” That could go on for hours.

I suppose it might be possible to untangle the sad from the funny in memories like that one, but I don’t think it’s necessary.

Every once in a great while I’ll hear the Muzak arrangement of that song in some lobby or elevator — was there ever a song better suited to Muzak than “Misty”? — and I’ll think of poor, haunted Jenny treating her ailing mother like her own personal karaoke machine. It’s a memory that’s shot through with sadness, but it also always makes me smile.


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  • Awwww!

  • Anonymous

    Long ago, before there was You Tube, before there was the World Wide Web, I saw a film made by a man who went from piano bar to piano bar and video recorded many different versions of “Misty”. Some were up tempo in the mode of the Ray Stevens version while others were slow some nearly dirge-like.  If he recorded any really bad ones, they didn’t make the final cut.

  • I had two grandparents who suffered from Alzheimer’s. My mother was recently diagnosed with normal pressure hydrocephilitis, and has serious short-term memory impairment at 70 years old. What little I have learned from these experiences makes the “Nicolodeon for people with dementia” joke especially bitter.

    If I have a conversation with my mother, five minutes later she won’t be able to recall a single topic we discussed, let alone any of the points or ideas or phrases. But, if I lose my temper and raise my voice or speak sharply, five minutes later, her feelings will still be hurt. An hour later, she might barely remember that I visited, but she will still feel sad. This is a pattern I’ve seen a few times, first in the grandparents, and now in my mother. The memory of emotions seems to be held somewhere different than the memory of facts or events, and is far more persistent.

    The idea of Fox News feeding fear to people who will only remember being afraid feels vile. I have no better word for it than that.

  • P J Evans

    The wife of a family friend was diagnosed with dementia. Her husband joked that he had to wear a name tag and introduce himself: ‘Hi, I’m [name], your husband].’ (Laughter may be better than crying….)

  • MaryKaye

    I also saw, with my grandmother (who didn’t have Alzheimer’s, but had progressive dementia due to mini-strokes) that emotional states were much more lasting than facts.  I learned not to talk about certain things, because they would make her upset and she couldn’t attend well enough to be comforted.  She liked to ask me what I’d had for dinner and I learned to lie if it had been sushi, because the idea that I would eat raw fish frightened her and she couldn’t hold facts long enough to be reassured, so she would just be nebulously frightened for a long time.

    Luckily she did not watch much TV. I think it would have been terribly bad for her.  Music was good, and conversation about good moments in the past.  Even after she could no longer tell me from my dead mother, she liked to hear stories about either of us as children.

    The thing I found hardest was, with someone mentally capable you can try to address conflicts, but with someone with dementia there is no longer any way to do so.  You simply have to bite your tongue, and heart, and live with the conflict.  You can’t say–and it was a small stupid thing, but it stung–“I like sushi and I wish you’d stop giving me a hard time over it.”  She’d agree, even, but she couldn’t keep it in mind, and until I learned to lie about it would sometimes ask me what I’d been eating, and get upset over it, four or five times in a visit.  I have a strong need for conflict resolution and I could do nothing about it.  I never found a good way to deal with that.  It hurt to visit her, even though I loved her–her personality came through quite clearly despite extreme confusion near the end.

  • Michael Cule

    My mum had vascular dementia complicated by her diabetes. In the last three years of her life, after we had to move her from her home because she could no longer take care of herself she gradually lost everything. Even the power of speech was gone at the end.

    In the early days she was often confused about where she was and what was going on. At  a friend’s suggestion I wrote up a letter in big print that she could be shown when things got odd for her: “Mum, you’re living in a nursing home now….” That sort of thing. I laminated it and put the family phone numbers on the back. It may have helped but I still got phone calls asking when she was going home or more peculiarly ‘what am I doing on this train?’ (“Mum, you’re not on a train.” “How can you tell?” Try persuading someone who’s convinced they’re on a train that they’re in a nursing home. Showing a creationist that there might be something to evolution is easy by comparison.)

    When I was going through her things after her  death I found the letter again and discovered that  I hadn’t started far back enough in my assumptions about what she had trouble remembering. She had written across it in permanent marker:My  name is Margaret Cule.

    So I really don’t  know how much of that last three years was her guessing about what was going on and taking cues from what other people said to her.

  • Michael Cule

    My mum had vascular dementia complicated by her diabetes. In the last three years of her life, after we had to move her from her home because she could no longer take care of herself she gradually lost everything. Even the power of speech was gone at the end.

    In the early days she was often confused about where she was and what was going on. At  a friend’s suggestion I wrote up a letter in big print that she could be shown when things got odd for her: “Mum, you’re living in a nursing home now….” That sort of thing. I laminated it and put the family phone numbers on the back. It may have helped but I still got phone calls asking when she was going home or more peculiarly ‘what am I doing on this train?’ (“Mum, you’re not on a train.” “How can you tell?” Try persuading someone who’s convinced they’re on a train that they’re in a nursing home. Showing a creationist that there might be something to evolution is easy by comparison.)

    When I was going through her things after her  death I found the letter again and discovered that  I hadn’t started far back enough in my assumptions about what she had trouble remembering. She had written across it in permanent marker:My  name is Margaret Cule.

    So I really don’t  know how much of that last three years was her guessing about what was going on and taking cues from what other people said to her.

  • Val Dobson

    This chimes in with something that I read by a nurse who looks after dementia patients.  She advised that it was better to tell the patient a white lie that would make them happy, rather than an unpleasant truth that would make them unhappy.  For instance, if the patient asks if her son will be visiting today, don’t tell her that her son died last year; that will make her start grieving all over again.  Instead reassure her that her son is enjoying a lovely holiday this month, but will be seeing her as soon as he gets back.  The patient will quickly forget the information, but will be left happy. 

  • I have tears in my eyes now. No one in my family has suffered dementia yet, but I know my Granny (my one remaining grandparent) fears it.

    Fred, you’re an excellent writer.TRiG.

  • I’m kind of troubled now imagining an RTC nursing home where the nurses keep telling the dementia patients unpleasant truths and making them sad all day, while the nurses pat themselves on the back for appeasing baby Jesus by not lying.

  • Anonymous

    This is bitterly true in my parent’s house. My mother has been having increasing memory problems for some time now, at the same time that my father is spending more time at home – and he leaves the TV on, always set to Fox News. Some of my mother’s nebulous hostility and paranoia may be from dementia itself, but I think a lot is that she is constantly told that she should be angry and afraid, even if she doesn’t remember why.