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.
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.