by Marjorie George
from the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of Reflections magazine.
Most days, Henry sits quietly in a wheelchair in the common area of the nursing home where he has lived for ten years. He is hunched over, hidden under the ball cap he wears backwards on his head, hands clasped together on the laptop table. He is not an unhappy man, just an empty man, incommunicative, disconnected.
When Henry’s daughter comes to visit, Henry does not know her name. The nameless daughter has a memory of her father as a younger man who would walk down the street with her and her brother laughing, singing, swinging around the light poles. “On every occasion he would come out with a song,” she says.
There is no song today – and then a nurse puts earphones on Henry. They are connected to an iPod. And when the music starts, so does Henry. His head lifts, his eyes open wide, his arms start moving to a beat he hears, he begins to sing. “He becomes animated,” says neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, watching Henry. “The philosopher Kant said music is the ‘quickening art,’ and Henry is being quickened. He is being brought to life,” observes Sacks.
When the earphones are removed, Henry is still excited. “Henry, do you like music?” asks an interviewer.
“Oh I’m crazy about music,” replies Henry.
“Who is your favorite, Henry?”
Henry pauses then remembers Cab Calloway. “He was my number one guy,” and Henry breaks into a rendition of Calloway’s “I’ll be Home for Christmas.”
The interviewer asks Henry: “What does music do to you?”
“It gives me the feeling of love,” says Henry. “The Lord came to me and he made me a holy man, so he gave me these sounds.”
Music, says Dr. Sacks, brings Henry back to life. “From being inert, unresponsive, almost un-alive, Henry is restored to himself. He remembers who he is and has reacquired his identity.
Henry’s story, and the stories of many more like him, is told in the film Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, directed and produced by Michael Rossato-Bennett. The documentary follows social worker Dan Cohen who advocates for the use of music in connecting with memory in Alzheimer’s patients. The film won the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Writer Julie Chalk points out in her piece on page 11 of this issue (The Marvelous Musical Brain) that the music center of the brain is one of the last affected by Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia. Chalk has her own story of her father who suffers from vascular dementia such that he cannot put a sentence together in words. But he still plays the trumpet in church — by ear — every Sunday.
In the Celtic tradition, explains Mary Earle in her article on page 8 of this issue (The Music of What Happens), God does not speak creation into being. He sings it into being. “When God sings, sun, moon, and stars come forth,” says Earle. “Landscapes are formed. Creatures appear. Humans, who are able to sing this divine song, join the community of the creation.”
So deep is that formative connection with the creator God that it becomes most apparent when we who are constricted by our earthly bodies and earthly minds begin to transcend those bounds. And when we fully return to God, we do so with the accompaniment of music. “For even at the grave,” The Book of Common Prayer tells us, “we make our song: Alleluia” (p 499).
Marjorie George is editor of Reflections magazine and ReflectionsOnline.