Every visit, my mother-in-law Ruth sang us under the table. A few hours of the old standards, and Barbara and I would duck out, ready for bed, knowing her mom could go on all night.

This time, she’d had a health crisis, and was recovering in assisted care. Our visits consisted of watching her O-T and P-T, arranging her transition back home, and talking with doctors, therapists, family. No time for music. She hadn’t even seemed strong enough, at first.

Coming back from a museum-visit break my last afternoon, I impulsively pulled the guitar from the trunk, then found mom and daughter in the lounge room, finishing discussion of foods needed at home.

We started with the songs I knew by heart, easier for maintaining eye contact: “Blue Moon,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Sentimental Journey.” I opened the songbook for “Love Is Here to Stay.” Another hour in that vein, until we remembered some errands we had to do while it was still light, and promised to return before visiting hours ended at 8.

She was asleep at 7:15. We didn’t know what to do, surrounded as she was by two roommates, each only a hospital curtain away. One on each side of the bed, Barbara and I looked at each other and took a chance, singing softly: “I’ll be seeing you…”

Ruth’s eyes opened. She looked as if she might think this a pleasant dream. Then, dream or not, she joined in.

The songs became simpler, more elemental. Too cramped to open the book, I had to rely on suggestions: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” “Danny Boy.” “Old Man River.”  Finally “Auld Lang Syne.”

And why I’m writing this is to try to tell you what’s impossible to verbalize—how when we sang, “we’ll drink a cup of kindness yet,” the cup was really there, and it was full, as if, song by song, distraction and worry had been rivers flowing away, leaving us dry on an island that had been submerged, and the name of that island was the Heart.

In this place,
words did not
merely suggest,
they embodied.
How long since I’d been here!

Ruth motioned for me to bend a little closer. When I did, she said, “Music is the greatest gift you can give someone in life.” The silence in the room was breathing that truth, and I didn’t want to just leave it all there. Maybe this will help me, and you, to remember.


image: @Doug88888 (Creative Commons BY-SA)