Dad, going over his checklist before a flight. He flew for fun after he retired and before he became ill. It was an engineer kind of thing.
It will be no big surprise to anyone if I tell you it has been painful to watch my father slowly fade away to the neurodegenerative disease he has of Alzheimer's-like dementia. At the same time, some fascinating things have happened to him that have made it possible to survive this, without total despair.
His singing, for one thing.
My father, the engineer, was always happy to sit and chat with almost anyone about how a pendulum worked, or about the principles behind the flying buttress. But singing? The only time I ever remember him singing was in church, and even then it lacked a certain joi de vivre.
So, it has been very surprising to hear him pipe up, over his take-out McDonald's pancakes with syrup, and launch into a solo rendition of "On the Road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, and the dawn comes up like thunder out of China 'cross the bay..." This is not a song I had ever heard from his lips until this week. And it is just one of the songs he is presently enjoying.
He's always smiling when he sings. On the Mandalay song, he also attempts an English accent, and though it is terrible and his deafness makes him really off-tune, the joy he takes in the music is absolutely worth the pain to your ears.
Where do these old songs come from?
His neurologist says a recent electroencephalogram, or EEG, shows that his brain is actually shrinking. I forgot to ask the physician how this would cause these songs, from the distant past of his life, to pop up. But something about the changes in his brain seems to have reconnected the synapses of his childhood.
When we asked him about "The Road to Mandalay", he told us his family had a hand crank Victrola and that they had a record of this song. In my entire life, he never mentioned this machine, nor his family singing around it, nor how much fun it obviously was for all of them to join in on what must have been an exotic piece of music for the folks in Homewood, Alabama.
One morning over the Safeway donuts I brought for a snack, he began singing "I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls ... " My sister and I looked at each other with big question marks on our foreheads. We had not heard this one either, and on the ride home I said I thought it must be a hymn. But we didn't find it in our hymn book, so we Googled it.
Turns out it is quite a famous song called "The Gypsy Girl's Dream" from an 1843 opera called The Bohemian Girl by Michael W. Balfe and Alfred Bunn. James Joyce uses the song several times in his short stories and in Finnegan's Wake, in which various characters refer to the opera or sing lines from the gypsy's song.
The other day I was sitting at my laptop, while my father's caregiver, Alem, was helping Dad get settled on the kitchen couch. He almost fell, but she waved me away when I got up to help, which meant she was better handling the situation alone.
Then, there was one of those brief moments my father has, of clarity. He said: "This is a terrible way for a man to die. I'd rather just have a heart attack and keel over than go through this."
I couldn't turn around because I didn't want him to see me crying. And yet, in the next moment he was on to singing "I Dreamt That I Dwelt in Marble Halls." I realized that each sorrow in life has its teaspoon of beauty. Hearing my father sing doesn't erase the sadness of seeing him die by inches. But it helps to ease the meanness of it all, just a little.
I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls,
With vassals and serfs at my side,
And of all who assembled within those walls,
That I was the hope and the pride.
I had riches too great to count, could boast
Of a high ancestral name;
But I also dreamt, which pleased me most,
That you lov'd me still the same ...
That you love'd me, you lov'd me, still the same,
That you love'd me, you love'd me, still the same.
"The Gypsy Girl's Dream"
from The Bohemian Girl
Michael W. Balfe and Alfred Bunn 1843
Music in the Works of James Joyce
About The Bohemian Girl