Over the Rainbow: A Story About Saying Goodbye
The first time I met Gordon (name has been changed) all I knew about him when I greeted him was his name. I asked him how he was doing. Gordon shot me a dirty look and said, "How do you think I'm doing? I have dementia!" and then began to cry.
He was a new resident at a memory care facility where I regularly hold groups, and he was far from the first client to give me such a strong reaction. Most of my clients in memory care are happy to see me, but who can blame anyone for being angry or depressed or frightened under circumstances like that? So while I'll admit there was an awkward moment where I had to process Gordon's reaction-- I also had the training and experience to step back in and do my job. So I gently touched his hand and said, "I'm sorry, that's awful. But maybe some music can help you feel a little better for now?" He responded with a shrug, so I started to sing-- "Somewhere Over the Rainbow", always a favorite with my older clients.
And it did help. Gordon relaxed, and started to sing along. At the end he smiled and told me that was one of his favorite songs.
At this particular facility, I work primarily with the residents who are in the later stages of dementia; many of them can no longer speak, so music is one of the best ways to engage with them. But residents who are higher functioning are welcome to join the groups if they want to, and Gordon became a regular. He said it was one of the best parts of his week, and one of the few things that really helped his depression.
Gordon was a short, stout man from New York who had an accent like Danny DeVito with a bit of a smoker's rasp. And I really shouldn't have favorites, but it didn't take Gordon long to get a special place in my heart. For one thing, he had STORIES. Gordon had been a lighting technician on Broadway for years, and had met all sorts of people. One of my favorites was a story he told me about Debbie Reynolds (Yes, THAT Debbie Reynolds) after I sang a few songs from Singing in the Rain.
"Oh, Debbie, she was terrible." Gordon said. "I was doing the lighting when she was in Annie Get Your Gun. Well, the stage manager missed one of her cues and messed up the scene-- so what did she do? She walked over and decked him. Swore like a sailor, too." (Honestly this just makes me like the actress more.)
Gordon was also a fan of old radio westerns, and a trivia buff. "My wife used to call me a Cornucopia of Knowledge." He would quiz me all the time; "What was the name of Roy Rodgers' horse? Trigger. And who rode Champion? Gene Autry, that's who." As a fan of vintage music and old time radio myself, I really enjoyed swapping stories with him. Gordon was always challenging my musical repertoire, too, asking me to learn songs from Man of La Mancha and Fiddler on the Roof and other shows he had worked.
But one of the things you have to accept about working in memory care is that progress only really happens in one direction. You can't stop most forms of dementia, at least not with current research. You can just do your best to help people keep their minds active as much as possible, and help improve the quality of the life they have left. And you never know when you're about to run out of time.
One week, Gordon got sick. I don't know what from, exactly; it might have just been a bad cold. He missed a few sessions, and when he came back-- it was like he was a different person. He was pale, and quiet, and had turned inward the way a lot of late-stage dementia patients do: as if the world around them barely exists. His daughter was at his side and clearly distraught, and I didn't need anyone to tell me that Gordon was never going to be the same again.
But his daughter did bring him to the music group, telling me that she knew how much he loved it. As part of the groups, I go around to each person individually and sing a song with them; it's a way to give them some one on one interaction and sometimes I can get more responses from my clients with their favorite song and holding their hand. So that's what I did with Gordon, too. I held his hand and I sang to him one more time,
"Someday I'll wish upon a star,
And wake up where the clouds are far behind me,
Where trouble melts like lemon drops,
Away above the chimney tops,
That's where you'll find me..."
And as I sang, a switched turned on somewhere behind Gordon's eyes. He looked up at me, and he smiled, and some small part of him shone through
"Beautiful." He said.
I smiled back, even though I was fighting back tears. "Gordon, can you tell me something? What was the name of Roy Rodgers' horse?"
Gordon hesitated, then grinned like he was very pleased with himself. "Trigger." He said.
"And who rode Champion?"
"That's right." I said.
Gordon passed away a few days later; that was the last time I saw him. It wasn't a surprise; I'd sort of already known that I was saying goodbye. But it was still hard. It's been at least a year now and I still miss him. That's kind of the best and worst thing about being a music therapist, though. You really get to love your clients. And that means it always hurts a little when it's time to let them go.
But I'm grateful that I had the chance to meet Gordon, and that I was able to do something to make his incredible life a little better. In the end, maybe that's all we can do for each other. Try to make life better, so that when it is time to say goodbye we can part without any regrets.