Radio Ga Ga
As we drive to the grocery store, my mother sits looking out the window. She hasn’t said a word since getting in the car. I’m mentally running through the list of things I need to pick up, happy for the silence, when she speaks.
“She’s sad because she doesn’t have any friends.”
“Who’s sad?” I ask her.
“The child,” she informs me. “The one in the city. Her friends are gone. She’s alone. And she’s hot.”
It takes me a minute to understand what she’s saying. Then I remember that ten minutes earlier, Nick Gilder’s “Hot Child in the City” was playing on the radio. My mother has shown no indication that she’s aware there is music playing, let alone listening to the words. Apparently, she is.
I’m not entirely surprised. Music is often one of the last things people with dementia continue to enjoy. Long after the ability to focus on or understand books, television, or conversations disappears, they will still respond to music. Before coming to take care of my own mother, I used to volunteer at a home for people with memory issues. There, they almost always had Lawrence Welk playing on the television, and the residents would sit, tapping their fingers and sometimes even singing along. The same people who couldn’t recall their own names could, often without any prompting, remember all the words to songs that were popular more than half a century before. Elderly Ruth, who responded to any verbal interaction only with smiles and the cryptic phrase “A-B-C,” once lit up and sang every word of “You’re the Cream in My Coffee” when it came on, descending back into blank-eyed muteness when the final notes faded out. I wondered what special meaning it had to her, what part of her forgotten life it represented, but of course she couldn’t tell me.
My mother occasionally does this as well. She’s particularly fond of Perry Como (who she adored when she was a teenager) and Christmas carols. I keep CDs of both in the car, and play them on the long drives into town. Often, she breaks out of her increasingly-impenetrable silences to sing along. Occasionally, if I join her and miss a lyric, she shakes her head and says, “That’s not how it goes!”
On this day, it seems, her brain is acting as its own kind of receiver, scanning the airwaves and picking up bits and pieces of the songs coming from the radio. But instead of singing along, she seems to be taking things in and storing them somewhere in temporary memory, where her disintegrating brain cells render them into something else and play them back in barely-recognizable fashion.
“Oh, no!” she exclaims. “Someone put it back!”
“Put what back?” I ask.
“The little bird,” she informs me. “It fell out of the nest.”
This is an easy one to figure out. The reference is to Annie Lennox’s “Little Bird,” which does in fact contain a line about that very thing, and is actually playing when my mother expresses her concern. Others are more difficult to decipher. When she starts humming and mumbling, “Yes, sir. Yes, sir. Three bags full,” I have to search back more than half an hour, when Gin Wigmore’s “Black Sheep” played. That my mother connected the song (which contains none of these lyrics) and the rhyme somewhere in the recesses of her memories fascinates me. That it took thirty minutes to manifest is even more interesting. What, I wonder, is going on inside her head?
That music is something she now responds to is particularly fascinating to me because she never listened to it while I was growing up. She and my father had a meagre record collection, consisting primarily of albums by Mitch Miller, Marty Robbins, and the New Christy Minstrels. But I never once heard them play one. And whenever I turned the radio on in the car, it inevitably resulted in battles because my mother found popular music at best scandalous and at worst Satanic.
Disagreements over my choice of listening material are actually some of my most vivid memories of growing up with her. The year I turned 10, the soundtrack to Grease was everywhere. I borrowed my friend Stephanie’s copy and played it in my bedroom, until my mother heard the not-so-subtle double entendres in “Greased Lightning” and made me march the album back across the street. We had the same problem a few years later when she walked in while I was listening to Prince’s Purple Rain and “Darling Nikki” was doing that thing in that hotel lobby with that magazine. A resulting days-long squabble between her and my father over whether I could go to see Prince in concert is the only fight I ever saw them have. (I got to go, and it was wonderful.)
I have a series of CDs I’ve made, the modern equivalent of mix tapes, and they rotate through the car’s CD changer. As an experiment, I locate the one that has “Greased Lightning” (which I suspect I love precisely because it scandalized her) on it and play it, looking for any signs of disapproval on my mother’s part. Despite being almost 49 years old, I feel like a little boy again as the line about chicks creaming nears and Danny and the boys talk about all the you-know-what they’ll be getting in what the cast of Fox’s Grease Live! was forced to call their “draggin’ wagon” in order to avoid complaints from viewers just like my mother.
The moment comes and goes. My mother continues to tap her hand on her knee, registering nothing. I wait for a while, thinking maybe her brain just needs to catch up and be offended. I know she still recognizes profanities, as just the night before she gasped and shook her head when the characters on The Magicians peppered their conversations with words you couldn’t say on TV when I was a kid. But if the T-Birds’ ode to teenage nookie has upset her, she doesn’t show it.
We reach town, get our shopping done, and make it home without further commentary on the musical selections from my mother. I can tell she’s exhausted from the excursion into the world. She can’t figure out how to get out of the car, and when I try to get her inside the house, she expresses concern that whoever owns the house will be angry that we’re visiting while they’re not home.
I settle her down for a nap, then put the groceries away. Afterward, I come upstairs and find the Purple Rain soundtrack in my iTunes library. As I play it, I imagine the mother I grew up with coming up to reprimand me. But that woman is gone; the one sleeping downstairs has taken her place. This is the terrible irony of my mother’s disease: In many ways, I don’t miss the one I knew for so many years, the one who was judgmental and shaming, who found evil where it didn’t exist. I like this one who can tap her fingers along to “Greased Lighting.”
I wish she’d been around 40 years ago.
Michael Thomas Ford’s most recent novel, Lily, is a Tiptree Award long list title and is a finalist for the Lambda Literary award and the Shirley Jackson Award. More Michael Thomas Ford