My favorite place to sit at the ranch is in my egg chair swing — hanging from a tree where the edge of our small patch of lawn meets the ungroomed expanse of the natural landscape.
It is not the traditional swing from my childhood playground, where I would pump my legs propelling the swing as high as I could, belting out the lyrics to my favorite song — “Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun…”
(Jimmy, before making fun of my song choice, I promise I was 5, not 15!)
That swing — the sound of the squeaky chains, the exhilaration of the breeze, the power of the back and forth, the challenge of how high I could fly, the risk of letting go, the sensation of jumping through the air — evokes the spirit of my childhood.
My swing today still hangs from a chain, but the motion is gentle — a pleasant spinning. There is no challenge or risk, and the power is in having a choice of where to focus.
This swing evokes the spirit of my adulthood.
Filled with pillows, my swing is a comfortable spot. Sitting tucked back with the rounded sides encircling me, I can spin my swing to catch a warm breeze, close out the sun, or protect me from cold winds — whichever position suits my needs.
Looking out from an egg chair is like peering through a scope, the oval sides framing the view in front of me and blocking out every other scene surrounding me.
When I want to watch the hummingbirds at the feeder off the front porch, I spin in that direction and enjoy the show.
After hours of pulling weeds and raking crushed granite in the courtyard, I spin and reflect on a satisfying day’s work.
Most of the time I focus outward, gazing across the land stretching to the horizon, putting the built structures (and the responsibilities they represent) out of sight.
The house buildings are directly behind me,
but I feel miles away.
I look out in wonderment. I view the beauty and dream. I view the beauty and cry. I contemplate life events, and I laugh and cry.
In the fall, I curl up in my swing and stream college football games on my devices and cheer for Alexandra’s Colorado Buffs and Jimmy’s Baylor Bears.
My swing is my safe place, my thinking place, my relaxing place, my fun place, my place.
While the sights from my swing are edited to where I want to focus, sounds penetrate my cocoon no matter the direction I am facing.
I remember one day watching a blue heron flying over the gorge far in the distance, perfectly tracing the blue tinted horizon beyond. His measured majestic wingbeats suggested a leisurely purpose and following his path was like watching a peaceful silent movie.
The view was in stark contrast to the music coming from behind me.
I had turned on the sprinkler to water the grass — the sprinkler sound reminiscent of summer evenings. The spraying of water and puddles forming in the rocks brought a freeway of flight and singing to the yard.
In my blog post, Arrive at the Lost Madrone Ranch, I confessed to my birding hobby. I don’t travel to birding spots or have a life checklist, but I want to know who’s in my neighborhood sharing my piece of Texas and singing me songs.
The choir on this day was jubilant. The music was glorious.
Curious titmice and chickadees with quick clear calls let me know they were close by with their constant chattering.
The elusive cuckoo was making noise from somewhere behind my bedroom house.
For a bird who stays so hidden, it is funny how his call sounds like he is frantically knocking on the door, followed by an excited stuttering as if saying hurry up and let me in, followed by a sad croaking yelp seeming to say oh well, maybe you’ll invite me over next time.
The Bewick’s wren by the well was belting out whistles non-stop.
And oh, the mockingbird was squawking constantly — no surprise that Texans would choose a state bird who sings like he is fiercely proud!
I saw none of these birds, but their songs filled the space surrounding me with a symphony reflecting the majesty of nature.
True, bird songs are principally a means to assert territory, sound alarm, or allure a mate, but the music of birds singing touches my soul as the artistry of God revealing himself in the creation.
Master musician, Isaac Stern, said, “Mozart’s music is like an X-ray of your soul — it shows what is there, and what isn’t.”
Nature’s music is a similar window for me.
I puzzle over the words in the quote “it shows what is there, and what isn’t.”
What is there and what isn’t is a common question I ask about my mom’s mind, impaired by late stage dementia.
What is there in her mind that she thinks about? What does she know that she can’t articulate? What memory isn’t there anymore? The most common question people ask me is, “Does she still know who you are?”
Music helps me answer these questions.
Music can be powerful for persons with dementia. As my mom’s caregiver, I witness the power of music to help her through this stage of her life.
When we sit outside on the porch, we listen to the birds sing, and we delight in their lovely sound, and she smiles.
When mom struggles to walk, we sing marching songs to help her take steps, and she makes it to her destination, even though she doesn’t know where that is. (Read my post about walking with mom).
When idle time needs filling, we sing children’s songs, and her joy lets me know she still has the capacity for fun and laughs.
When mom feels anxious, I sing her a lullaby and stroke her hair, and the tender touch and melody helps her relax or fall asleep.
When mom expresses anger, a behavior so uncharacteristic of the mom I knew from childhood, a song and a smile can set her free from the agitation.
When mom gathers with the other residents in her home, she knows not a single name of who she is sitting with, yet the music playing in the background offers her a communal experience she can share with everyone in the room.
Music is always playing at my mom’s home. Favorites include Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson, Elvis, and any American patriotic song. There is no greater genre of music that can calm the mood in the room and elicit participation than classic hymns. Clearly, my mom’s generation was one of churchgoers because when the hymns sound, sleeping heads rise, tired faces smile, and residents who speak little begin to sing.
Dementia does not affect all memory capacities equally and each person advances through stages differently, but for many persons with dementia, long-term memories are more easily retrieved.
Residents at my mom’s home recall words and tunes of hymns sung over a lifetime, and no doubt a congregational worship experience is taking place.
I wonder what genre of songs will bind my generation? Will it be the classic rock of the 80’s — which interestingly enough my kids’ generation knows well?
With the multitude of music options available today, what songs will my kids’ generation communally share?
Can you imagine a senior home in 50 years blasting Beyonce in the dining room? Oh gosh, will there even be a dining room?
I will never forget Jimmy’s senior graduation trip when the parents and kids together sang out Neil Diamond’s version of “Sweet Caroline.” Who would have guessed that? By the way, Neil Diamond was one of my mom’s favorites!
Jimmy, do you think Gram and Grandpa had as much fun when they saw Neil Diamond in concert? Funny to imagine. Tap the image below to watch a clip of Jimmy loving Sweet Caroline!
I love the power of singing with the masses — the collective goal of singing the national anthem to kick off a sporting event, singing a school alma mater at graduation, shouting to “Shout” at a bar or wedding reception, or lifting voices in praise with a church congregation.
As moving as it is to see mom singing hymns with those she lives with, how the music speaks to her individually is the way I answer “what is there, and what isn’t” in her soul.
A preacher’s wife and choir member, my mom knew many church hymns. Now, her daily speech is garbled, but when it comes to singing hymns, she either knows the words or knows the melody so well that in perfect tune she plugs in an incorrect word.
Singing with a healthy brain uses word meanings to lead thoughts. In my post about walking with mom, I share that words are losing meaning for mom. For her, I believe the melody of the music leads her emotions and reveals what is deep in her soul.
The songs my mom remembers the most include Holy, Holy, Holy; How Great Thou Art; I Love to Tell the Story; I Need Thee Every Hour; Down by the Riverside; Have Thine Own Way Lord, and It is Well With my Soul.
Two songs always make her tear — Amazing Grace and The Old Rugged Cross.
As she cries, I wipe her tears, and I wonder about her spiritual self.
Caregiving meets her daily physical needs — brushing her teeth and hair and ensuring she is fed, bathed, and clothed.
How do I know her spiritual needs?
There is no way to understand fully what thoughts are inside my mom’s mind.
But, I know my mom no longer has the capacity to pray out loud on her own, to tell me if she still prays in her thoughts, to share with me that she wants to pray, to ask others to pray for her, or to ask to read scripture or sing hymns.
This lack of capacity is how it is for all her wants and needs.
She cannot tell me she is hungry, but when she clears her plate, I am sure she was ready for food.
She cannot tell me if she is happy or sad, but she still laughs and cries and those responses give me a clue to her emotional state.
She cannot tell me she is cold, but if she crosses and rubs her arms, I know to go get her a sweater.
I am not sure she knows what the words to The Old Rugged Cross mean, but when her tears flow as she sings…
“Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away,
Where His glory forever I’ll share.
So I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged Cross
And exchange it some day for a crown”
I know what is there. I know what is in her soul.
I know the music is an x-ray to her soul full of faith.
I take comfort because …
I grew up hearing my dad, a minister, preach about how radical God’s love for us is. That his Grace, not of ourselves, is given in love through faith. We are all worth his love.
God’s love does not require mom’s clarity. When her brain changed, his love for mom did not change. Dementia cannot separate her from the faith deep in her soul, and dementia cannot separate her from God’s love.
Today is my mom’s birthday. Everyone at her home will sing a collective Happy Birthday song.
I know mom will sing.
I know mom will smile.
And Mom, I know it is well with your soul.