My gran had been in a nursing home for as long as I could remember. She suffered a stroke in my adolescence, not long after my granddad died. My mum would take me and my siblings to see her every weekend, and back then I never really knew what to say to her.
As I got older, I’d visit on my own, and while I found more to talk to her about, she had begun to lose her faculties. It would take her longer to remember my name, whose son I was, and even who I was there for. Occasionally she’d even mistake me for someone else entirely, someone in her past that she hadn’t seen in forever, but whose company she was nonetheless happy to receive.
It was heartbreaking, as I still clung onto my own memories of her being the nurturing and comforting grandmother that lived with us. But as she called out my new name, it sparked my interest in her life story and finding out who this mysterious gentleman was. It wasn’t my granddad’s name, or my dad’s, or any other close relative. I asked my parents and they seemed to be equally in the dark.
During one afternoon visit, an old black and white movie played on the TV. In the scene, there was a big band off to the side in a nightclub, with a dancing couple gliding across the screen in an energetic quickstep. When the music crescendoed, my grandma sat up, and suddenly I saw the flicker of life in her eyes that I hadn’t seen in years.
I turned the volume up, and enraptured, she closed her eyes and softly hummed along. She smiled and her head swayed for a few more bars before her lips quivered and tears silently rolled down her face. When the song ended, she snapped back, her eyes still misty. She stared at me, scanning my face with a slight panic, trying to register who I was. It took a few moments before she softened and settled back into her armchair, but the clarity in her eyes was also gone.
The next time, I brought headphones with me, and plugged them into my iPod. I played her a selection of golden oldies from the same era as the movie, and for a brief hour, she came alive. Between songs, she would smile at me. At one point, in the softest voice, so quiet I almost missed hearing it, she called me by that stranger’s name again. It was the most tender and expressive that she’d been in years and I dared not say anything to take her out of that moment. She whispered his name a few more times before the refrains of the last song stopped and with that, her focus was gone again.
Week after week, I’d come back and play her more music. It was not just a joy for me to see her spirits lift and the emotions return to her face, but I learnt a lot in the process. I relished the chance to experience these old familiar tunes with a new perspective, some of which I remembered her singing to me as a kid, and others I imbued with this hidden backstory. I took it as challenge to find music I thought she’d know and could maybe even spark a long-forgotten memory.
At some point, she stopped talking coherently, and I only became known to her as the nameless man with the music. She knew what it meant when I came to see her each week and before I finished crossing the room, she’d already have her arms stretched out, eagerly waiting to put the headphones on.
There were times when I tried to ask her about the name she called me, but she would never answer. She’d look at me as if I should have known, or be embarrassed about being asked in the first place. Mostly she would just close her eyes if I asked anything beyond “how do you like this song?” and lose herself in the sounds of her own memories.
I had hoped the music could be the code to unlock the secrets of her old life. While it might have provided a cipher to start with, I could never decrypt anything of the past she chose to relive, let alone able to share, nor could I extrapolate any more about her story beyond what we already knew.
Her story went with her when she passed away eventually, but I guess I’ll always have the music to remember her by.