Mom and Deb

Heart Songs

Cinse Bonino

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I spoke to my mother by phone today. She has dementia and lives many states away. My mother used to be too self conscious to sing before she got dementia. Today when I sang “Que Sera Sera” she joined in quite lustfully and gloriously out of tune. Of course we only sang a few lines. Neither of us could remember it all. “Que Sera Sera” rolled right into snatches of Beatles tunes. Connie Francis hits and “Ave Maria” quickly followed. Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley also made an appearance. When we were done, she said, “Thanks I enjoyed that immensely.” This is one of the most coherent sentences she has said to me in a very long time. I told her that the next time I called we would sing again and she said, “Oh good.” At the beginning of the call she had asked me if I had heard from my father and I said, “No not recently. How about you?” She said no but that she had been really busy lately. I told her that made total sense, even though my father has been dead for years. Everything else she said made little to no sense until we talked about her fingernail polish. I asked her if she was wearing any. She said she was. When I asked her what color it was, she said red. Then using many garbled sentences with small phrases or singular words that I managed to put into a somewhat comprehensive pile, I realized that she was trying to tell me that it wasn’t an evil looking red. When I asked her if that’s what she meant she became very excited that she had been understood. There are no phones in the patients’ rooms in the dementia ward of her facility. When I call, they bring her to an office to sit and talk to me on one of their phones. These days she usually only manages to talk with me for about 10 minutes. Singing engaged her for a full 15 minutes.

Years ago, when my sister was dying from cancer, she would float in and out of consciousness. She became extremely agitated in her body during one of her unconscious spells. My mother turned to me and said, “Do something!” I sifted through all the files in my brain trying to find something that might help. I remembered reading a study about how music is one of the last things to leave us. My sister and I went to the same elementary school from when I was in first grade and she was in fifth. There was one music teacher for the entire school. I thought of one of the folk songs we had all learned. I began to sing “Tumbalalaika” as I held my sister’s hand. She calmed down almost immediately.

Cinse Bonino
2024

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Cinse Bonino

Cinse, a former professor with a background in the psychology of human learning, writes nonstop, and is addicted to capturing the human experience in words.