The Hymn

It happened last evening. Bo’s brother was visiting and we were sitting in the family room together watching TV. Bo looked toward the set, but didn’t understand what was happening, although he occasionally smiled if there was something obviously physical and funny, like the main character rolling down a muddy hill.

But Bo tired soon so we got him up from the sofa to go upstairs. As we started out of the room, the scene on the TV changed to a church service with the congregation singing a hymn. Bo stopped abruptly, looked at the TV and began to cry, actually sobbing. The tears ran down his cheek as his hand moved to the rhythm of the music, and he said, “It’s so beautiful.”

I watched him, amazed, tears in my own eyes.   What was happening?  You see, Bo was never a religious man, never went to church except for an occasional special occasion, and  he enjoyed singing carols at Christmas Eve service with me. Occasionally he would comment about a favorite hymn such as “Onward Christian Soldiers” or “Amazing Grace.” I have a CD that a friend gave to him containing a couple of favorite hymns that they shared, but I don’t’ remember him ever listening to it.

His brother and I tried to recall a significant occasion when Bo might have heard the hymn  (it wasn’t one of the more popular ones) but there was none.  His family didn’t attend  church in Aruba, neither of his parents had music at their memorial services. But he did love music in general, especially classical, folk and country, mostly music with a rousing rhythm or military sound like Tchaikovsky’s Overture of 1812 with its canons or military marches. He loved HMS Pinafore and Carmina Burana.  But to cry over a hymn?

I have read about music therapy and how music may be  the last connection that memory loss patients have with their sensory world. How I would love to know what memory, what emotion, that hymn tapped in Bo’s brain.

Now I plan to play more music, to try different kinds of music when he’s awake to see if it brightens his day. I always played music in the car for him to enjoy on our rides, but often in the house he wanted quiet because he suffers from tinitis.  I plan to re-play that church scene on the movie that moved him so last night to see if he has a similar reaction again. I will also play the CD of hymns that Mary Anne sent to him.

We had another surprise last evening when, after a number of years of not knowing anyone in his family, no recognition, no memories, Bo entered the kitchen for dinner, saw his brother Vlad at the table and asked, “Is Igor (his other brother, who is deceased) coming too?” We all stopped, amazed at this question. “No, he can’t come tonight. He has something else to do,”  Vlad had to answer.

“Oh, OK,” was Bo’s casual reply. During the rest of the evening, we had no idea if he knew Vlad or just accepted him as a fun guy who was having dinner with him.

And while these things happen — these unexpected events in Bo’s life — I struggle to explain them, always telling myself  that if I watch more closely,  I will be able to understand the puzzle in his brain and how the pieces move around, disappear and reappear.  But I can’t find a pattern.  Just when I think something makes sense,  it doesn’t.

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15 Responses to The Hymn

  1. Sending you a big hug across the World!
    You are both in my prayers!
    Stay strong!
    Hugs from Sweden

  2. S.J. Takeshi says:

    Wow. This is indeed awesome. I hope the Heavens grant you with more courage. 🙂

    – Takeshi. 😀

  3. Dianne Wilkens says:

    Hi Nancy, Saw a wonderfully amazing event while playing tennis in Harwichport. Kathy and Mike would come daily to the outdoor tennis courts. With a shuffle and a stare I came to find that Mike was an Alzheimer’s husband to Kathy.

    Before my very eyes Mike trans formed each day. You see whomever wasn’t playing tennis would take turns playing with or against Mike. This small community embraced a man who had been a duck hunter, soccer, golf and tennis player. By the end of the morning there was an awareness, more cognition apparent in his eyes, and even put his hand out to shake after the set was over. By the way he always played at the add net and did return many for winners over the net.

    Of course the next day would follow exactly the same patter, but the transformation, I’m guessing by oxygenating the body and brain, synapses firing and making connections had a positive impact on Mike’s wellbeing.

    From my perspective, it takes a village, was just the way it is in Harwichport.

    Hugs and love, Dianne

    Sent from my iPad


  4. Maureen says:

    That is simply amazing!

  5. Carolyn says:

    Thank you for writing. My husband is far into Alzheimer’s and his response to hymns is quite similar. While he will happily listen to his very beloved classical music, it’s the hymns that get the emotions going. I believe they touch that place deep within us where God was, is, or wants to be.

  6. Paula Kaye says:

    There’s been a lot of talk on TV lately about Alzheimers and music as therapy!

  7. Mary Smith says:

    Nothing makes sense in dementia land.I hope you find more music which will touch Bo in the same was the hymn did. Funnily enough, I noticed dad suddenly coming alert when a hymn came on the car radio today. I know music is important and I wonder if in dad’s case the church music struck a memory chord. Although not a church goer for years when he was young he went to with his family so maybe the hymn brought back memories of family. But, as you say, it is a struggle to understand the jigsaw pieces. I guess we still keep hoping we will one day grab hold of something significant and be able to give meaning to it.

  8. boomer98053 says:

    Alzheimer’s is a moving target, and the statement you made, “But I can’t find a pattern. Just when I think something makes sense, it doesn’t” is very descriptive of what that moving target looks like. A person finally thinks they’ve caught up with it – when it moves away and goes in an entirely different direction. I think your idea of replicating the Alive Inside concept of collecting music that would appeal to your husband, is a brilliant idea.

  9. Arleen Stolzenberger says:

    I’ve read about music therapy. I’m sure the hymn somehow touched a buried memory. Music to me is a powerful medicine for the mind. It certainly can lift the spirits.
    Thinking of you all and sending prayers and hugs.

  10. The Adult Day Care Center that my Alzheimer’s husband now attends 5 days per week for 6 hours includes music and karaoke on a regular basis. From what I’ve read, music is one of the last things that stimulates memories and feelings in our loved ones.

    My husband of 28 years always cries during Amazing Grace, but it has no religious or spiritual significance to him, as a longtime atheist. That being said, I, as a struggling Christian, believe God works in the places we least expect or pray for. Isn’t that faith?

  11. thom sweeney says:

    Nancy, I too “wish I knew” what it was about music. Helen (who was the church, high school and college organist) who cannot usually understand the smallest comment, doesn’t read anything, and (I’m certain) cannot understand what’s going on on TV either, can sit down at the keyboard and STILL play any hymn that’s put in front of her. It astounds everyone. She and Gavin and Brad have “Helen Hymn Sessions” where they will sing 20 or more hymns with her, without her missing a beat. I’d love to know the answer to THAT, too. Your blog helps me SOOO much. thom

  12. Lisa M says:

    Classic country music was on the entire last week with mom. I was amazed at how many of the songs popped right back into my mind. I grew up listening to them on the radio with Mom and Daddy, but stopped as soon as I had my own car and radio! Music is magic. Good luck finding more things that will bring Bo peace and emotion and a memory. Thinking of you.

  13. kategresham says:

    Thank you for choice to be honest and vulnerable- real. It makes your writing so powerful. And thank you for sharing the journey.

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