Last weekend, I went to see the Broadway musical Carousel. I had been anticipating seeing it for months. Three bars into the opening number, The Carousel Waltz, my eyes filled with tears. Not because I was anticipating the sorrowful plot elements or the poignant ending (though of course I was). I was moved to tears by the beauty of the music.
My reaction was visceral. In the space of a few seconds, I felt the gorgeous music take root in my gut. It surged through my chest as if it were a powerful river tossing my emotions in a rushing current. Moved and overwhelmed, I wept.
I know that this must sound like overwrought hyperbole. I promise it is not. To say I love music doesn’t come close to describing its effect on me. I don’t just listen to music. I devour it. I experience it with all my senses, not just my ears. It takes me out of the here and now. Unlike most people, I can’t have music playing in the background while I work, or tidy up, or have a conversation. The music commands my full attention, pulling me in and enveloping me.
When I was growing up, the house was filled with music. The phonograph played all day long. It was one of my mother’s greatest joys. She could fall into music as if down a rabbit hole in the same way I do now.
Mom played many different types of music. There were the Yiddish songs of The Barry Sisters, World War II-era popular music such as The Andrews Sisters, classical music, even some soft rock such as Simon and Garfunkel or Don McLean. She didn’t expose my brother and I to this variety of genres and sounds with the conscious intent of providing us with a solid music foundation. She simply played what she loved, what made her happy, and shared it with us because she wanted us to be happy too. I know you can’t teach someone to love music. However, by creating a musical environment in our home my mother most definitely nurtured and reinforced an innate predilection.
The deepest musical bond my mother and I shared was a love of Broadway show tunes. We played the same albums over and over and over, inhaling the songs and learning every single lyric. Our standard rotation included Carousel, Oklahoma, The King and I, West Side Story, The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, Finian’s Rainbow, Camelot, My Fair Lady, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, and The Man of La Mancha. You can see she had great taste. These are arguably the greatest musical scores in the musical theater canon of that era (from the 1940s through the early 1970s).
While our passion for music created a bond between us, it didn’t follow that I appreciated it. When we went to see a musical play or movie, my mother would inevitably sing along. Every. Single. Time. Not loudly but most definitely audibly. Typically, she was set off or inspired (depending upon your perspective) when the actors performed one of her favorites, either something especially upbeat (think Seventy-Six Trombones) or intensely poignant (The Impossible Dream). Every time, her behavior annoyed and embarrassed the hell out of me. I would tap her on the hand, and if she didn’t get the message I would hiss at her, “Shhh! You’re disturbing everyone.” I knew I could have said it in a nicer, gentler way, but I didn’t care. I thought a grown woman should know better. Now I wish I had been more generous of spirit.
In the late spring of 2011, my mother was diagnosed with a virtually incurable type of leukemia. One day I will write of her courage and grace during the 14-1/2 months she lived after her diagnosis. The chemotherapy and clinical trials (eight of them) she underwent during that time required many lengthy stays in the hospital. Since my mother felt fine until the last two months of her life, she was bored to tears during these periods that she was trapped (as she justifiably called it). My father and I were there nearly every day, but there was no escaping the ennui. We passed the time with small talk, reading, watching sitcom reruns, and staring into space during periods of silence.
One early evening, the three of us were sitting in her hospital room watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond that we had seen at least twenty-five times before (if not more). There was a knock and in walked a young man holding a guitar. He introduced himself as a volunteer and asked if we would care to hear him play on the guitar and sing for us.
My swift and cynical reaction, one I fortunately kept to myself, was no I don’t want to listen to some corny amateur musician. I groaned inwardly at the prospect of having to plaster a fake smile on my face while he performed.
My mother, on the other hand, replied, “Yes, thank you, I would love that.” I looked at her and saw she was beaming with delight. When he asked what she wanted to hear, mom thought for a moment before she asked, “Do you know any Simon and Garfunkel?” “Of course,” he replied. “How about The Sound of Silence?”
That was one of my mother’s favorite songs. Throughout the performance she was smiling with her entire face, and singing along, which made the young man smile back at her. Swept up in the moment, I sang along too. He played a second song (I don’t remember which one) before he left. My mom’s smile and upbeat demeanor lasted the rest of the night. To this day I thank the Lord that I didn’t voice my contemptuous view about an experience that gave my mother such joy, as music always did.
During the last few hours of my mother’s life, she was uncommunicative. I remembered someone telling me that hearing is the last sense to go at the end of life. It was possible she could still hear the world around her. I positioned myself on a chair near her head and tuned in to the music I had stored on my phone.
There were a lot of songs from which I could choose, from many different genres. In many ways the music collection on my phone mirrored the musical life she and I had shared. I turned up the volume and held the phone to her ear. I played some classical music. Then I played some country music, a genre she and my father had come to love later in life. Finally, I played If I Loved You from Carousel. Soon after that she died. I hope the music she loved was her final awareness of this world.
Thank you, mom, for a gift that has transformed and enriched my life. I miss you.
Most of us have memories of our mothers, whether they are still living or have passed on. Memories may be happy, sad, heartwarming or any combination of emotions. These memories–not material items–are the true legacies our parents leave us. In honor of Mother’s Day, it would be great if you would share a memory of your mom in the Comments section below. Thanks and to those of you who are mothers, Happy Mother’s Day!