I’m at one end of the couch, my 88-year-old father at the other in the living room of his condo in Fountain Hills, Arizona. We could easily pass for strangers, but not because of our limited contact since he moved here from New Jersey 28 years ago. Encroaching dementia has estranged my father from me as well as from himself.
He asks if I want to watch television; he needs background noise to distract me from his silence. I suggest his tape of Johnny Carson highlights. He emits scant laughter as Johnny and Ed McMahon collapse in hysterics with the likes of Buddy Hackett and George Gobel. A perplexed smile freezes on his face: his only way to acknowledge that the category of entertainment is humor.
“It’s 1943, and my father is watching Glenn Miller perform on an L.A. stage before shipping out to the South Pacific as a fresh Seabee recruit.” When the program ends, I step over to the CD player and look through my father’s music collection. Almost everything is from the 1940s and earlier. Benny Goodman, Paul Whiteman, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald. I ask my father if he’d like to listen to something. His eyes brighten and he scampers to his feet, as if I’d just given him a shot of adrenaline.
As the music starts up—raucous Dixieland jazz, Satchmo blasting away—I see my father’s foot keeping time. Then I realize that my foot is matching his. I sense that we are feeling the same way as the notes wash over us, and that my father knows this, too. I feel the music connecting father and son. We look at each other and nod in unison. It’s as if a cord has been plugged into both of us, the music flowing back and forth to sustain our shared experience.
He appears to be staring at the wall in front of him, but I know better; he’s looking back in time. Next on the playlist is “Moonlight Serenade.” The Big Band sound blows the dust off the good old days and makes them gleam again. It’s 1943, and my father is watching Glenn Miller perform on an L.A. stage before shipping out to the South Pacific as a fresh Seabee recruit. It’s 1947, and he’s fox-trotting with a woman he just met at a New York City dance hall. It was love at first step; the woman will become his wife a few months later, my mother five years down the road.
“I’ve learned to appreciate the music of my father’s generation from him, and my CD rack of Bowie and Beatles shares space with Bennett and Basie.” Each new song seems to unearth a memory, bring sparkle into the vacant gaze. I tell my father that “Stardust” may be the greatest pop song of all time, echoing him from a previous conversation or three. I’m not just humoring him; I think I believe it. I’ve learned to appreciate the music of my father’s generation from him, and my CD rack of Bowie and Beatles shares space with Bennett and Basie.
As it does for me, maybe listening to music reminds him of another connection we had way back when. One of my father’s favorite indulgences when I was a kid was The Lawrence Welk Show on Saturday nights. I often watched it with him, the two of us in more or less the same positions on the couch as we are now. A tenor named Joe Feeney sang “Danny Boy.” Some guy played polkas on the accordion. It was about as corny as music could get for me, only a few notes removed from the Musak aired in my dentist’s waiting room. So why did I sit and watch? Because it was an opportunity to hang out with my dad.
The next time we see each other, our conversations might be even more one-sided. But the music will be waiting for us. It will allow us to be in the same space, a space that doesn’t depend on cognition or short-term memory. We’ll meet again in the company of Ella and Benny and Bing. Without a word spoken, our connection will be strong and true.