I remember when she wasn’t sick, when her eyes still laughed, when she would burst out in song while hanging laundry or stirring spaghetti sauce at the stove.
“How much is that doggie in the window, arf arf.” The last part sent me into giggles when she squeaked, “arf arf.” Looking down at me with a stern face she’d ask, “What’s so funny Buster?” And the two of us would laugh until my jaw hurt. Then she would close her eyes and sing us to the hill where the Old Rugged Cross held Jesus.
At times my father’s perfect Bing Crosby would join in. “In the cool, cool, cool of the evening, tell her I’ll be there.” And he would tease her, “For a minute there I thought I was with Rosie Clooney.” She blushed every time.
They were good together. Feel good songs in a feel good home. But then the sickness came. Parkinson’s they called it. The light in her eyes waned slowly into eventide and sank below the horizon.
I was seven when her extended visits to City Hospital began. A week, two weeks at a time. That’s when my grandmother came to live with us.
She entered the front door cloaked in shadow. A black scarf over her head framed a thin, very wrinkled face before it ended in a knot under her chin. When she removed her long black coat to reveal a long black satin shiny dress that matched her black satin shiny shoes, a feeling of dread came over me. Not a fear of the vision in black, but of the realization that my mother would no longer be caring for us.
Grandma did not speak English but over the months I became so engrossed in the sounds coming out of her that I began to understand. I learned a few words by watching and listening, but we learned broken English together. She was interesting. She cooked. She kept a spotless house. But she couldn’t sing.
We’d visit Mom each evening, bringing home made bread and pasta and movie magazines. And each evening her face looked more drawn and thin, forming the mask of Parkinson’s, as I heard the doctor call it. At home her songs were quiet, released in tears as she paced back and forth through the house wringing her hands, unable to sit still or sleep.
I learned her pills. Librium in two tone green, the blue Valium, the white Artane. Little brown bottles replaced the music box on her dresser. It was the blue Valium three times a day that calmed the tremors, granting her a few hours of peace. I even learned to give her Vitamin B12 injections every other week, and how to sterilize the glass syringe and sharpen the needle. Is it destiny that I became a nurse?
There were morning when I would be summoned to the Principle’s office. “Um…. your mother called and needs you at home. I’m afraid she isn’t feeling well again.” He was obviously uncomfortable, looking across his desk into the pale face of a bewildered seven year old. I ran all the way, fearing what I might find, anticipating the worst. She was crying, unable to sit, unable to pace, lonely and frightened. I felt lost as I held her hand, then without knowing why, I began to sing.
My mother had been a choir member at Sara Jane Methodist Church. I would often attend Catholic Mass with my Grandmother at seven on Sunday mornings, then join Mom at Sara Jane to hear her solo. I knew every hymn by heart. That morning I sang them all.
I sang The Old Rugged Cross. I sang “Do Lord, oh do Lord, oh do remember me.” I sang, “Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee.” I sang until my voice crackled and Mom fell back across the bed exhausted. I pulled the bedspread over us where we slept until my father came home.
In a few years I would become an altar boy at Saint Mary’s. The mass was in Latin, and although I knew what to do and when to do it, I knew very little about what was going on. I’m not sure if it was boredom or the incense but the sound of Latin echoes would fade and I would lose myself in hymns until some subtle change startled me out of it and I would take my place kneeling at the side of the altar, wondering if I had been singing aloud.
She passed through the veil to the valley of peace in 1971. She’d had enough. But she had given me singing. Singing for joy, singing to lessen pain, singing to soothe. I’ve been singing ever since.
On some nights her Patti Paige voice echoes through my dreams unexpectedly where she graces me with song. “I was dancing with my darling to the Tennessee waltz.”
I’m glad she’s singing. I don’t have to see her to know the light is back in her eyes. I can hear it.