I often refer to my wife’s early death from Alzheimer’s complications as a "good death." If you have experience with Alzheimer’s you’ll understand that comment. But what made death easier for her and us was our love of music. An NYT opinion article by Mark Vanhoenacker, described some basic end-of-life planning and focused on his deathbed playlist. It rang a lot of bells because of my wife’s death from Alzheimer’s nearly five years ago.
Vanhoenacker’s very human insights resonate: the music that gives our lives meaning can bring comfort at the end. Lest you think I’m describing sad, gloomy funeral music, let me disabuse you of that thought. Paul Simon once said that music should continue “right on up until you die.” And Simon’s music was never funereal...
Background for a playlist
Today, playlists for exercise, road trips and weddings have become an art form. Spotify exceeded them all in a “birthing playlist.” My daughters used Lloyd-Weber’s cello music for putting their kids to sleep. In recent years, however, the dying and their families have created a “dying playlist.” It goes far beyond sad and somber to their likes such as the Chicago, Joni Mitchell, R.E.M., the classics, opera and a wide variety of musical genre.
Playlists go back centuries. Digital is merely the newest wrinkle in playlists. The church has created music as a final gift to the dying for more than a thousand years. Benedictine monks developed a ritual for the dead that included Gregorian chants in the 11th century. AID-stricken areas of the sub-Saharan created musical rituals for dying in the 20th century.
Music in the family
Music always occupied a central place in our family’s life. My wife was once a fine violinist and pianist. I completed a voice minor along with my undergrad history major. To say we loved music is an understatement. Like their parents our kids all studied piano. One added the recorder to her repertoire, while another played flute in the Columbia University “dirty band” (don’t ask about that). A friend of my eldest daughter once said that when her mom (my wife) took the kids someplace, they all knew that the radio would be playing classical music. I’m certain that’s why my kids now enjoy the Boston Symphony and Pops, Paul McCartney, Zac Brown Band, Phish, Prince or The Roots—and the entire gamut of music. A couple years ago one of my eldest’s friends successfully begged her to join a Christmas Bell choir at her church. I commented to her friend that my eldest daughter grew up in the middle of music. Oh yes, she was very familiar with that. And that’s why she knew she fit in the bell choir. Once you get beyond Baroque, Classical, Romantic and John Denver I’m out of touch, though one of my kids rather insistently tampers with my musical tastes.
Music and Alzheimer’s
But the role of music in my wife’s last few days is unforgettable. Because of complications from Alzheimer’s, Marilyn had been in a coma for several days. On the morning of her death, my eldest daughter had flown in from Massachusetts to be with me.
Our revered Minnesota Public Radio had been playing softly 24 hours a day for the nearly three years she was in memory care. In the last hours of her life, she had been quiet though breathing softly. I walked over to the radio and turned it off. Instantly, she started moving around in the bed and moaning. I watched for a few minutes and then realized what had happened. So I walked over, turned the music from MPR back on, and immediately she stopped moaning and moving. The response was so instantaneous that it was shocking. My daughter and I both understood. She went silently a few hours later with her beloved music still playing.
It’s commonly believed that hearing is the last of our senses to go and that was evidently true for my wife. Her experience reminds me that music is indeed “divine.” Thomas Carlyle had his finger on the truth when he wrote that music is the “speech of angels.” Perhaps that why when I’ve told that story, no matter the audience or the age, the response always seems to be one of wonder and awe.
It’s music that has always made us happy to be alive. Music is that big slice of reality that brings a liberating perspective to our lives no matter the stresses. It never seems to grow old. And it has always brought our family together.