I long to close my eyes, but I can’t because I am driving. I have traveled this long road between school and home a thousand times, but today is different. Today I chauffeur my parents on a journey none of us are eager to take. Since finding out my dad has weeks, perhaps days to live, they sit in back and hold hands like teenagers.
A golf-ball sized tumor grows in my father’s brain leaving little room for once simple tasks. A few months ago he lost the ability to read and had to give up his Civil Engineering jobs. Now he spends most of his mental capacity trying to piece words together. When he speaks, they tumble out of his mouth like a puzzle.
“Leaving second latter with the vice and—howdy-there goes!” I can’t tell if this is a question, a statement or a plea. I nod and smile into the rear view mirror
Mom doesn’t know how to respond either.
A few years ago her short term memory began drifting away. Childhood memories now gather like eggs in a mental nest. Sometimes she can crack open the faces and names of friends and family. Other times, the morning harvest leaves her nothing to hold on to but questions and confusion.
I feel helpless. Why them? Why me? Why isn’t life easier?
Without a way for us to communicate, silence sits between us like a fourth passenger.
I hum “Blue Skies” to pass the time. Suddenly from the back seat, I hear my dad’s voice, “nothing but Blue Skies, do I see.” (Mom) “Blue birds, singin’ a song (together), nothing but blue birds all day long!” I add my alto line to the second verse and when we finish as a trio, they beg for another. Surprised and excited, I rack my brain—“Summertime and the livin’ is easy (duet from the back) “fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high…(trio)…Oh your daddy’s rich and your ma is good lookin’ so hush little baby, don’t you cry.”
Fascinated, I realize that if I begin the line of an old familiar tune, somehow they can access that part of the brain that holds melodies AND lyrics. The hardest part is coming up with the first line. I dig deep for anything: jazz standards, hymns, silly camp songs. Song after song we gain momentum like a train and slowly transform our collective pain into a gift. Each song connects us with a shared memory: singing in church, harmonizing at home, hiking in the woods. Music becomes the balm we now use when words fail.
Snaking through fields of fragrant alfalfa and over hills of dark pine, I am a jukebox driver, fed with the quarters of my parent’s enthusiasm and joy. Through music, something otherwise inaccessible is drawn from our memories and we weave a love song. On and on I drive and we sing with abandon, winding our way to goodbye.