“A Magical Night of Music”

4:03 pm Essays

My father got Alzheimer’s 10 years ago. At first, we passed it off to “getting old.” He’d drive the car to the corner store a half-mile away, and get lost coming home. He’d take a bite of my mom’s apple pie and say, “I don’t want meat loaf.” He’d spend a half hour in the bathroom before we’d knock on the door to ask, “Are you OK, dad?” Only to find that he’d peed all over the walls by accident and was too embarrassed to come out and admit he needed help.

There were days when I’d look at this confused old man, struggling to figure out how to use a spoon, and think “Where’s my dad?” The dad I knew for 35 years was melting away as fast as fresh snow on a warm late-winter day. The dad I knew made everyone smile – even the cranky waitresses who’d heard them all, but still managed to laugh because they couldn’t resist his grin. The dad I knew could recite every story I’d every written from memory, so proud of me he’d bore every old guy down at the horseshoe courts bragging on my accomplishments. The dad I knew looked sharp every time he went out the door, his duffer’s cap titled just so on his head, his well-worn sweater always neatly buttoned over a fresh-pressed shirt.

The day I finally accepted that he was sick was the day I took him to New York City to hear Rachmaninoff play at Lincoln Center. Ever since I was a little girl he’d regaled me with the story of the first time he’d heard the great pianist play. It was a warm summer night in Brooklyn at an outdoor theater. As the story went, just before the concert was to begin, my dad anxiously twisted in his seat, peering around at the bustling audience, worried he wouldn’t be able to hear the music over their constant chatter. “But then,” he’d tell me, his eyes still bright at a memory more than three decades old, “then, Rachmaninoff struck the first note. Instantly, the entire crowd fell silent. It was beautiful. A perfect summer evening filled with magnificent music. I’ll never forget it.”

The night I took him to Lincoln Center was also a beautiful summer evening. We got to the city early and I took him to a Japanese restaurant where we shared a able with a half-dozen other people to watch the chef make like a samurai, flipping his knives into the air as he sliced our meals into tiny bites that landed perfectly upon our plates. Everything went great until the meal ended, and my dad took out one of his cigars. Of course it was a Garcia Y Vega, his favorite. It was always a pleasure to watch my dad light his cigars, making like an Indian at a ceremonial service. The quick flare of the match. That first puff. And the satisfied look on his face as he leaned back in his chair with his trademark smile. This time, though, the match didn’t settle in the ash try – it landed on his polyester shirt, quickly burning a giant hole. There was no real harm done, but I’ll never forget the look on his face. For the first time, I saw my dad ashamed.

He’d insisted on dressing himself for our outing, even though he could no longer coordinate colors. Yes, his plaid shirt clashed a bit with his hounds tooth jacket. And the sneakers he insisted on wearing were a little out of place among the tuxedo clad gentlemen accompanying the fancy women in their ballgowns gathering at Lincoln Center for this prestigious opening night. But to me, he was the most handsome man in the joint. We took our $90 box seats just above the great stage where Rachmaninoff was soon to play. The excitement in the theater was palpable: this was the pianist’s return after years away from this stage. When he finally came out and took his bows I looked to my dad, certain his face would reflect the moment. Instead, he was worrying his hands, peering around at the crowd with suspicion. “Who are all these people? Why are they making so much noise?” he asked. I tried my best to calm him as the famed chandeliers rose to the ceiling, a sure sign the evening was about to begin. But my stomach was in knots. “What if he made a scene,” I thought. “What should I do?”

And then Rachmninoff took the stage. He took his bow and the crowd hushed. Finally, the music started. It was beautiful. I looked at my dad and his eyes were glued to the man at the piano. For the first time all evening, I felt myself relax. The music my father loved was working is magic.

When Rachmaninoff finished the first piece, there was that long, full moment of silence before the thunder of the applause. It was the moment my dad chose to call out, “I thought it would be better than this!” I was mortified, certain we’d be thrown out. But then I looked around at the fancy people sharing our box. They weren’t offended. Instead, they were smiling. You see, before the performance started my dad had shared his story about seeing Rachmaninoff for the first time. Despite the Alzheimer’s, he’d told the story with his usual relish and flare. They could see he was a gentle old man with much to tell. They could also see that he was sick, but it didn’t matter. He could still make even the coldest stranger smile.

That night was the last good time my father and I had together. After that, the disease progressed rapidly. Soon, he couldn’t be left alone. We had to feed him, bath him and even change his diapers. Eventually, he became a danger to himself, and everyone around him. After four years of caring for him at home, it was time to put him in a hospital, where he could receive the around-the-clock medical attention he needed.

I was with him the day he died. As usual, I was playing music in his room, blasting it so his weak ears might hear. For this day, I chose Rachmaninof. He hadn’t known who I was for years, and couldn’t even remember that he had any children at all. But that day, when I held his face and looked close into his still-bright blue eyes, he seemed to recognize me, if only for a moment. I talked to him, and recounted his favorite story about that night so long ago in Brooklyn. For just a moment, his eyes came into focus. And he smiled. My dad – the dad I knew – smiled. Soon, we were both at peace.

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