Rhythms of Life: A Musical Mom Declines One Note at a Time

Hearing her 'clunkers' at the piano, a caring son starts to prepare for what he knows is coming next

“What’s wrong with you, Betty? What’s wrong with you? Why did you do that?”
My mother is yelling at herself. I know she has made a mistake. I hope she won’t make any more.
It is 7 a.m. in Missouri, Sunday morning, and I wake to hear my mother practicing the piano in the living room, our rarely entered realm of antiques, cut glass, bird lamps, her hat pin collections, and the curtains she says will crumble if washed just once more. “It’s imported,” she says of the fabric. “Switzerland, I think. Or somewhere.”
Not as sure or certain as she once was at the keyboard, she hits a few of what she calls clunkers when she plays. Each one hurts us both, I know, tearing into our memories of the proud younger woman we remember, shoulders held stiffly erect as she played, as she was taught as a girl, always aiming to get it right. “Hold up your shoulders,” Mammy always told her. “Hold up your shoulders.”
Lying in bed, I picture her on the bench, a fragile bundle in pink flannel. She has risen early to practice because she is scared of embarrassing herself at church where she is to play later on. Every time she sits down at the keyboard in the sanctuary, it gets harder for her to make it through. Although, in an attempt to help her, they assign her the same hymns again and again, she can no longer hear the melodies the way they are supposed to go. The old songs in her head don’t play right anymore; she cannot summon them up. She mixes up the hymn numbers; her hands shake from nerves. I worry over her as if she is my child, sitting there, cranky and rebellious, but trying.
I am grateful that her gentle touch at the instrument, the soft way she touches the smooth keys and makes the music flow, remains. It is, after all, God’s work she is doing there at the piano, or so she believes, and respect flows from her fingertips.
She is not a pious woman or a Bible-thumper, but she is, in a quiet way, devout. She believes and tries to live as what she designates as “a Christian woman.” She wants the 23rd Psalm read at her funeral, and at night prays for me and for a peaceful death, delivered as soon as possible. But I know her route will be a longer one — a mountain road, heading up to a place where there are no names and where no one goes. They say there is no pain there, only quick smiles drifting past and the occasional ray of sun that wrinkles the brow and warms a face tilted warily toward it. Betty’s physical health is good. It is her sweet head that is clouding up.

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I have to get strong and learn to take over. I am dreading dealing with the broker, and income taxes, sorting through the mad magpie piles of paperwork on my father’s desk. But I will do these things I have long avoided. Yesterday I spent hours on the phone, sorting through her insurance policies, figuring out which policy belonged with which company, attempting to assess her situation and what would be paid for if she entered the Tiger Place residence.
I have dialed cities across the plains — Omaha, Wichita, Tulsa — only to find myself connected to fast-talking foreign help-desk voices. “Slow down,” I tell them. “Do you not understand? I have special needs.” Through the morning and early afternoon, I made notes, organized forms and statements in neat stacks, though I continued to forget what was in each pile.
I made lists beginning with things I had already done so I could cross stuff off right away. This morning, listening to my mother play, I cannot quite believe it. This is me, who cannot organize a checkbook register, who can be reduced to near aphasia at the mere mention of H&R Block, who runs from Cobra forms as if they were actual cobras. For decades, my approach to financial planning was strictly pharmaceutical. Suddenly I am Suze Orman. If this does not lead me toward a state of incontinent alcoholism, I know I can survive the winds of global warming with nary a sip of Manischewitz.
“What are you doing over there?” Betty demanded over and over. “Those are my papers. Who on earth are you talking to? Leave that stuff alone.” I paid no attention. I had to get it all right. For her. Again and again, I picked up the phone, punching numbers, trying to get help. “Do any humans work there?” I asked, my rage reduced only by the pleasure of screaming the F-word at electronically simulated voices.

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When my mother plays “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” she always reminds me that this was my grandmother’s favorite. “She couldn’t sing, but she liked it enough to listen when she heard it.” I see Mammy in an awkward hat with one side dented in, sitting in a hot summer church, cooling herself with a paper fan bearing the image of Jesus rising and the name of Thompson-Mackler, the local funeral parlor. Clearing her throat — my mother’s family has waged a decades-long battle with phlegm — she looks about to doze.
The piano has been my mother’s instrument since she was a little girl who took lessons from Miss Elizabeth Richmond in Madison. I imagine her crossing the highway, trudging through the street with her music books, pausing along the way to look in the store windows at Chowning’s Dry Goods, stopping at the grocery, if she had the money, for candy, which still seems a luxury to her, though she has bowls full now.
Miss Elizabeth’s house, like those of many of the maiden ladies in Madison who “took to their beds” in their declining years and did not receive, was by my time overgrown with unkempt bushes and wild, unmown grass. It was as if the disorder of her mind had spread through the house and out into the yard where the vines grew dense and the once carefully kept flowerbeds returned to weeds.
Although she plays piano only once a month now, Betty has never stopped performing for church and has never taken it less than seriously. “The other woman,” as she calls Vanessa, our church’s musical director who takes over the piano for the three other Sundays, is my mother’s arch-nemesis. Betty believes that Vanessa wants all four Sundays and is determined to drive her into anonymity in the diminishing congregation. So my mother tries to practice, though she procrastinates about it more than ever.
“Are you going to practice?” I will start asking her on the Wednesday of the weeks she is supposed to play, after the church secretary calls with the hymn numbers. But she remains stationed in her fortress on the couch, waiting until the last minute on Sunday, before the sun comes up and I start breakfast. “Vanessa never practices,” my mother says somewhat enviously. “Vanessa just bangs ’em out.”

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This Sunday, as has been the case for some months, my mother will not let me accompany her to church. She does not want me to hear her play. “I’m not what I used to be,” she tells me, “and you make me nervous. You’re like my mother. You always expect perfection. You want everything the way it was.”
Before I drive her to church, I notice the dark half moons under Betty’s eyes. She looks exhausted; the morning has clearly come too early. Excusing myself, I go to her bedroom to hunt some makeup to make her look a little less fatigued. When I return, she is watching, with a quizzical look, a commercial on television for a new burger from Hardees. Called the Jim Beam Thick Burger, it is made with whiskey and appears to be larger than the head of the man in the commercial. “Look at that man eat that hamburger,” Betty says. “He’s not going to eat that whole thing, is he? On television?”
Thinking that American ingenuity has finally perfected a sandwich that both inebriates and lethally clogs aortas, I apply the skin-toned makeup under Betty’s eyes as she shakes her head in protest. “Hold still,” I say. “You look like I have kept you up all night, telemarketing or looming. I will be accused of elder abuse.”
“Where did you get that?” she demands to know of the makeup, as if I have managed to fish it from a drug mule’s rectal cavity. “It was in the bird’s nest, I say, referring to the space under her bedside table where a conglomeration of things — empty eye drop bottles, used Kleenexes, coupons and tiny notes she has scrawled on index cards — have piled up in a crazy heap.
At church, after making certain I park in her spot, she allows me to help her up the stairs. After I get her situated, help her organize her bulletin and music on the holder, make sure she has tissues, I am out the door, heading to Hickman’s to look for a chicken. “Don’t buy ’em if they’re too bloody,” my mother has instructed. “Last one you got wasn’t fit for the dogs.”
In the parking lot, there are cars with bumper stickers: “Proud to Be a Grandma” and “I Love Truck Drivers.” I still hear, in my ear, my mother’s playing, her trying, her hoping not to falter. As I drive away from the church, I say my own prayer: “Please help her through all this.” 

George Hodgman
By George Hodgman
George Hodgman has been an editor in New York City since 1983, working at Simon and Schuster, Vanity Fair, Talk magazine, Henry Holt and Company, and Houghton Mifflin. Currently he is spending large amounts of time in Paris, Mo., where he is from.

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