There’s probably a song that works like medicine for you.
That’s what I’ve come to believe after talking to Andy Christie, a New York graphic artist whose mom used to live in Sterling Village, a sprawling condominium complex in Boynton Beach.
I first heard Christie talking about his mom on The Moth podcast, an online site that features people telling true stories about their lives.
Christie told the story of his mother’s death, and a wholly unexpected bit of musical magic near the very end.
“She wasn’t a big music lover,” Christie told me.
Which made what happened even more surprising. OK, first a little background.
Christie’s mom was a tough farm girl from Yugoslavia who became a refugee who fled the Nazis during World War II, and ended up in Austria, where she married a Scottish officer who was stationed there. They had two sons, and then she and her husband emigrated to the United States, where the marriage quickly fell apart.
“Once the Nazis were out of the picture, they finally had time to get a good look at each other,” Christie said.
Christie’s mother, Josefa Christie Neu liked to be called “Sophie.” And when she got older, she moved to Boynton Beach, living on her own in a condo. She clung to her independence, the son said. She did her own laundry and vacuuming, and when residents of Sterling Village were asked to evacuate for an approaching hurricane, she refused to go, pushing her couch against the front door of her unit instead, her son said.
Andy Christie said he’d book three or four trips a year to spend time in Florida with his mom and “be a son” by doing chores such as fixing her toilet plunger, rehanging her cabinet doors, and telling her neighbor to turn down the volume on the TV.
His mother, he said, had a complicated medical history, and frequently his trips to Florida would coincide with one of her regular hospital stays, which he described as “tune ups.”
“She would spend a couple of days in the hospital, having her essential systems tuned up,” he said, “then she’d come home as good as new — or as good as a used, but well-maintained machine.”
But four years ago, when his mom was 88, the medical tune ups weren’t working. Her systems were shutting down, the son said, and on this final trip, his first chore was to put a hospital bed in her condo and allow her to live out her final days with hospice care at home.
Before she went home for that final time, she had already stopped talking. And after she was installed in her home, she grew more lifeless in bed, not eating anymore, and living on a morphine drip.
“It was a death watch,” the son said.
He, his brother and the woman’s grandchildren gathered around her bed. But she didn’t open her eyes, or make any movements to suggest she even knew that anybody was there with her.
And then, after a few days of this, a young woman showed up with a guitar strapped to her back and a thick songbook. She explained that she was a performer sent by hospice as part of the woman’s palliative care.
“The only music she ever listened to was polkas,” Christie said he told her.
“What about show tunes?” the guitarist asked.
Christie said his mother had a very limited appetite for entertainment. Throughout her life, she owned just two movies, and watched the VHS tapes of them repeatedly. One was The Sting, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and the other was The Sound of Music, which reminded her of her days living as a young woman in Austria.
“We probably watched The Sound of Music a thousand times,” the son said.
The hospice singer suggested the song “Edelweiss,” the waltz-tempo ballad from the musical. She sang it in the quiet condo, strumming along with her guitar.
The dying woman didn’t react to it, but everyone else in the room cried.
“‘Edelweiss’ is a song you can easily make fun of, until you hear it again,” Christie said. “It’s like ‘Over the Rainbow.’”
When the song was over, the people in the room clapped for the singer.
“And my mother, who hadn’t moved a muscle in a couple of days raised her arms in the air to clap,” Christie said.
So he leaned over her, patted her head and asked his previously non-responsive mom, “Did you like that?”
And she said, “I enjoyed it.”
Those were her last words, Christie said. She died the next morning.
Christie thinks back on that still.
“She didn’t respond to her children or grandchildren,” he said. “In the end, she responded to none of that. The only thing she reacted to was a song that was such a part of her memory.
“I don’t think, ‘Send in the Clowns’ would have worked.”
I’ll bet we all have songs like that. Songs that are stored away in parts of the brain that are accessible even when nearly everything else isn’t.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks studied, lectured and wrote about the profound effect that music has on Alzheimer’s patients.
“The past, which is not recoverable in any other way is embedded, as if in amber, in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity, at least for a while,” he said.
I guess we all have our own “Edelweiss.”