Daughters of the Dirt / Sarah Higdon

My Alzheimer's Percussion Band - Unplugged Version
by Stephen J. Lyons

Every Wednesday I gather my weekly Alzheimer's Percussion Band for an hour of song. Our first order of business is to distribute instruments. Most popular and easiest to play are the various-sized, pear-shaped castanets with pastel designs of parrots and sombreros painted on the sides. Pairs of slim pine sticks are distributed with the break-even chance that whoever takes them will click them together. The remaining bracelets of bells end up on the slim wrists of women like Betty Lou, who sings softly to a stuffed dog that she dresses in diapers.

When I walk into the day room of this county nursing home at ten o'clock each Wednesday morning, I see a semi-circle of mostly women in wheelchairs in various stages of chatter, sleep, and laughter. A notice board announces the activities of the day: kickball (played from a sitting position), Yachtze, sensory exercise, church service, reading group, and quilting. The board also states the date, weather, and the next holiday. Staff and volunteers provide constant interruptions. "Does anyone want to see the priest today?" "Time to have your hair done."

One hundred-year-old Pearl Engel sits to my left in a bright plum-colored sweater and handles the castanets. "Doesn't her hair look beautiful?" she comments when another woman returns from the nursing home salon with her new perm. "That was so beautiful," after hearing my solo of Doc Watson's "Windy and Warm" (in the key of A minor, standard tuning). Midway through the weekly practice, I always play a solo to give the residents a break and to show off my finger-picking skills that I believe are somewhere in the intermediate to advanced stage.

This nursing home gig, as rewarding as it might be, is not what I had in mind when I first picked up the guitar at the age of ten. I imagined playing to a packed house at a trendy New York City nightclub. I would be joined during my set by folk music heroes John Prine, Tom Rush, or the late Steve Goodman. Dylan would show up backstage after the show and we would go out for drinks and even write a song together. A four-disc contract would soon appear and be followed by a two-week, sold-out performance at Carnegie Hall.

But unlike those other imagined venues, this real one grants an absence of stage fright, which, I believe, has kept me from larger, more appreciative audiences. Even in the casual company of friends, I have never mastered the tricky picking pattern required in "I Am a Pilgrim," or the complicated jazz arrangement of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (fifteen, four-fingered chords up and down the fret board) as effortless as I do for my seniors. For, in the Alzheimer's unit, all is forgiven if not instantly forgotten. When I flub a transition no one notices. My rather limited range of vocals is politely overlooked. When the pesky "B" string goes out of tune there is not one wince.

We have no official groupies, but occasionally family members will join their loved ones for the musical sessions. Lyle, for instance, paces next to his wife, Alma, who never speaks or opens her eyes. Lyle always laughs at my jokes: "Here's a little number by George Gershwin and his lovely wife, Ira."

As band director I have to be cautious in my song selection. I took a chance on an a cappella version of "My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean," praying that no one in the room was related to a Bonny.

Last night as I lay on my pillow,
Last night as I lay on my bed.
Last night as I lay on my pillow,
I dream'd that my Bonny was dead.

Hymns are off-limits, too, because the activities director says, "Hymns make the residents sad. They remind them of funerals." Still, I sometimes slip in to "I'll Fly Away," an uplifting church sing-a-long about the joyful anticipation of going to Heaven. It's a song that pleads for a tambourine, rhythmic clapping, and a trembling trip to the altar, but with the exception of Michael, who raises his hand as if hailing a taxi, there is only the stray off-beat rattle.

Just a few more weary days and then
I'll fly away.
To a land where joys shall never end
I'll fly away.

With the impetus of our modest musical progress urging our ambitions forward, a Christmas concert was planned. This was my idea, and mine alone. I pictured the surprise and pride in the faces of sons and daughters as they watched their parents sing and beat out a percussive rhapsody to "Bicycle Built for Two," "You Are My Sunshine," and "Home On the Range." I could also unveil a snappy version of "Bye Bye Blackbird" that I just learned off a Chet Atkins instructional video. Instead, the activities director, perhaps not fully appreciating the band's progress, wanted a more traditional Christmas party, where I was to play carols that everyone -- residents and families -- could sing.

I am happy to report that the Christmas party was a success. Our State Farm agent -- a tenor in a local barbershop quartet -- insured the vocals, leaving me free to roam the neck of my guitar for some fancy holiday picking. On "Silent Night" I didn't disappoint. Although I was nervous before all the guests, who perhaps would not be so quick to forgive a botched note, I managed to execute plenty of exciting flourishes. During the last verse I looked out at the band members sitting with their families. Pearl Engel thought the entire event was "beautiful, just beautiful." I agreed with her. For when I looked over at the usual group of sleeping women slumped in their wheelchairs, every one of them were tapping their feet in time with the music. Even Alma. Our prospects for future concerts had just improved. The possibilities, I realized, were endless. I was already planning my solo: "What A Wonderful World," on slide guitar.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of Landscape of the Heart, a single father's memoir. His articles, reviews, essays, and poems have appeared in many national magazines and journals including Newsweek, Salon, Chicago Reader, Sierra, High Country News, Witness, Commonweal, The Sun, Hope Magazine, Manoa, Whole Earth, and New Age. His writing appears in the anthologies Idaho's Poetry : A Centennial Anthology (University of Idaho Press), Passionate Hearts (New World Library), Living in the Runaway West (Fulcrum Books), and Bless the Day (Kodansha Press).

Read more of Lyons's work here