Regular readers, even those who don't know me "in real life", will probably not be surprised to learn that I have a pretty constant stream of music playing in my head, morning, noon and night. I'm told that I was singing recognisable tunes long before I learned to talk, and for many years if I needed to learn something new - a string of dates, some Latin vocab, a chunk of the periodic table - I did so by setting it to music.
With my sons now cheerfully working their way through much of the standard choral repertoire I'm regularly delighted to find that it's all very much still THERE - maybe a bit dusty and underused, but if you throw me a line of anthem text I can pretty much guarantee to sing my way through the top line of the piece from beginning to end...so I'd kind of assumed that if at some stage in the future my short-term memory deserted me completely, music would always be the way to reach me. For Proust it might be madeleines - but for me it would be "O clap your hands" or "Selig sind die Toten" that would recreate times past and connect me with my former self. I'd even envisaged a slightly surreal world in which most of my everyday conversations happened via the words of hymns - for those seem to be even more firmly engraved on my memory - and have told the children to try reading the English Hymnal to me if I ever vanish down the dark corridors of dementia.
It had never occurred to me that those corridors might be so very long and winding that even music could not penetrate....but last week that confidence was shaken. We were at Cheltenham Town Hall to hear, among other things, Elgar's cello concerto. We have series tickets this year, so have the same (rather dreadful) seats for every concert - and some of the same neighbours too. When we arrived, an elderly couple were sitting just in front of us - but it transpired that they were in the wrong place. The rightful owners of their seats appeared and after a brief conversation the man stood up - and began the laborious business of explaining to his wife that they needed to move. It soon became obvious that she was utterly bewildered by the whole situation, but he took her hand and they went on their way like a couple of elderly babes in the wood. Their allotted seats were, in fact, immediately opposite us - and I watched the gentleman seat his wife and help her off with her overcoat with great tenderness. Charmed, I thought to myself "How lovely that he is bringing her out for a treat, even though she is obviously frail and rather fearful. I'm sure she'll love the concert".
But - when the music started I wanted to weep.
She sat there in passive confusion - a good little girl observing a conversation that was taking place in a foreign language, but with absolutely no idea what was going on,why she should care or how she should respond.
The cello soloist (who looked about 12) was impressive,and the audience applauded warmly - but all my pleasure in the evening evaporated as I watched the husband glancing repeatedly at his wife...as if he hoped to catch her awares for once, recapturing her former self enough to remember that clapping is part of the convention of concert attendance even if you haven't enjoyed the performance that much.
Poor lady, she sat marooned in her own world - utterly detached from all that was going on around her - lost somewhere that even music could not reach.
When the concert ended she looked relieved as her husband helped her on with her coat and led her away through the crowd. He seemed calm and unperturbed and I hope that perhaps the evening brought him some joy - that he was, for a while, less painfully conscious of the losses he is living through, able to focus for the duration of the performance,on the pleasure that remains.
Perhaps it wasn't really so awful - but it certainly seemed that way.
I cannot begin to imagine a world in which music might be powerless to move me...and I'm thankful that I can't.
If, one day, the cruelty of age so separates me from myself that I'm no longer connected with life by the constant processions of words and melodies that fill my head today, then I must throw myself on the mercy of the One who knows me better than I do myself - and who rejoices over each one of us with loud singing even if we can no longer make sense of the melody.