I can paint an acceptable watercolor, string beads into a functional necklace, and arrange a bland room into something feng shui-ish—at least I like to think so.
Some label me an “artist.” However, perfectionism is my muse, and I live under its thumb—so I just settle for “artistic.”
As with most artistic people, my inclination toward the creative arts was “passed down” from a relative—in my case, my dad. He was – and still is, despite his cognitive changes – a talented pianist.
Musically inclined, I am not. But thanks to Dad’s influence, I grew up immersed in melody.
In fact, my earliest memory is of dancing in the living room to Paul Simon’s “Graceland” spinning on the record player.
The soundtrack of my childhood was outrageously varied—Gerry Rafferty on the ride home from swim practice (the trumpet piece on “Baker Street” is worth a listen) and Creedence Clearwater Revival while doing chores. There was a lot of Joe Cocker, Lyle Lovett, The Doobie Brothers and Tom Petty mixed in with some Enya, Yanni and Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Dad and I had a brief stint with country music in the early 90s, and I can still identify Mozart, Beethoven or Chopin just by their frequencies, which constantly vibrated the walls and ceilings of my childhood home.
Music, always, at all times. It was Dad’s modus operandi.
So, I shouldn’t have been surprised that music would remain central to my dad’s world, even when his world turned inside out and upside down, distorted by dementia.
I shouldn’t have been surprised he can still play piano pieces by memory and pick up new melodies by ear, while at the same time unable to remember conversations and events from days and weeks before.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that autumn day, when he, well, really surprised me.
I was navigating traffic on the way to his weekly physical therapy when a familiar song came on the radio and instigated an impromptu lecture on music theory.
My dad’s ears immediately perked to the lyrics: “Joan was quizzical, studied pataphysical science in the home…”.
It was “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by the Beatles.
He excitedly launched into a detailed – and completely lucid, mind you – explanation of “plagal cadence.” Apparently, the Beatles introduced this novel chord progression, revolutionizing music by doing so. I was stunned into silence as he explained how plagal cadence changed the course of music theory by overwriting the standard, monotonous four-chord progression—the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll at the time.
My dad summarized this incredibly complex concept for me in the space of only three to four blocks. I reeled from the surprise and awe of not only his knowledge but his ability to retrieve it in such complex detail, despite his short-term memory and executive function deficits.
Most of all, however, I felt immense relief—not for my dad but, more selfishly, for myself.
You see, I’m a lot like my dad.
It’s blatantly obvious my genotype and its phenotype skew in his direction. The “nature or nurture” debate aside, I’m my dad in so many ways.
These similarities have become worrisome, considering Dad’s recent cognitive struggles. I’ve reluctantly come to accept the fact it’s very likely – barring any unforeseen medical breakthroughs – I’ll also develop dementia.
His mother did. He did. I will.
As a result, the ubiquitous question, “What’s the purpose of my life?” has haunted me for more than a year. Why does my creative work, my creative expression – my very existence – matter if, ultimately, dementia will wipe away my mark on this world?
As you can imagine, this has not exactly done wonders for my mental health. I’m turning 40 soon. That’s already halfway to 80. My dad is 70. My sense of doom is understandable.
However, witnessing my dad’s ability to still retain treasured information about music – a passion so formative to his very essence – was inspiring. But it was more reassuring than inspiring. It showed me even if my 80-year-old self can only recall only a few scant memories, I will be OK. I will still matter.
That day, my dad’s improv gave me the reassurance that my creative passions will serve as my legacy – in some way, shape or form – even if I can’t remember them. I now know that, no matter what, they matter.
What I do with my life matters.
And to borrow words from Thoreau, “That has made all the difference.”