Robert Hitt Neill column

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 6, 2012

Miss Mississippi shares Alzheimer’s victims message

Last week we here in Leland had our 47th Annual Chamber of Commerce Banquet, and the speaker was a beautiful Delta Belle, Mary Margaret Roark, who is the reigning Miss Mississippi.  

In her address, which emphasized the value of our small town communities, where people pull together and care for each other: “and they don’t do that to get a plaque for the wall,” although she applauded our annual Community Award recipients in the part of the program which immediately preceded her talk.  

“In Leland, and in my hometown, these folks are what set us apart and make us proud of our communities, because they truly care for others,” she declared in her congratulations to our winners.

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The co-ed then touched briefly but movingly on the civic project she has adopted for her reign: raising funds and awareness for research into Alzheimer’s, of which her own grandmother is a victim. With a slight break in her voice, she shared how the disease affects a whole family: brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles.

Her story brought back to me the testimony of a fellow Baptist Music Minister, during a Seminary Music Leaders course that I took. The man said that his own father had become an Alzheimer’s victim, and eventually the widower was moved by the family to one of the homes which provides the long-term care which a working family – the sons and daughters, usually – cannot possibly provide. He said that since he lived close to the town where his dad’s new home was, he drove over to see him about three afternoons a week.

On each visit, he told how he had to identify himself to his own father, and how their conversations were often interrupted by his dad’s question, “Now tell me again: who are you?” This was their visiting routine for a couple of years.

Then as he prepared to leave one evening, his dad asked unexpectedly, “Say, could we sing ‘Amazing Grace’?”

The father had been a faithful church-goer, and loved to sing in the choir, indeed, my colleague had gotten his love of music from his dad.  

“Sure,” the son agreed, hummed a pitch, then began the song, acapella. His father joined in.
And did not miss one word or note, throughout the whole five verses!

On the next visit, the music minister took a hymnbook, having pre-selected a dozen or so songs that he knew his father had loved to sing.

“After years of my dad’s not even knowing who I was for more than a few minutes, and conversations that, halfway through the subject, would be brand new to him, we suddenly began communicating once again through music! We even harmonized on most of the songs, and he looked forward to my visits eagerly, with his own requests ready. I located a piano, or took my guitar sometimes, and within a month our visits turned into choir practices, because others in that home asked to be allowed to join in! He still didn’t know who I was most of the time, but the smile returned to his face, and strength to his voice.”  

He swiped his eyes with his shirtsleeve as he paused.

He finished, “My father and I regained our communications through music!”

Neil Diamond sang, “Music is the universal language, and love is the key.”

Years after my own kids had gotten out from underfoot, I was informed at one Christmas dinner, “Daddy, we always knew when you came back home in the afternoons if we needed to go to our rooms and stay out of the way, because if you came in the house NOT singing, then something was bad wrong!”
That ain’t a bad epitaph, is it?

Of course, we’ve all known since the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind that beings from Outer Space will communicate with Earth through music, right? “Bum, bum, beeeep, bum!” If they are Good Aliens, anyway.

Heck, King Saul would have gone crazy, but for Little David and his harp!

Music might be worth a try, if you have problems communicating with Dad.