The Music We Listened To

Ruth: Yesterday, my husband and I loaded up Daddy, his clothes and his folded-up wheelchair to move him from a small town 45 miles away to a home closer to us.  He doesn’t seem to be aware of where he is any longer, but he seemed to like looking out the car window.

So we drove away from the home where he’d lived and been cared for the past seven years.  I asked if he’d like to listen to music.  He nodded his head, although I’m not sure he knew what I’d asked.  But I turned on the music, anyway.

That’s what I always do when I leave that home.  If I can turn up the music loud enough, then I don’t have to think or feel anything.  It’s all crowded out.

Today was different.  I didn’t want to puncture our three sets of eardrums, so I turned the volume lower.  But I played the same music I almost always do — the CDs I’ve burned of songs I love.

Leaving New Braunfels and heading onto the endless, hectic traffic of I-35, the first song that played was Jerry Jeff Walker’s “LA Freeway.”  It was a song my husband and I had first heard when we were in graduate and law school in Austin in the 70s.  That was a time when the overwhelming traffic was mostly in California and you could leave it behind by fleeing the state — and coming to a small city like Austin.  More than 30 years later, we were surrounded by honking horns, looming trucks, impatient drivers in cars and pickups of all sizes in a traffic jam that surged in both directions, from San Antonio to Austin and beyond to Dallas and Fort Worth.

The songs shifted and Jerry Jeff sang “Jaded Lover,” and I held Daddy’s hand and we beat our fingers to the music.  I thought about what it was like to be younger — when you think about the future and it’s hazy and exciting and unnerving.  Will you be happy?  Will you be successful?  What will you do with your life?

But those thoughts of the future never really include some of the darker, sadder realities that move into your life a little at a time.  It never occurs to you, say, when you’re getting married that you will one day find yourself on a crowded freeway, middle-aged yourself, with a middle-aged mate, moving a parent who is now helpless, incontinent and demented.

When Daddy broke his hip, our daughter and I drove back and forth on this same clogged highway to the New Braunfels hospital where he’d had surgery.  “You’ve got to understand,” I told her, “that you’re never ready for this.  No matter how old you are, you’re not ready, you don’t feel up to it, you have no idea what to do.  You just pretend you do.”

So, it’s all pretending, isn’t it?  Pretending that we know what’s best, that we’re mature enough to handle what we have to handle, that we’re capable of meeting life head-on.  Others — our remaining parents and our children — are depending on us.  It reminds me of what Prudence Mackintosh once wrote about having children and waiting for the “real” mother to show up.  You look around and wait and finally realize you’re the one in charge, the “real” mother to your children or your failing parents.  How — and when — did that happen?

The music shifted again and I belted our a couple of numbers along with Patsy Cline — singing off-key, but with some kind of desperate enthusiasm about cheating hearts and being nobody’s sugar baby now.  Daddy smiled and thumped his fingers to the music and hummed a little.

When we reached his new home, east of Austin, the house manager asked what he liked to do.  I told her he loved to sing and be around other people.  In particular, he loved to be hugged and cuddled.

Driving back into the city, we turned off the CD and watched the scenery change.  It was as if all the talk and all the music had drained out of us and all we wanted to do was go home.

(Copyright 2007 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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