In the last years of my mother’s life, there was so much to say, and few ways to say it. The victim of a sudden stroke, she had lost the ability to talk, and in those last few years, she began the slow and implacable slide into dementia. Once a loving but opinionated woman (not untypical of Filipino moms!), she had evolved over time into that quiet, slumped posture that marked the last chapter of a life lived long and hard.
I would visit her every other month or so, and when I did, it was always the same—the dullness of being, the puzzled look in her eyes as she first sees me, a prolonged flash of sudden knowing, and then a large smile that filled her worn but tender face. But the smile always faded quickly, back to the Mona Lisa stare, back to the dullness that was her life.
We had moved her to southern California to live with my brother’s family, and their home was rather small, so I always stayed at a local inn. Often, I would take her on short trips to the hotel, to get her out of the house and give my sister-in-law a break. There, we would sit at the lobby windows, overlooking the pool, she in her wheelchair and me beside her. Holding her small, wrinkled hands, I would share family news and tell stories about the past and show photos of the kids to her on my MacBook. And when this one-sided conversation would begin to wane, I would wheel her to the out-of-tune baby grand piano in the lobby, and play her some songs.
This is where I sometimes felt she could best connect with me and I with her. I would usually play for maybe an hour, going from old songs on the radio to jazz standards to new songs I had written. But her favorite tune was an old Filipino classic called “Dahil Sa Iyo.” She had made me learn the song as a reluctant young boy, and thankfully, I was still able to remember and play this beautiful piece for her. As I would begin the opening bars of the song, I would glance at her to see that small smile appear from her pursed lips, see her head bob ever so slightly with the music. Obviously, I couldn’t read her mind, but I knew through her smile that she connected with the song, connected with the wave of memories it conjured.
There are reasons for this, reasons both scientific and spiritual. And I was reminded of these reasons during our recent Intersections: Faith and the Arts conference, when Tiffany Paige, director of the Sacramento ARTZ: Artists for Alzheimer’s organization, spoke to us.
ARTZ “is an organization that links artists and cultural institutions to people living with dementia and their care partners. Influenced by science and sociology, ARTZ uses artistic and cultural experiences as keys to unlock creativity, create new memories, strengthen relationships, and replace fear with hope.” In short, ARTZ believes strongly that access to creative expression is essential to our human experience.
During Tiffany’s moving presentation, she informed us that while Alzheimer’s disease affects logic and comprehension and communication, it does not affect emotion or memories. This is why her patients are so moved by the visual artwork that she presents to them. The art are triggers to memories and thoughts and feelings, and they are often able to interact with those memories and emotionally respond to them. The response has been sometimes subtle, sometimes astounding.
There is a spiritual dimension to this as well, of course. We are made in the image of God, a God who is both emotional and artistic. He is, in fact, the most joyous, the most artistic, and the most deeply emotional Being in the universe. So we are hard-wired to feel emotion at the sight of beauty and the arts, even when void of logic and rationale. Art extends, literally, beyond reason.
There are other examples of this that are dear to me. Arts Camp is my church’s annual summer day camp for elementary age children. Each year, hundreds of kids from our community are offered the love of Christ through the gifts of dance, drama, music, visual arts, culinary arts, and various crafts. It is one of the most exciting weeks in our church. This year, both of my teen daughters will be shepherds in the “Brush Stokes” class, a small elective taught by my friend Susan Lee that teaches the visual arts to special needs children. Also, for many years, our church ran the The Rhythm Arts Project (TRAP), led by Steve Liberti. Through drum circle and percussion, TRAP “educates individuals with intellectual and developmental differences by embracing a curriculum that encompasses rhythm as a modality” to address basic life and academic skills. Steve led many TRAP classes for the developmentally challenged, as well as for young children, helping them gain skills and self-esteem.
Both of these are examples of where the arts are used to allow young people the opportunity to explore and express themselves beyond mere logic, beyond mere reason, into something deeper inside themselves. Indeed, young or old, we all need to connect through the expressions of the arts.
As a child, I put hundreds of practice hours playing on the old mahogany upright in our living room. And my Mom and Dad were witness to each note and scale, each phrase and flourish. As I look back now, I feel so very fortunate that I had the opportunity to give a little of that back to my Mom in her last days. Because when I played for Mom, it was not just because I wanted to see her smile. I played because I appreciated all she had done for me, all the encouragement and patience and sacrifices and life lessons. I played the piano for her as a simple act of love.
I hope she knew that. I think she did.
[NOTE: For more information, I strongly recommend that you check out the above links to ARTZ, TRAP, and Oak Hills Church Arts Camp.]