Readers, I’m thrilled to bring back the popular Music Tuesday blog series with a wonderful author I’ve recently met. Her name is Cathy L. Mason, and this is a beautiful and sad story about how music influenced her relationship with her mother. Thank you so much, Cathy, for sharing this story with us.
She was the first-born daughter of a first-born daughter. I was her first-born daughter as well. Perhaps that’s why we struggled to bridge the ever-present gap. Too similar? Maybe too different. We both definitely wanted to be in control, especially with regard to the music.
We both played the flute and piano. I was the better pianist, even as a child, and she excelled as a flutist, but for too long we tried to keep up with the other. Eventually we retreated to where our strengths lay and learned to make music together, rather than bumping up against each other’s ego.
Her talent was burnished to a blinding sheen by a laser-focused determination to practice hours every day, while I only played at playing. My moderate abilities came naturally, which frustrated her. We got past that. Mostly, anyway.
When we came together and performed music we loved, though…magic happened. Her brilliant tone and disciplined capabilities sent melodies swooping and soaring across the most beautiful of performance arenas. I gamely kept up, although I cheated my way through the difficult parts. We both knew it. It was usually all right, but I always knew I could be better if I exercised the self-discipline she did on a daily basis. I still didn’t want to. I was a lazy musician and nothing was going to change that. I knew I was somewhat of a musical fraud – I just hoped no one else could tell.
In my teens I was called to a musical position in our church she had yearned to fill. It hurt her deeply and she couldn’t speak to me for some time. We weren’t close anyway, but the chill cut through. I had wanted the job as well, but never thought it would be given to me. I was happy, but that joy was tempered with the knowledge that she felt undermined and publicly embarrassed. Every Sunday, as we attended church and I fulfilled my new duties, the wound was reopened once again. It took a long time to recover.
Again we made music together. We took on more difficult pieces, especially those few had performed or even heard of. I practiced how to cheat my way through the rough spots, while she practiced her runs and difficult intervals endlessly in the search for utter perfection in execution and tone. My ability to gloss through passages I should have learned well grew, which annoyed her. It was a mixed blessing – she didn’t like it, or respect it, but it gave her the opportunity to perform more because few accompanists could keep up with her. She needed to perform. So did I. We knew each other well enough that no one could take one or the other’s place. It was a beautiful, dysfunctional codependence.
Our reputation grew and we made music more often, but, as is so often the case, we again felt the divide. I married and began raising a family, while she coped with a hellish marriage and health issues. We communicated sporadically, but rarely performed together again.
Years passed and I missed our music. I sometimes dug it out of the closet and ran through passages myself, but it wasn’t the same. She wasn’t playing much any more, but I didn’t know why. We lived a few hours apart, so it wasn’t practical to simply start up again. And…she was different.
After a number of phone calls it became clear she was in a steep decline. She indicated she needed help with her home, yard, and finances, so we reconnected. I was shocked at her appearance – she was thin and almost frail, but still in good spirits. It took very little time to realize she was losing a battle with Alzheimer’s, although it took some time to have her officially diagnosed. We also learned she struggled with aphasia, a condition in which individuals cannot produce the word for a common object even though they know what it is.
Our lives descended into a strange dance of charades and guessing games. No wonder she wasn’t playing. We still hoped, though. During subsequent stays at a senior living community and, toward the end of her life, an assisted living facility dedicated to individuals with serious memory loss, we tried what we could – Aricept, musical therapy, crafts. Nothing worked, but I hoped, so hoped, we could rekindle that magic one more time. Anything for just..one more time.
We placed her beloved music stand in her tiny room, along with a church hymnal. She deposited it in the bathroom. We turned her t.v. to channels with religious music, always a favorite. She could not turn it off on her own, so she would unplug it and then not recall why it was unplugged. We encouraged her to attend the small church services local religious leaders would bring to the facility she lived in. She loved them, but didn’t participate. The words to familiar hymns were no longer there and the melodies she so loved were lost in the mists of time.
She tried to bring them back. She leaned forward eagerly during the short meetings, attempting to mouth familiar phrases during songs and lessons. She looked around at fellow residents, hoping to pick up cues for appropriate behavior during various portions of the services. It was to no avail. I thought her musical training and life-long body of work so ingrained in her would be the last to desert her during her decline, but it was irrevocably gone. It was devastating.
During her last few months we had several somewhat lucid conversations about our musical history. She missed it too. She knew it was gone, though she didn’t know why, and sometimes our discussions veered into strangely funny territory that had nothing to do with music at all. That is life with Alzheimer’s and aphasia.
Still, the music did connect us. We never played together again, but we relived a few wonderful memories. She would beam, almost childlike, when I recalled certain performances. We even laughed a couple of times at some of the crazier situations we found ourselves in. We both needed that during those difficult months and years before she succumbed to a major stroke.
Maybe the gap between us was bridged after all. Music is, as always, the great uniter, no matter the form. For that I am grateful.
Cathy L. Mason holds a bachelors degree in Sociology, with emphases in Abnormal Psychology, Family & Human Development, and pre-law studies. She also holds a masters degree in Criminal Justice and Corrections, with emphases in Abnormal & Deviant Psychology, Domestic Violence, and Forensic Criminology. She is a lifelong musician, hardcore scrapbooker, voracious reader, and has recently discovered a great love of ancient history. Her life is made better by her husband of almost 33 years, four amazing kids, and 3 1/2 perfect grandchildren.
Cathy has published three non-fiction books, including one called Nancy, about her mother. Cathy’s Amazon author page is here.
You can visit her on Facebook here.
And on Twitter here.