Quarantined with Mom
When my mom could still remember the stories she used to share, one that she told with equal amounts of delight and scorn was about her predilection for whistling. Mom can indeed whistle — in all sorts of ways I have never mastered. She can do easy melodic whistling, but she can also do that rather manly blast that requires a tightly-drawn lower lip and the tongue curled up — the type of whistle a football coach might use to bring his players to attention from halfway across the field.
Mom always attributed these skills to her Irish and Welsh background, claiming that her ancestors were all great whistlers.
Her favorite whistling story was when she was a teenager at her Catholic high school and was happily whistling in the stairwell, enjoying the amplified sound the enclosed space produced, when a nun abruptly entered and scolded her, “Miss Brophy! Would Mary have whistled?” I’m sure my mother was polite and respectful in the moment, but the punchline of her story was always “I certainly hope that Mary whistled.” This whistling story also reaffirmed my mother’s disdain for the nuns. To say that mom didn’t like the nuns is an understatement. “The nuns” were central to my mother’s decision to send my brother and me to public schools for our entire education, “So that you didn’t have to go through what I did.” She had been educated exclusively in Catholic schools, even college.
Mom’s great musicality and humor have remained intact even as she has lost memory, which has faded along with her tight grasp on language, and even her knowledge of who I am. As the documentary “Alive Inside” and Oliver Sacks’s writing on music and the brain have shown, dementia patients hold on to music as an essential idiom even when other modes of communication slip away. I play accordion for my mom almost every day, and when I am learning new songs, she sits patiently by — as she always did when I was learning to play piano as a child — and waits for me to master the song. She smiles and claps when I hit the right notes, still able to recognize musical correctness even though most of her verbal capacity is now gone. It is both fascinating and moving to witness. I still have my mother very much with me in the context of music. Even though she can’t remember lyrics, she sings and hums, harmonizes and embellishes tunes. Lawrence Welk is a regular and welcomed part of our lives (even though my mother made fun of the show when my grandmother would watch it). We sing along and we sometimes dance together in the living room.
Mom still whistles. A lot. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I can hear her in her room, in bed, whistling. She sometimes wakes me up, and depending on my mood, I will either shout from my room, “Stop whistling!!” or I will go into her room and say, calmly, “Mom, could you please stop whistling? It’s three o’clock in the morning.” “Oh. Okay, honey,” she’ll respond with her usual sweetness. And then, more often than not, I’ll hear her start up again once she has forgotten I was there.
Such a touching story, Molly. I’m learning new things all the time through this blog: didn’t know you were an accordionist. I used to be one, too, in the days of Lawrence Welk.
Oh my Lord! Those nuns!! My education… The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet. Yup. Grade school, high school, nursing school. AND because they always told us that “Ladies do not whistle,” I just found more delight in whistling any time I could to make them nuts. Still love whistling. When my husband had the strokes, he lost the ability to spit and whistle! Dang those are such critical skills. Everyone please, cherish your ability to spit and whistle. And Molly, I am so happy your Mom can whistle. I bet she can spit too.
As someone who also whistles all the time, I really enjoyed reading about your whistling mom 🙂 And the video of you both is sweet and touching.
Thank you, Molly and Mom. Singing was the thing that got us though some of my Mom’s most painful procedures. A blessing.
Hi Sandra, welcome to the conversation. Here’s a story of singing at the bedside near the end of my mom’s life. http://recoveringphysicist.com/lbd/eulogies.html#kad
Molly, I loved watching this video. The camaraderie and affection you two share comes through, as does your loving attentiveness to your mom.
I enjoyed your writings about your mamas, both Molly and Keith. Music is a wonderful gift in so many ways.
While caring for my husband Doug during his decline with FTD, I too thought music would be an important component of his enjoyment as he had a beautiful voice and did a lot of singing for weddings, funerals, church choirs, etc. It didn’t happen for him.
Music therapy was a weekly event provided by the Hospice team. It did calm him however and frequently fell asleep while he listened… but he never joined in that much.
This is so beautifully moving, Molly. Your mom sounds like she’s an amazing lady. You are so lucky to be spending this precious time with her. We’re here if you need us for anything.