A few years ago, at a medical laboratory clinic in Waterloo, Ont., a tiny elderly Vietnamese lady sat poker straight on the edge of a waiting room chair belting out the tune, My Heart Will Go On. Other than a slight rhythmic rocking of her torso to the famous Titanic theme song, she was essentially motionless, with her eyes shut and her arms crossed elegantly over her chest. With little effort, she was able to send her sweet, high-pitched voice exploding into every corner of the clinic.
It was fun to watch how people reacted. There was a lot of shifting in seats and a couple of stony sideways stares, but mainly there were awkwardly averted eyes and a great many people, who were just trying to pretend that there was nothing out of the ordinary going on. Business as usual. This sort of thing happens all the time.
I was there with my father when the woman first arrived. She settled into the seat directly across from my dad. Because she was so tiny, she was forced to perch on the edge of the chair so her feet could touch the floor. It made it seem as though she was sitting forward to engage in conversation with him. She smiled at him and he smiled back.
I was concerned about how he would react to the possible encroachment on his space. My dad was 77 years old at the time and was living with Alzheimer’s. He came into adulthood in the Swinging Sixties, but he was definitely a product of the Fifties. He was a brilliant, introverted, card-carrying Catholic military man who was suckled and plumped on guilt, obligation and humility. When he was healthy, he tolerated people’s eccentricities dutifully, but with a healthy dose of silent reproach. Privacy and personal space were definitely his thing, and he considered it wholly bad-mannered to bring undo attention to oneself. Since Alzheimer’s has a tendency to play havoc on a person’s patience and erode restraint, Dad had experienced a few challenging encounters in the past. I couldn’t help but think that this melodic little lady was playing with fire.
Her singing began gently, like a quiet hum. I glanced over at dad to see his response. His smile was gone and he was staring right at her. She was staring right back. I couldn’t read his expression initially, but it seemed to be something like confusion. This wasn’t an unusual state for him and I wondered if he was actually seeing her at all or if he was lost somewhere deep in his mind, not really aware of her presence at that point. Or maybe he was trying to establish whether this was someone he should know.
Dad had never been one to partake comfortably in unnecessary conversation. Traditionally, he would relinquish that task to my mother, who took over the responsibility with her own brand of enthusiastic relish, and he would sit contentedly on the outskirts of any social interactions as a silent, but engaged participant. If we would’ve been more astute, we probably would have recognized his declining condition earlier. We would have noticed that, on those odd occasions when he was drawn into a conversation, he’d become increasingly reliant on her to finish his thoughts or answer questions directed to him. Without missing a beat, she would fill in all the blanks whenever he paused and our attention was shifted away from him.
It also took us some time to realize that he had begun to abandon any effort to nod politely or insert an obliging smile in appropriate places. I think we just thought he was getting a little cranky in his old age.
That’s what was happening now: no more smile, no amiable nod, no acknowledgment of any kind. Just a stare. This lack of meaningful acknowledgment didn’t deter the little Vietnamese lady one bit and her singing slowly got louder. By the time she got to the chorus, “Near, far, wherever you are …” it was full-tilt belting. She was in a meditative, eyes-shut, torso-rocking, inner-diva-embracing trance.
Now Dad looked a little stunned.
I tried not to laugh. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate this woman. In fact, I kind of loved her. I wanted to be her friend. But the thought of my tightly wound, somewhat prudish dad being serenaded in a people-packed medical lab by this itty-bitty Celine Dion was just too delicious. Still, I watched cautiously, waiting for any sign of an impending irritated outburst and was considering my options on how best to intervene. But he didn’t show any signs of imminent explosion. He was starting to look entertained.
People will tell you that Alzheimer’s is a thief; that it steals your loved ones, slowly, day by day. There is, without a doubt, so much heart-breaking truth in that statement. The loss is painful and unrelenting. But in certain experiences with my dad, things have happened that allowed me to see a side of him that I never knew existed. I will hold onto those quiet moments when, unsolicited and for the first time ever, he held my gaze and told me tender stories about when he was a child or what it was like to be in the Air Force, as if he knew that he didn’t have much time left to show me who he really was. In a quiet and unexpected way, that’s what happened for me that day. Alzheimer’s sometimes seemed to be peeling back the onion of my dad’s true self and, while I hate that he struggled with this disease, I love the sweet man I’ve met.
When the waiting room became silent and her song ended, the woman opened her eyes and my dad was still looking directly at her.
“That was beautiful,” he said.
And she smiled and said, “Thank you.”
Deborah Stock lives in Waterloo, Ont.
CONTRIBUTED TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL
PUBLISHED OCTOBER 22, 2019
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