I’m listening to the rhythmic gurgling of my father’s breathing as Chet Baker’s mournful trumpet fills the room. Over the last few years I’ve downloaded a sampling of the music Dad used to enjoy to my phone — ‘50s jazz, Sinatra, a smattering of Chopin, Mozart and some bossa nova. He loved opera too, but I have my limits. Now when we’re together I play music that I hope might spark some of the delight he used to feel before his mind unraveled.
Today is another milestone in my father’s decline. I’ve signed us on with hospice to support the nursing staff at his memory care residence in suburban Washington, DC. That’s a tactful way of saying that my father suffers from advanced dementia, lives in a gussied-up nursing home and has recently been rushed to the hospital twice for severe rectal bleeding. He’s been close to kidney failure and other life-threatening ailments this past week, but here we are, back in his own room on a brilliant early September day, waiting for him to die. In the meantime, I’ve grown to love the late jazz musician Chet Baker, his melancholy voice and yearning horn.
My father’s sleep is punctuated by nonsensical chatter. He occasionally utters intelligible words: “Yes, yes, yes,” or “Okay, okay, okay,” or “No, no, no.” But he’s also said, “Quackety-quack,” along with a host of unrelated syllables that combine to form a new language, his own narrative of a scientist’s complex mind gone to Swiss cheese. When Dad speaks, his usually slack expression takes on a distinct earnestness, so the gobbledygook that emerges is even more jarring. He appears intent on conveying his thoughts and, for a few seconds, you’re hopeful that something coherent will emerge. But that hasn’t happened for a couple of years.
He awakens for a few minutes every hour I sit by his bedside. “Who are you?” he demands, realizing that he’s not alone.
“It’s Karla,” I say.
“Karla. I’m your daughter, Dad. Remember Karla?”
“Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.” But I can tell from the vacant look in his watery blue eyes that Karla is an abstract concept, at best.
He relaxes his head on the avocado pillowcase that has gives his already pale complexion a greenish tinge. Chet’s melancholy rendition of I Get Along Without You Very Well fills the air and, while I find his downbeat crooning a soothing accompaniment to sorting laundry, I decide that the mood isn’t quite right for a return from a life-threatening rectal hemorrhage. I scroll through my music and find the original Broadway soundtrack of My Fair Lady between Michael Jackson and Neil Young. A young Julie Andrews’ joyous I Could Have Danced All Night instantly lifts the somber mood.
Like a bear rousing from a deep mid-winter sleep, my father’s eyes open and he lifts his heavy head from the pillow. Turning toward the source of the music, he looks at me and a smile begins to shape his dry, pallid lips. His expression is suddenly alert, eyes more focused. His head begins to bob with the beat of the classic Lerner and Loewe song from the album my father played so often during my childhood that even I know all the lyrics some 55 years later.
I could have danced all night.
I could have danced all night.
And still have begged for more.
I could have spread my wings and done a thousand things
I’ve never done before.
I find myself singing the lyrics along with Eliza Doolittle, Julie Andrews’ Cockney flower girl character, her exuberance as contagious as it was when the show debuted in 1956, the year I was born. I can still picture Audrey Hepburn (in the later film version) twirling up the stairs, trailed by a bevy of servants as she revels in the newfound magic of her life. And somewhere in the deep recesses of his cobwebbed mind, I think my father is twirling too.
I’d downloaded On the Street Where You Live and just as Julie stops dancing all night, her young suitor, the proper gentleman Freddy Eynsford-Hill begins his love song:
I have often walked down the street before
But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.
All at once am I several stories high
Knowing I’m on the street where you live.
I watch my father’s expression as the melodious baritone transports us both back to a more innocent era, a time when it didn’t seem ridiculous for men to lean on wrought iron fences to profess their love for near-strangers.
And oh, the towering feeling,
Just to know somehow you are near.
The overpowering feeling
That any second you may suddenly appear.
Dad’s right leg twitches under the blanket and his foot is keeping time with his bobbing head. I’m blinking back tears as I witness the mystical power of My Fair Lady. We’ve listened to music many times before but show tunes are new to us. Not wanting to break the spell I scroll to The Sound of Music on my phone and instantly Julie Andrews is back in the room, singing about her favorite things from the 1965 film.
Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes,
Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes,
Silver white winters that melt into springs,
These are a few of my favorite things.
Though Dad is confined to a hospital bed in his unknowable version of hell, I can clearly picture him in the late ‘60s reclining on the living room sofa, lights dim, listening to his own favorite things on his extravagant stereo system. My mother would sometimes stretch out beside him, their intimacy evoking an odd mix of embarrassment and pride in my two brothers and me. We’d never seen other kids’ parents embrace like that. It was mushy but kind of cool at the same time.
My father’s eyes are starting to flicker and soon he’s breathing deeply again. The gurgle is from a lifetime of nicotine, the damage becoming obvious as he rounds the bend toward 90 years of age. He’s asleep once more and I can only hope he’s waltzing with Julie, or Audrey, or perhaps my mother.
The sun is setting. It’s time for an encore from our moody jazz vocalist. I select theChet Baker Sings album from my music catalogue and The Thrill is Gone begins. It’s Chet’s debut vocal album from 1954 and his weary resignation now strikes just the right note.
The thrill is gone.
I can see it in your eyes.
I can hear it in your sighs.
Feel your touch and realize
The thrill is gone.
This is the end.
So why pretend and let it linger on.