Lift Every Voice

When we first met Jeannie, she was absolutely furious that her son had “dumped” her in the memory enhancement center. She had been having trouble with falling at home and had been found more than once wandering in her neighborhood unsure of who she was and where she was. Her husband was dead and her children believed that living in a locked ward where she could get medication and therapy was the best and safest solution for their mother. Jeannie did not understand why her children had abandoned her to strangers in a strange place. Jeannie was having trouble sleeping in her new home and wasn’t eating much. She stayed away from the other residents and refused to participate in any of the exercises and activities that the staff tried to introduce to her. She sometimes began screaming for no apparent reason and would physically strike out at staff who tried to comfort and calm her. Jeannie was a hard case.

We tried to interest Jeannie in some of our poetry reading circles. She threw the poetry book at us. We learned that she had loved to sew and brought in pairs of fabric swatches for a matching exercise (corduroy, satin, silk, wool). Jeannie blew her nose in the swatch of silk. We asked Jeannie to help us with a bread baking exercise, giving her a sifter full of flour to pour into a large bowl. She poured it over the head of the person standing next to her. We invited Jeannie to join the flower arranging group. She broke the flower stems in half and threw the flowers all over the floor. Jeannie was a hard case.

Then one day we brought in some music books that we had created. Each folder had about ten hymns in it. (This was a home for people belonging to a certain Protestant denomination. Not everyone in the home was a member of this church, but the majority were.) We had printed the hymns in very large font and used card stock to ease page turning. We invited several people to join our choir and began singing the first hymn, “When the Roll is Called up Yonder.” This hymn has a great part for bass voices, repeating the phrases first sung by the sopranos and altos. We didn’t have a hope that our choir would be able to master this rather complex version of the hymn, but, unknown to us, we had a great bass singer in the group. He was very familiar with this old hymn and began to sing his bass part with gusto. The other singers didn’t realize what he was doing, and continued to sing over the bass. As we were muddling through the hymn, Jeannie suddenly appeared in front of our choir and clapped her hands together loudly, yelling,

“Stop! Stop! You have to let the bass sing his part, you have to wait for him and then go on. Like this.”
At that point, Jeannie began to sing the hymn, beating out the time with the flat of her hand against her thigh. Her voice poured out, a rich contralto. The choir (and both of us) stared at her in wonder. Jeannie stood very tall and lifted her right hand up in an elegant gesture.

“Now” she commanded us, “from the beginning.”
Jeannie directed the choir with authority and passion. She lowered her hand for us to sing softly, she raised her arms to bring forth our voices. We sang through the ten hymns and then sang them again. By this time, a small audience had gathered. Jeannie turned and faced the audience and spontaneously sang a beautiful and heart rending version of “Amazing Grace.”

From that moment on, Jeannie was the choir director and the soloist. Her voice was still amazingly strong and beautiful. We created games for Jeannie like, “Name that Hymn.” We would sing or say the first few words of a hymn and before we got more than two or three words out, Jeannie would say the name of the hymn. Then, she would often sing the hymns, knowing all of the verses!

Jeannie would still sometimes have bouts of screaming and she never really made friends or seemed comfortable in the memory enhancement center. When she was practicing and performing with her choir, she was in her element and she was joyful and calm. In one of her more lucid moments, Jeannie told us that she believed that she had been given a gift and that it was her duty to lift her voice and every voice in the celebration of music. Jeannie was a hard case, but she taught us that even the hard cases have gifts to share and lessons to teach us. When that roll is called up yonder, no doubt, Jeannie will be leading the choir!