It's been over six months since I've been to the Traditional Music club. I remember Joe as a fine guitarist. I remember Mary as a competent, though insecure, banjo player.
I haven't been to the Traditional Music club for a couple of reasons. On the personal side, I struggle with entropy, or maybe depression, and it can be a challenge to leverage myself out of the recliner into the world of people. Also, the Traditional Music club is going through a transition that sometimes feels like death. There are active pockets of jammers — especially the celtic group and the guitar circle — but the one-time center of the organization, the Play Around (an open mike), is poorly attended.
So. I was walking down the hall to the Play Around room when my path intersected with Joe and Mary. Mary wore a white blouse and blue gingham dress and a straw hat. Under the hat, she had an earphone over one ear; she was holding a cassette player. "I can play the cassette now," she said, "Ray gave me batteries." I smiled and nodded, and wondered if something had gone wrong in her head.
We were early for the Play Around. There were six people in the room. There six mikes on the raised stage, as if waiting for all six people to perform at once. Joe commented that attendance at Play Around had been meager - only twelve had attended in April.
A few minutes later, Joe handed me a small photo album. "Mary wanted to share these with every body," he said, "She wanted people to remember what she was once like." Mary and Joe attended Al Goode's Big Band Halloween party every year, and the photo album was filled with pictures of their costumes. Mary as Charly Chaplin, Joe as a flapper. Joe and Mary as Napoleanic royalty. Joe and Mary as hillbillies.
The club president, Cliff, announced that since there were so few of us, we could sing two songs each.
John played "Nobody Loves You When You're Down & Out." Cliff played two poems by Rudyard Kipling set to music. Then it was Mary's turn.
By this point, there were about 14 people in the Play Around room.
The music for Mary's song was on the cassette player. Most of the time, only she could hear it. I don't mean she was having audio hallucinations; when her head was tilted so the earphone was close to the mike, we could hear the music as well. Occasionally, Joe would play a little guitar figure, but most of the time it was just Mary singing snippets of lyrics. Pretty much the same lyrics. Over and over again.
There came a point when there apparantly was an extended musical interlude. During this time, Mary told us about horse back riding. Her husband had decided to try this as a sort of therapy, and (at the least) Mary has enjoyed it. She spoke for several minutes about how gentle the old horse was. She described his mane and tail (though she couldn't remember the word "tail"). She demonstrated what it was like when the horse went at a trot.
This monologue lasted four or five minutes. Then she sang the same lyrical fragments she had been singing previously. I had never heard this song before; I don't if there were more lyrics to the song, or if these fragments were all she could remember.
I'm told this lasted 25 minutes. I have a low tolerance for repitition, and become frustrated when I'm only receiving a part of the information. At least five people left. Many people tried to gently talk Mary away from the stage. Joe tried. The sound man tried. The president tried. No one was willing to physically pull Mary away. I doubt that would have been safe in any case.
She was not hallucinating. The music was real. But Mary was not aware that no one could hear the music she heard.
I actually stayed a bit past the point my patience had run out. I had the sense the tape was on an endless loop. I felt sad for her, and embarrassed for her husband Joe.
I happened to see Joe as I was leaving. He thanked me for my patience: "I knew this was a kind group, and would be patient with her."
He told me Mary was suffering from dementia. Even when she was compos mentis, she did not trust medical doctors. She believed in natural medicine, took vitamins, and relied on herbal remedies. Now, if it's even suggested she should see a doctor, she becomes quite agitated. I suggested Joe find a doctor who would be willing to visit Mary at home. A house call is a very long shot, and there's a limit to how much a doctor can determine face to face, without running tests. But I saw it as worth a try.
Joe was grateful, a survivor reaching for a small bit of driftwood.
Joe and Mary have two daughters. One lives across the road from her parents. She and her father take turns watching and caring for Mary. The other lives in California, but is also involved in discussing options.
He recognizes he needs a support group, as well. I told him he was wise to seek help for himself, and recommended he call a local help line. They would be best equipped to refer him to such a group.
It was hard to leave. I had looked forward to performing. There just seemed to be no end in sight, until the tape or the batteries ran out. I hurt for Joe and Mary. I hurt that all of us were powerless in the face of this profoundly human suffering.
Before we parted, I held Joe in a hug for a moment. I held them both in prayer as I drove home.