When My Sister Plays the Piano


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This is  a poem written when I visited my sister in the first stages of memory loss. it is a bittersweet memory that I shared with only a few of you five years ago when I first started my blog but which very few people read, judging from the number of views and “likes.” This memory, as most are, is bittersweet.

When My Sister Plays the Piano

The first notes, beautiful and true, float like a memory up the stairs.
In the week I’ve been here in her house with her, she has not played the piano
and so I thought her music was gone like her memory of what day it is
or whether I am her sister, her daughter or an unknown visitor.

Yet on this morning after her 76th birthday celebration,
music slips like magic from the keys: song after song
from “Fur Elise” to a sweet ballad I don’t know the name of—
sure and correct at first,
then with a heartfelt emotion we had both forgotten.

“Midnight Concerto,”
“Sunrise, Sunset”—
song after song
in an unfaltering language—
some synchronicity of mind and hand
her brain has opened the door to.

While I listen, time stands still for me
as it has for her so often in the past few years
as yesterday and today shuffle together to
crowd out all consideration of future fears.

For ten minutes or more, she segues
from melody to melody
with no wrong note.
Then “Deep Velvet,”
a song she has played from memory
so many times,
dies after twenty-four notes.
Like a gift held out and snatched away,
I yearn for it, pray she’ll remember.

After an uncharted caesura, her music streams out again,
sweet and sure, for a staff or two—
the sheet music giving her a guide her brain so often can’t.
But after a longer pause, I know it is lost
like the thread of so many conversations.
A hiccup of memory, folding itself away.

“Come And Worship” chimes out
like the tolling of a bell.
The wisp of the old hymn, two phrases only—
before it, too, fades.

That sudden muffled sound.
Is it a songbook displaced from its stand as she searches for another;
or the lid of the piano, quietly closing on yet another partial memory?


The Ragtag prompt today was memories.

30 thoughts on “When My Sister Plays the Piano

  1. Marilyn Armstrong

    It is difficult because when you have lost someone to dementia, it is not something you want to remember. I am told that music is the last thing you remember. That musicians remember music long after they have lost everything else. I have no idea if it is true, but it feels true, somehow.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. V.J. Knutson

    What a touching tribute to your sister. I held my breath right along with you, hoping she’d get that last song out. Sorry to hear you have gone through this. I lost a sister to cancer. It’s hard to watch them go…helplessly standing by.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. lifelessons Post author

      Yet something everyone on earth has to go through, one way or another. We keep trying to learn the lessons nature teaches, over and over. Some make sense of them through religion, although the logic of faith to me seems more an optimistic view based on hoping than anything I’ve witnessed in life. Pain just seems illogical to me, except to build an appreciation for the lack of it.. or as a warning. But senility and Alzheimer’s, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out. Just exactly where are those in their thrall? Are they nowhere? Are they in the past? are they wandering a larger universe than we know with their minds? It seems so senseless when you see a room of people staring blankly into space or spending years in tears, half cognizant of what they have lost. When my sister can be brought out of her comatose state for an hour or so, she seems happy. But where is she in between those times and where was she for those years when she just cried, seemingly regretting past actions or the loss of faculties? Perhaps Alzheimer’s is the purgatory or limbo my Catholic friends used to try to explain to me. Part of me says I will do away with myself before I go through this helpless state. Another part is so curious to know what it is, but of course once going through it, it is too late to change our minds. The purpose of pain that warns us there is something wrong that needs to be corrected makes sense to me, but what is the purpose of unending pain and distress?

      Liked by 3 people

      1. V.J. Knutson

        I’ve wondered about the purgatory thing too. Seems some suffer more than others and the option is not one anyone would chose. I used to volunteer on the Alzheimer’s ward – such a strange condition.


        1. lifelessons Post author

          I would be very interested in your thoughts about whether you think people are in a vegetative state or one of mind where things are happening for them? It seems as though my sister can be brought back occasionally, but only by me, with a good deal of stimulation. Is it right to try to bring her back, do you think, or forcing an unnatural state?

          Liked by 1 person

          1. V.J. Knutson

            I don’t think there is any harm in bringing her back. I had one patient – Rose – and I would put her to bed at night. She was always afraid. She said she was afraid that no one would get her up in the morning. I asked her if I had ever hurt her, and she thought about it and said: “No, you never hurt me. You’re always kind.” Another time, I caught her glancing out the window. When she saw me, she said: “It’s all so beautiful.” I wonder if it is akin to near death experiences which scientists attribute to a phenonmena occurring in the brain. So many mysteries. I worked in partnership with an RN and we had a patient who was comatose. After months in this state, he revived, and asked who the angel was that kept visiting him (my friend).


            1. lifelessons Post author

              I think I’ve written about my last visit with my sister, although I don’t know if you read it. She had a remarkable period while I was there where she was talking, laughing, singing, cracking jokes only she could understand but she appeared to be her old self. She was even reading books I held up to her. For the three days I was there, the workers and volunteers at the care facility were amazed as they’d had no response from her for a year or more. Since I left, she’s gone back to her old state, just lying in bed, having to be put into a wheelchair via a lifting machine, registering no response..having to be fed. I had such a feeling that she needed to be triggered by some sensory stimulation and it worked. It makes me wonder if it is voluntarily that people slip into the state out of boredom and lack of stimulation or if this was a quirk? Or is wherever they go more interesting to them than the present? Or is it a blank sheet?

              Liked by 1 person

          2. V.J. Knutson

            I have so many stories…basically they indicate that there is awareness, although not always of what is happening within our perspective. One woman said her childhood dog was with her. Another said she was “God’s handkerchief” comforting those who were upset. On the flip side, some individuals seemed locked in distress, or bad tempers.


  3. slmret

    What a sweet memory — one to hang on to! Dementia is such a difficult illness — it’s great that your sister remembered the music and could play it at that stage of the illness!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. rivrvlogr

    Thoughts of my mother – a woman who cared for my father during various illnesses, yet reached a point when she would need reminders to tend to her own well being or would forget that she could not walk more than fifteen feet unaided (and paying the price each time). Her dementia was due to repeated mini-strokes, having a compound effect on her memory and attention.

    I have heard that music can have a positive effect on dementia patients. I think it’s interesting that the effect is as much a positive effect for family as it is for the patient.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Leland Olson Hoel

    Judy, thank you for sharing that very special message. I had an aunt who did not communicate with the family or with staff for several months. I happened to visit her the day before she passed away and we had a long visit she knew me and her memory returned for that period of time. I can only imagine many of the things going on in her mind we’re very scary, causing her not to speak. We are starting to learn more about this, it is happening at our house now.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. calensariel

    What a bitter-sweet memory, Judy. And she was young. But isn’t it interesting how music is such a door. It’s always been the universal language. A baby from Africa would respond to the same cradle melody as a baby from the US. I think it’s fascinating… Is your sister still with you?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. janebasilblog

    I’ve missed so much lately; I’m glad I found this. I won’t speak to you of dementia – there’s nothing I can add to that conversation, except my empathy..

    Most of the time you write in rhyme, and you do it beautifully, but when you have something serious to say, you compose free verse and it blows me away. I’ve read this before, but it stays fresh. If I was a different person, I would compile poetry anthologies, and I’d want to include this in a volume about grief, and another volume about music, and another about family, and another, and another.

    I don’t think I’ve ever told you how fussy I am about poetry….

    Liked by 1 person


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