This is one of my favorite photos of my sister Betty, clearing out
her dorm room in college to come home for the summer.
My sister Betty Dykstra Wilcox passed away early this morning, November 5, 2021. Eight years ago, at the beginning of her battle with Alzheimer’s, I wrote this poem about a visit Forgottenman and I made to her house to try to alter it a bit to enable her to live independently for as long as possible. He scrubbed pots and pans and organized the kitchen while I sorted out and labeled bedroom drawers on the outside to indicate contents. When she grew distressed over our sorting out of items in the upstairs storage room, he whisked her off for smash burgers and she returned happy.
I will always be grateful for these last warm memories of my sister before she slipped completely into the clutches of Alzheimer’s. Every night, we three sat on the front steps. Forgottenman played his guitar and sang and the little girls from across the street would come running to sit in the grass and listen. One night their folks joined them and another night when we were in the backyard playing croquet with Betty, one of the little girls went into Betty’s house, got his guitar and brought it out to the backyard requesting that he play!
Then one night when we came in from the front yard, she wandered into the music room and we heard strains of piano music coming from her piano. It was the last time I ever heard her play, and this is the poem that was the result:
When My Sister Plays the Piano
The first notes, beautiful and true, float like a memory through the air.
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.
“Slow Boat to China,”
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 “Ebb Tide,”
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.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” 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?
R.I.P. Betty. Next July at the town reunion in Murdo, the town we grew up in, we’ll have a memorial for her and bury her ashes in the family plot. xoox
Forgottenman just sent me a video of Betty he took when he joined us for Thanksgiving right after we first met in person. In the first part, she is just inventing a song, but afterwards, I suggest she play “Ebb Tide.” She’s not able to play it on the little keyboard but she does play “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” which she always played because it was one of my father’s favorites. It is pure coincidence that both of these songs are mentioned in the poem. A nice synchronicity.