In the Summer of 2008, I decided to finally put together a piece about my mom and her singing. In 2003, she was struck by a massive stroke, which took out her language. My mom’s loss of language rocked us all, especially because she was an acutely verbal person all her life, acing us in Scrabble and racing through the New York Times Sunday crosswords. After six month of total silence, she started to sing. And sing she did. She remembered melodies of her favorite divas – Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday – and could sing along on just about anything. Before her stroke, I would characterize my mom as a hesitant singer. Now, she sang with confidence and bravado, accessing a corner of her brain that was intact and could access words through music.
Right after I started to create this piece, my mom’s health plummeted. I tried to record her, but she was too weak to sing. I gave up on the piece. Then, rummaging around in my files one day, I discovered a cache of recordings I had made of the two of us singing that I had completely forgotten about. I forged on, and created this piece. I interviewed my sister Gabrielle through the public radio station in her hometown in Chico, CA. I got in touch with Daniel Levitin, the neuroscientist and musician, to get some of his insights. Before it aired, my mom and I listened to it together – and she said, in her stroke-affected drawl – “Good. Very good.”
My mom passed away on December 8, 2008, 4 days after her 80th birthday. As I drove by myself to the funeral home in Kingston, NY to pick out an urn for her ashes, I noticed a call had come in on my cell phone. I pulled over to the shoulder to check the message – our piece had been selected for a program called “Best of Public Radio 2008.” I looked up and gestured to my mom, and we smiled at each other across that great divide.