My dad has a really bloody awful disease called Multiple Sclerosis (MS). He's 66 and has had it for 32 years of his life and when he's not in hospital, he lives in a nursing home with a body that has pretty much given up on him. It's the most horrific, unfair thing to happen to anyone; but particularly to a kind, intelligent man who never, ever, complains.
My dad also has an ENORMOUS record collection that he's gathered over 20 years. He was a total music buff and was so obsessed with his vinyl that the entire collection was part of an alphabetised filing system that was painstakingly hand written and recorded in a reference folder. We're talking over 300 records - from Michael Jackson to Talking Heads; and Prince to Led Zepplin. Since my mum passed away we've been slowly clearing out our family home and one thing that's always played on my mind is his record collection. They were such a huge part of his life that throwing or selling them didn't seem like an option.
I started to research music and memory and came across some incredible pieces of research about the effect music can have on people with conditions like dementia. One of the areas that my dad's MS has attacked is his short term memory and cognitive ability which can make it hard to communicate with him. If music can seemingly tap in to a part of the brain that is unaffected by a disease like dementia, I wondered whether it would have any impact on my dad?
So I bought a portable record player and embarked on a bit of a project to take a bunch of his records from the old family home to his nursing home, every time I visited.
The first time I set it up he looked suspicious and asked me several times what I was doing as he kept forgetting. But I chose my first record well. He's a massive Rolling Stones fan so I wasn't surprised when his finger started tapping and he mouthed all the words to Sticky Fingers. He couldn't remember what he'd had for lunch but he knew every song, what year it was released and told me a story about going to see them in 1982. Whilst I knew he'd enjoy it, I didn't account for the fact we would spend the next few hours chatting more than we have in the last few years.
We had a lengthy debate about the best album ever made and he told me about the complicated history of Fleetwood Mac. He also told me that when he first met my mum he was a rocker and she was a Motown girl; he never convinced her about rock music but he grew to love soul just as much as her. We were about four hours into the first chapter of our musical voyage when Ben.E.King's iconic Stand By Me started to play. I looked over at him when these lyrics came on:
If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountain should crumble to the sea
I won't cry, I won't cry
No, I won't shed a tear
Just as long as you stand, stand by me
He looked tearful, as he often does when a song reminds him of my mum, but then he just smiled. And that's when I realised that the best gift you can give someone who is trapped by their own body, is music. Because music isn't just music when you can't get out of bed. It's a time machine to another place - a gateway to locked away emotions. And now, every Saturday afternoon we're not in a nursing home in Leeds, we're time travellers. Stopping off at a Bowie gig, or nodding along to Grace Jones at a cool party, or dancing in a 'discothèque' with my mum to The Supremes.
Music seeps into our subconscious and is the soundtrack to our lives. An opening note can take people back 70 years and a lyric can make people fall in love again. It's there at the best and worst moments of your life. The most exciting and the most mundane. My dad may not remember that I've got a new job, or be able to help me put up my blinds in my new flat, but he can teach me about a life well lived through his much loved record collection.
The records were never meant to be played in a nursing home because he can't get out of bed. But they were meant to be played. And played they will be. And maybe one day my kids will put on Florence's Dog Days and I'll tell them how it got me round the London marathon; or Beyonce's Crazy In Love and I'll lecture them on why it's the best pop song ever made; or Stevie Wonder's As, and I'll tell them to really listen to the lyrics and they'll realise it's the best love song ever written.
So whilst you're inadvertently creating your own soundtrack to your life, why not ask your parents/ grandparents / hell, anyone you love, what their eight desert island discs would be and why. They might just surprise you. And I promise that the twinkle in their eye will be worth it.
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