I’m coming again, first time after the Christmas holidays. It’s a sunny and very cold day outside. Inside it’s very warm as ever. You don’t really feel the seasons here, it’s always very warm.
Going to the closed world of people stuck in their minds. Front door with security, first door with code, corridors, second door with code, corridors, turn right, turn left, here I am.
The first person we visit is Mrs Kisses. I give her this nickname because when she’s enjoying something, she grabs your hand to kiss it. Last time I was in her bedroom, it was her birthday, I think she turned 90 but I’m not sure anymore. I remember I hesitated to play a birthday song but I finally didn’t. She looks at us, not really reacting. And then she sees the flute, her eyes light up, and she points her finger to it with a big smile. And she starts to kiss A.’s hands.
When I started to play for people with dementia almost 3 years ago, I was told they won’t recognise me even if I was coming every day. From the beginning, I could notice that, although they most likely didn’t remember me, some of them did recognise the shakuhachi. Each time this happens, it gives me a warm feeling.
Today, Mrs Kisses did something new. At the end of the third song, she sticked her tong out at us. When asked if she was still enjoying the music, she answered yes, and I played one last song, which put her almost to sleep. Then she sticked her tongue out again to signify that she was tired, and closed her eyes to sleep.
Then we went to lounge of the next department to find Mr Charmeur. This nickname was giving to him today by A. He was nicely sitting in the winter sun, which was making a nice halo of light around his head. He was very busy with stories about his teeth and also about a church in Tilburg. I was patiently waiting to play that he was finished but the nurse told me not to wait and just start. His eyes were gazing at me all the time. He didn’t look away a single second. I looked at him in the eyes too, all the time. During the second piece, he started to sing, and after that he told us he used to play the harmonica. Between two musical pieces, he was coming back again and again to his stories about teeth, mouth and a church full of musicians in Tilburg, but also making comments on what I just played. He was visibly enjoying the music, giving me applauses and compliments. The rest of the the people in the lounge, including the nurses, liked it a lot too. Afterwards, one visitor asked me more information about the shakuhachi. We promised Mr Charmeur to come back again (as we promise everyone). It was the first time I played for him.
Back to a single bedroom, Mrs T. Before I could remember her name, I used to call her Mrs Nemo, from her cuddly toy. I was quite amazed the first time I came to play to see these very old people with cuddly toys. She is one of my oldest audience. Some of them are already dead. She has changed so much since the first time I met her. I have a very particular story about her I still need to write. Today, she was more difficult to read. I know she loves music, and I could see at a moment the effort she was making to sing along. She couldn’t really relax, or it was not as obvious as other times. I hope the music brought her some peace.
Her neighbour at the other side of the courtyard is also one of the first one I played for. I still remember this first time, when she was crying while saying how beautiful it was. I didn’t know if I had to stop or not, I was overwhelmed by this first experience, but as she seemed to like it, I continued to play. She had a big Teddy Bear she was nursing. She has got three or four of them in her bedroom, always big cuddly toys, often different and new. Today, we arrived at a critical moment for her. She was taken out of bed to go to sit in the armchair. She was crying she couldn’t do it, delivering her usual flow of meaningless words, but A. helps the nurse to comfortably put her in the armchair. For her, I played improvisations, to accompany this difficult moment, to relax her. She continued talking and talking, gradually the tears dried in her eyes. Eventually she calmed down and said very distinctly: “nice”. She was so sad when we had to go to visit other people…
These are the highlights of this afternoon, I played for some more people. Each time, each story is unique. Sometimes it’s not the right moment, they don’t like it or don’t want any music, and that’s normal. I’m so happy when I can see people again, when I can get to know them a bit better. I’m so happy when I see them enjoying the music, when I see glitters in their eyes, or when I feel they can let go of the pain and relax. When I play shakuhachi, I have the feeling of a kind of additional healing power operating on some of them and it’s so special. It always surprises me how we can communicate. Music can be so magical when the words don’t mean anything anymore.