Back in the fall of 1990, I marched my sixteen fourth graders down the hill to the Convalescent Center in Eugene, Oregon, armed with recorders, three music stands and pages of sheet music. Free of the classroom, the girls began to skip and hop happily along the road, while some of the boys punched and chased each other. “Not too wild,” I admonished, “and watch out for cars.”
At the front gate I gathered my flock and reminded them to be on their best behavior. “Listen up! The seniors in this eldercare facility don’t get visitors very often, or live entertainment from young people like you. It’s a real treat for them and they are looking forward to our arrival. We’re here to put some light, life and music into their hearts. Let’s go and give them our best.”
The nursing staff welcomed us warmly and led us into a large common room where several seniors were already waiting for us, most of them in wheelchairs. As we set up the music stands and unpacked our recorders, more arrived, using walkers, quad canes, or were rolled in by nurses. The students got very quiet in the presence of these old people who’d reached the end of their lives while they were just starting out. Some of the elderly were attached to ventilators, while others looked vacant, adrift in various stages of dementia.
After a short and hearty introduction on my part we launched into our medley of songs, interspersed with three and four part recorder pieces. I was proud of my students who surpassed themselves. They sang like angels, behaved impeccably, and played their recorders better than in the classroom. A few of the elderly sang along as soon as they recognized a familiar round, spiritual or folk song. A number of them had tears in their eyes, and I had to think of my own grandmother who’d spent her last few months in a nursing home – how she’d cherished our visits. The memory pushed a lump into my throat and I felt guilty for not having visited her more often.
Toward the end of our recital, a spindly woman on a raised hospital bed, hooked to an IV drip and nasal tubes, started to moan unintelligibly. The young African American male nurse at her side tried to calm her down, but she continued groaning in her feeble voice, which steadily grew more persistent and louder. She was repeating the same word again and again. The nurse smiled, gestured for us to continue and wheeled her out. The words “Water, water,” were now clearly audible, fading down the hallway behind the glass doors.
Once we’d packed up and were about to take our leave the friendly male nurse reappeared. “Sorry about that interruption. Your music moved her. I could tell. She’s our oldest senior here – next year she’ll turn a hundred. You heard her mumble, “Water, water”; well, that’s because she’s one of the last people to have crossed America on the Oregon Trail in a covered wagon. She was just a little girl at the time, three or four years old. They ran out of water and the family nearly died. That experience marked her for life. However, the trek was also the happiest of her life. But now, the only words she ever utters, is ‘Water, water.’”
We returned to our classroom deeply stirred, having experienced a living link to American history.