Yesterday my age caught up with me. I met a woman who clearly made me date myself when her only reference to a song was by the fact that it was featured on the soundtrack to a current theatrical release. The film, flashed back to the early 1990’s and she had never heard of the original song because she was merely a toddler when it came out.
What is it about a song that when we hear it, we can instantly be taken to another place and time. And when we go there, our emotional state also can be manipulated in a way that almost nothing else can trigger. The explanation could be as simple as Pavlov described — we just react with an automatic response.
I had incorporated some of my Mom’s favorite songs to match her memorial slideshow. The songs I selected fit perfectly into the narration of her life story. What’s more, every chosen song was a personal favorite of my mother during her life. Combining the factor that she enjoyed these songs while living plus the reminder of this fact through its inclusion in the slideshow, the songs, regardless of style or substance developed new meaning. As a result, every time I hear any of those featured songs — I am instantly reminded of her and the images now that sequence in my head as a result.
It’s a strange thing how our senses can instigate our emotions. Perhaps this is why the marriage of sound and image has proven such a viable combination and we continue to remain enthralled by films, television and videos.
Our emotional state when tested through vulnerable connections made through the marriage of song and image often can lead to an altered state of reality. Songs with lyrics can often narrate a story in a way that our mind may not interpret the image. As a result, we see ourselves changing our perceptions about what was and what is and thus, sometimes our emotional state changes without any influence of reality but rather perception.
John Mayer’s “Say” was a song featured on the motion picture soundtrack for “The Bucket List” — a film about 2 patients in their final stages of life. The song resonated very deeply with my mother at the time of its initial popularity. What was interesting was that she did not have a connection to the film, she did not know it was featured there but the lyrical content spoke to her and she would always get emotional while hearing the song and would often relay to me that she agreed with the song’s message.
Despite my semi-neutrality on the song, I knew this track would become a fixture in our house and make its way into multiple playlists that I always created for my Mom as she and I both listened to music individually and together throughout the day, daily.
When my Mom got sick and heard the Mayer song again, she continued to latch on to its message and its melody. What was interesting was because of her tumor and the swelling in her brain, when she had moments of struggle to sing along lyrically, she’d still be able to sing the melody. Over time, when that became more challenging, she was able to tap her feet along to the beat and still internalize the emotion of the song. I saw as she faded, she still held onto the music. Even in her final weeks, while in bed, I would always have her music on and in fact, the last physical movements she displayed were her feet moving to sound.
As I put the slideshow together, I knew where I wanted to incorporate this song into the show. As each photo passed, the song, our history with the song, the lyrics, the content and the context all came together. While “Say” implied for all people to be truthful and speak their minds before it’s too late — in my Mom’s case, over the year span in which her actual voice slowly got taken away as a result of her tumor — her words became that much more valuable.
At the end of the day, even though her vocabulary inventory narrowed and her sentences often remained incomplete, the messages she wanted to be able to express were still possible. Her speech therapist and I would talk about the restrictions of language. While she worked so hard to keep at it and fought as bravely as she could to delay the downward spiral, I noticed that the limited words she held onto were the ones that meant something.
I asked her speech therapist what others who faced a similar trajectory would say. She first said she would have to think about it as it was not something she had actively tracked. When she did look into the matter, it surprised me that her answer did not necessarily match up with what Mom had been doing. In fact, while Mom’s phrasebook included things like “You look good”, “I Like”, “Thank You” and “I Love You”, most of her patients seemed to rely more on expletives and negative phrases.
I wonder about why this was the case. Obviously, if the patient is in pain, it’s likely that they remain able to express that. However, I wonder about what we remember at the end — often it is said that we remember things from our earliest memories and perhaps the words, phrases, expression we hold onto the longest are the ones we first learned. Perhaps it’s nothing more than our individual personalities and our state of mind permitting us to reach into our brains, however compromised to permit ourselves to express the now in the most honest way.
“Say” literally had meaning for my Mom. Hearing that song while seeing her physically change and the photos represent the timeline changed the meaning of the song for me. The sum of all the experiences from listening to the song combined with its new message and meaning by way of my mother’s illness triggered my senses in a way that now even hearing the opening bars take me to an emotional place that still can immediately bring me to tears.
I wonder if there will be a time when I won’t be triggered like that. But I also recognize that I choose to avoid hearing that song at times but also latch on to that song at times when I feel sad and I am unable to express the loss without my trigger.
My Mom and I shared a deep passion and connection to music. I was always playing music and part of my unspoken duty was to keep her entertained with our musical selections. In the years after my father passed and we began to live together again, we bonded over our mutual love for specific songs and artists. Since we both lived and breathed music, it’s been a tough road back for me to find a way to listen to the 100’s of songs like “Say” without immediately triggering something. While the response won’t be as dramatic as the songs used in the slideshow — we connect ourselves to our past using audio and visual clues. In a way, I’m grateful that music does live on and my connection to Mom will always now be associated with so much music and given its universal appeal — it becomes my link to the world.
It’s interesting how we are triggered. Many of my Mom’s friends were surprised by her song selection but then asked me for copies of the music featured in the slideshow. In a strange way, her love for those songs has now reached to others who are now triggered by those same songs with images and memories of her.
The next time I feel old, I have to remember that while I may not live forever, music does. Thankfully we have something that enables us to feel in a way that often our bodies are unable to do without them. It also reminds us of times and places and things we don’t always think about. It’s a trigger that’s worth more than anything in the world.