Sam was sitting quietly by himself in a row of chairs that had been placed theater style in the rectangular dining room turned music room. I was facing him on the other side of the room, as I was setting up my equipment for a gig at New Friends Memory Care and Assisted Living, where we had put together a choir from many of the people who live there. Many of us older musicians now play regularly in senior communities. It is a gig that suits our aging bodies. We only have to play for one hour, not three or four; the setup is relatively easy with the new, lightweight keyboards, amps and speakers; and the pay is decent — anywhere from fifty to a hundred bucks for the sixty-minute performance. Best of all, the audience is almost always gracious, happy, and appreciative. People love music, especially eighty and ninety-year-olds in senior communities, it seems. They participate in many types of activities, but music and bingo seem to bring out the most enthusiasm. (I get the music, but am still surprised at the bingo.)
Sam was one of those audience members, and he was watching me with curiosity. He used to be an electrician but hasn’t been for almost twenty years now. Sam has dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s Disease, but you almost wouldn’t know it (nearly fifty percent of everyone with dementia has Alzheimer’s). Up until a few months ago, he had been in the earlier stage, where he could bathe and dress, walk and eat and carry on a decent conversation with you. But lately his conversations are shorter and quieter, he is shuffling a bit more, and I can tell each day he is not as aware of his surroundings as he used to be. He has gotten into the habit of just sitting and watching, not engaging or participating in the activity of the moment unless someone asks him to.
I’ve always been a bit messy with the long, black cords that hook the keyboard and mic to the mixer, the mixer to the speakers, and the speakers to each other. There are different types of cables for each one of those functions: a quarter inch phone jack for the keyboards, a similar but slightly different one for the speakers, and an XLR plug for the microphones. I was in a bit of a rush, so I just dumped the cords out of my bag onto a table as I began my setup. I have a routine after all these years; I like to put all the equipment up first in its place, and then at the end, I plug in all the cords.
As I put together my keyboard stand, I glanced over and noticed that Sam was no longer sitting in his chair by the window. He had gotten up and walked over to my pile of tangled up cords. And then, surprisingly, Sam picked up a gaggle of three or four of them, holding up this big unwieldy pile that looked like spaghetti. He stared at them for a while; it seemed like a minute or so. But then he started untangling them.
I was amazed. I hadn’t seen Sam this active in months. I stopped what I was doing and watched Sam. His face was soft but intense; he was concentrating. I watched his hands. He was not grabbing wildly, hoping that by just pulling and tugging, the cords would untangle. No, he was steady and meticulous, like the professional electrician he once was. He saw an opening, and he saw where one wire was curling around another one, two, three times, and, like a surgeon, delicately unraveled the first cord. He smiled at his success. He then went after the second cord, looping the wire through a series of other wires until finally, it popped free. He smiled again.
I finished setting up my speakers as the others started milling into the newly created music room. They, too, were observing Sam, and surprised by his activity. They started pointing and nodding and talking to each other about it. I could tell they were proud of him.
By the time I finished setting up all the hardware, Sam had completed his task. All the cords were neatly untangled, set up in a perfect row on the table, looking almost like new. Sam was standing there, beaming. I had tears in my eyes. I had never seen him with this expression. He looked different. I could see the “old” Sam. I could see him with a workman’s belt around him, knives and cutters and tools in hand, hooking up washing machines and dryers, repairing furnaces. I could see him analyzing a problem and then meticulously wiring up an electrical box. I could see Sam, the man, the electrician, not Sam, the guy sitting by the window, who has dementia.
As I am want to do, I took a chance. I had finished setting up all the equipment, and I was ready to plug in the cords. I wondered if Sam could do that as well.
“Sam, could you bring one of those cords over and help me hook this stuff up?” I asked. He looked at me like a cat ready to pounce. He quickly glanced at the table of cords and somehow took the correct speaker cord and came over. “Can you plug in this cord into that speaker?” Without hesitation, he gripped the quarter inch phone jack in his now seemingly strong hands. He touched the female end of the jack on the speaker. He felt the male end in his hand. And like a pro, with confidence, and without hesitation, snapped the cord into place. He looked at me with a grin, and I grinned back.
“Great,” I said enthusiastically. “Good job! Let’s do the other one. Grab the other speaker cord, and let’s do it again.” He quickly walked over to the table, grabbed the other speaker cord (now he knew the difference between the cables) and followed me to the speaker. His gait was faster, and he seemed to stand up straighter. He was on a mission. I pointed to the other speaker, giving him just a cue of where the speaker jack was, tapping it, without providing any additional instruction. He understood and quickly snapped the second cord into place as if the synapsis in his brain had equally snapped in. He was in his groove.
I had hooked up the mixing board to the speaker. Now there was a more challenging task, hooking up the microphone to the mixing board. But first, the mic had to be hooked up to the microphone cord. I picked them both off the table and handed it to him. “Here,” I said. “Put these together.” Sam studied the mic and the cord and quickly figured out which end should go into the mic. Without hesitation, he expertly put the correct end into the mic. I could hear it snap in place.
We had one act to go. We now had to put the funny looking XLR end of the mic cable into the mixing board. There are about a half dozen inputs on the mixing board, so you have to know what you are doing. I took another chance. “Sam, see if you can find the male end of the XLR input on the mixing board and put the female end of the XLR cord into it.” I held my breath. Plugging in this cable was a little complicated.
Sam walked over to the mixing board and bent over. He put his hand on one end and slowly swept his fingers across all the inputs. He felt the XLR cord in his hand and, after a moment, took the end of the cable and put it up against the board. He tried matching the wire with the different inputs one by one, almost like a jigsaw puzzle. After the third attempt, he had found the right opening and adeptly pushed the cable into place. He then stood up and wiped off his hands, as if wiping the grease off of them.
By now, everyone was sitting in their seats, ready for the choir to begin. However, they weren’t thinking about singing. Sam was now the show. They were all quiet as they watched us finish setting up. They were smiling, almost in shock. Here was Sam, the quiet guy, who out of the fifteen or so of the people who lived there was not the most functioning person. But here he was, in front of everyone, helping me set up my rig like an expert. They saw a new Sam. Or maybe they saw the old Sam, the working man, the man he had been for fifty years. He acted and looked different. As I watched them watch Sam, I couldn’t help but feel that they were not only thinking about Sam, but they were thinking about themselves as well. They saw themselves up there, helping me set up. They were seeing and imagining themselves doing what they used to do; Eleanor, the teacher, up in front of the classroom, lecturing about American history; Don, the accountant, at his desk going over taxes with a client; Bill, the builder, hammering studs up at a construction site.
As Sam and I finished and we stood in the center of the room, I stretched my arms out, with my head high, signaling the end of the setup, as if it were the end of a performance. The audience, picking up my cue, began to clap. And then, I lowered my right arm and gestured toward Sam, as if he were the featured soloist. The applause rose and rose, louder and louder, like in a theater, as if the featured actor had come out for his curtain call. Sam didn’t get it at first, but then he did, and he moved his head in little movements from one side to the other, taking it in. He had a grin on his face, gave a slight nod, and then walked back to his chair by the window, a little taller, a little stronger, as we then all got ready to sing Amazing Grace.