Singing My Dad Back to Me


As the months of quarantine dragged on, I worried that he might not remember who I was when he saw me again. Desperate to reach him, unable to touch him, I videotaped myself singing “Summertime” from the show “Porgy and Bess,” the same song I sang to my daughter when she was born, and posted it on Facebook.

“One of these mornings. You’re gonna rise up singing. Then you’ll spread your wings, and you’ll take the sky. But ’til that mornin’ there’s a nothing can harm you. With daddy and mammy standing by.” Mom told me dad smiled with recognition when he saw the video. “That’s Estelle,” he said. Encouraged by his reaction, I made it more personal by singing songs to him over the phone.

In between visits with my mother, my dad receives physical therapy to help straighten his limping gait (from breaking his hip nearly a decade ago while bowling). He also joins the other residents on his floor for socially distanced walks in the courtyard, to watch movies, and for Music & Memory classes. And we have our phone calls.

I ring him during the day, avoiding the “sundowning” hours of late afternoon and evening, when many Alzheimer’s patients tend to become disoriented and confused. He used to give me requests, as if I were a D.J., but now he lets me choose the songs. We’ve covered show tunes, “Sunrise, Sunset,” “Climb Every Mountain,” and children’s songs like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and even dad’s favorite funny song, “Camp Granada,” Allan Sherman’s ode to sleep-away camp. “Hello muddah, hello faddah. Here I am at Camp Granada. Camp is very entertaining. And they say we’ll have some fun if it stops raining.”

My daughter’s sleep-away camp was canceled this summer. Instead, we spent time at the beach — and it flooded me with childhood memories of family excursions. One day as I strolled on the sand with my daughter, watching the ebb and flow of the tide, I flashed on the joy I’d felt jumping the undulating waves together with dad, his hand holding mine tight.

On our last call, I told dad how much I loved those carefree times from childhood. “I’m sorry, Estelle, I don’t remember,” he said, his voice cracking. “I forget a lot of things.” “That’s OK, dad.” I was upset, too, that a memory so dear to me had unspooled from Dad’s mind. But I knew how to bring him back. “Want to hear a song?” “Sure,” he replied. I chose “Summertime.” The irony is not lost on me that I’m singing the same song for Dad — at the end of his life — that I sang for my daughter at the beginning of hers. But singing to Dad isn’t an investment in the future, it’s an homage to the past.

Summertime. And the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’. And the cotton is high. Oh, your daddy’s rich and your ma is good lookin’. So, hush little baby. Don’t you cry.



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