A few weeks ago, Glen Campbell bowed out of this life with a farewell tour and a telling, final song called “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.”
To the very end of his battle with Alzheimer’s Disease, his pickin,’ grinnin,’ and croonin’ held steady, though, according to those who knew him well and saw him perform.
The sane chemicals in his brain slowly conceded to the entropy of his disease, yet habit stuck through his humanity like a skewer in a kabob.
His habit? Playing music.
In times of loss, confusion, or ambition, he turned, more often in private than in public, we can be sure, to his guitar. His manly fingers elegantly danced on its acoustic suspension bridge.
When the names of loved ones lifted off the surface of his conscious mind, the notes in his soul kept on “singing in the wire.”
Musical habits were his memory muscle. His very body became, in the end, an instrument, a fine-tuned one at that. Listen to his final recordings, and marvel at the man who couldn’t recognize his wife and kids.
The day after he died, I came to a magnificent, Cambridge-like park across the street from my house. I sat for a moment. I uttered praise, as I often do, for the wonders of creation around me: Massive tree canopy above, lush grass, ferns, and scattered fungi at my feet, perfect blue sky.
I had a day trip ahead of me to Ocean City, NJ and a public Forum to prepare for, so to clear my head I started crafting my to-do lists. Getting the day in order is my habit. So is getting it done well.
As I write, I’m acting as my dad’s wing man while my Mom is in the hospital. He’s 86, and unlike Mom, his memory is not in ship shape. Sometimes in the night, he rants about distant habits.
His mind was always on his tasks. People and their needs surely motivated him, but his drive to act often eclipsed relationships.
Dad earned the nickname The Hurricane by his admiring sons for living the mantra “get ‘r done,” years before the phrase became an American trope.
Do my kids have a nickname for me? Do I want to know it?
Dad ran a family store for a living; I run events. He lived by a Stoic creed; I’m an outspoken Christian. His first name is Dartt. My middle name is Dartt. We both seem to hurtle through the air from thing to thing, person to person.
To be a bit more nuanced, I’m not as darting as I once was. I like to think I’ve matured spiritually over the years.
Heading out without God’s blessing (or at least the inkling of it, albeit misguided often, I’m sure) is my worst fear. I’ve habituated myself to pray first and to consider the needs of my loved ones before I make those lists.
My learned habits are new skewers I’m trying to pierce through my body. The habit of list-making, though, comes easily whether or not I’m consciously trusting God. It’s the melody I tap out in my sleep.
If and when I succumb to dementia, what habits will my loved ones notice in me? I hope they are eye contact, or inquisitiveness, or pizza-making. I hope it’s not a rant about getting “X” done on time.
The store was Dad’s life. He retired at age 55, but the physical habit of getting in the truck, opening the barred doors at the back of The Ben Franklin, and flicking the switch of the long rows of florescent light-these made up the liturgy of his life.
When he rants occasionally in the night (Poor Mom!), he’s reliving a scene from years of running a store: Welcoming the store clerks (with names like Doris, Myrtle, and Marion), kibitzing with various salesmen in the backroom over cigarettes, and meeting the truck drivers on time in the alley.
I picture Mr. Campbell’s in his final hours. A loved one hands him a guitar, and he fingers tunes long unforgotten. I could put my dad in front of a key-copying machine today, and he’d turn out a beauty. You can trust me on that.
What will I rant about in the dark hours of my life? What have I practiced? What have I cared most about?
“For where your treasure is, there is your heart,” said Jesus.
Mr. Campbell, God be praised, treasured the muse within. And he sang till the very end.