Once, during music therapy, I met a woman who wasn’t well. She was elderly, and looked physically healthy. Her hair was neatly combed, her clothes were clean. But in her eyes I could see some heavy emotions: fear, unhappiness, confusion. And in her arms she carried, very gently, two baby dolls.
Part of music therapy is music, and the other, naturally, is therapy. I am a professional musician. I’m not a trained therapist. My mother was. One of the things we would do to tease her, growing up, was to constantly ask, “And how does that make you feel?” (It made her feel annoyed.) But music therapy is not the same as talk therapy, not usually. My music partner, David, and I would come in with our keyboard. We’d ask people their favorite songs. We’d ask them about their lives. We’d apologize for not knowing their favorite songs. We’d act silly, tell jokes, sympathize, and just listen. Mostly, we’d play music–David on the piano and me singing. But sometimes, we connected more deeply with people, and that is what happened to me with this elderly lady.
If there is one thing I can talk to anybody about, it’s my kids. Being a mother was my number-one dream in life, and I was blessed to be given that gift. When my children got older, I started working in child care so that I could have babies again. (As it turns out, child care is better in some ways than having your own because you sleep through the night and you get paid.) I love most things about kids–the park, the zoo, the picture books, the toys, and the dolls. My children eventually outgrew the doll stage, but I never did. I still have my dollies. I still know their names, and I still make them clothes.
So naturally, I was attracted to the lady with the baby dolls. I sang my songs and I wondered about her. Did she just like dolls? Or did she feel more strongly about the ones in her arms now–did she feel that were they her children? Did she have real children? Was she a mother, like me? And I realized that I felt uneasy, maybe imagining myself at her age, thinking my dolls were my kids, feeling confused, scared. Maybe trying to fight off extreme loneliness by living in the past, before my children grew and left, trying to go back to a time when I was useful, when people needed me, when I knew what to do.
If that was what this lady wanted, then it wasn’t fair, because that was not going to happen again. I was going to go home that day to my actual kids and make dinner, help with homework, read books. When I gave a hug, I was going to get one back. This lady was going to stay where she was and maybe wonder why nobody ever gave her respect for being able to handle two infants all day by herself.
I think that’s what decided it for me. I have done the two-infant thing: one planned child and one surprise. Figuring out a way to pick up two newborns from the floor at the same time is one of my greatest accomplishments. There aren’t that many moms of twins, and when I find them, we gab.
So I quizzed the staff. Did she think the dolls were real babies? A heart-rending yes. Did the staff ever play along? Sometimes. Would it be okay if I played along? Actually, yes.
So I did. David played the piano and I sat on the couch with this lady and we talked babies. I got to hold them, and I was just as gentle as she was. She told me their names. They were both girls, just like my twins. We rocked them and sang to them. The lady explained how they cried at night and they would only quiet down for her. It was true. When I felt the one in my arms get fussy, I handed her back to Mom and she settled.
I don’t know that I helped at all in this lady’s care. I don’t even know if they ever expected her to get well, to realize that she was treating pieces of plastic with the utmost care. I just know that for one moment, we had a connection, and I don’t think that it was a coincidence that God brought me onto the ward that day. Me, a woman who never outgrew playing with dolls, who cherishes my role as mother above all else. A mother of twins, no less.
This is a hard memory for me, as are many of the music therapy stories I have. On that afternoon it was hard for me to remember that this lady was not just another mom that I’d met at the park. Whatever the staff thought of me being able to so easily pretend the dolls were real, it was just going to be a funny story. I wasn’t “crazy.” But except for that one pesky fact, that lady didn’t seem crazy to me either. She had the same hopes and fears as me, the same love for her kids. It just wasn’t fair.
The hardest thing about being a mom is that it is, in some ways, temporary. You will always have your kids, but they won’t always be “kids.” They will grow and move away, and they will have lives of their own, and you will go back to just caring for yourself again. Downsizing your recipes, having your evenings free, not having to clear toys out of the tub so that you can take a shower. Maybe I wanted to play dolls with that lady because I know that what happened to her will happen to me. Not the mental illness part, if I am lucky. But someday the only “children” in my house will be the dolls that never age. I think that in some sense, I will be that lady with her dolls, maybe not believing they are real, but still holding them gently, because now that I am a mother, there is only one way that I know to hold something that looks like a child.
I don’t like the idea of being left only with dolls. But for a little while, on one afternoon, a nice elderly lady and I played dolls, and you know what? It wasn’t so bad.