It was the winter of 2002. I was a freshman at Western Washington University, where it rains 300 out of 365 days. There was nothing extraordinary about my life at that time, but something happened that day that I'll never forget.
A group of about eight of us had taken to visiting a nearby nursing home every other week or so. We would usually play games with the residents, help them make Christmas cards or Valentines, or just sit and chat until they fell asleep mid-sentence. I enjoyed going there; I could relate better to the old folks than people my own age for some reason.
Anyway, on this dreary, rainy day our group was going to enter the restricted-access, locked-down Dementia Unit that we had been spending time in and do something we had never done before. We were going to sing.
It doesn't seem like a big deal, that we were going to sing. Singing is easy, right? But I was supposed to play the piano and none of us had ever practiced together, so I was nervous. We were supposed to sing hymns, which I was familiar with having been raised CRC, but I had my doubts about some of my friends' abilities to follow along to By the Sea of Crystal and Great is Thy Faithfulness. I feared the worst.
We got to the Dementia Unit and entered the key code to enter the wing. Having been trained to be alert, we slipped through the door and quickly shut it behind us so no one could escape. Only residents with severe dementia and high flight risk lived here.
The first person I saw was a woman I liked to call Nervous Nellie. She had wispy, white hair the length of her chin and never did anything but pace up and down the hallway, wringing her wrinkled hands. As she passed I said hello, but she didn't hear me. She was in her own world somewhere far away, muttering unintelligible words and frowning as she paced back and forth, back and forth. Wringing, wringing, wringing.
I sighed and went into the Recreation Room where the piano was and my worst fears were soon confirmed. The other members of my group chickened out one by one until only I and one other girl were left to lead the singing. Alas! Such is the life of an artist! I thought.
Residents trickled into the room, encouraged by staff members to participate, and sat down facing the piano with expectant expressions. I consoled myself with the knowledge that no matter how poorly I played, none of them would remember my performance ten minutes after it concluded. Opening the hymn book, I selected a well-known, easy song, took a deep breath, and began.
Some of the residents sang along and others just smiled politely at me. After the first song, I selected another: Amazing Grace. Everyone knows that one, I figured. I sang the first line, then the second...then something happened. A woman entered the room. She looked like Nervous Nellie, but...but, it couldn't be because she wasn't wringing her hands. And she wasn't muttering, and she wasn't pacing or frowning. But it was her.
Nervous Nellie walked up to me and sat down in the nearest seat, her hands folded in her lap. Then she opened her mouth. As I sang line after line, verse after verse, she sang too and she knew every word. Her voice was clear and bright like it was coming from another time. Another place. And she smiled.
When the song was over, all too soon, Nervous Nellie stood up and walked out of the room. I continued the sing-a-long until I ran out of music and then our group prepared to leave. Back in the hallway, Nervous Nellie walked toward me, wringing her hands.
"It was nice singing with you today," I said.
She continued past me as if I wasn't even there. Whatever portal my music had opened, that had bridged the gap between her and me, between her past and my present, had closed again, never to be reopened. But I'll never forget that day, and how the notes of a beloved hymn gave me a glimpse of who Nervous Nellie really was: not a frail, old woman who had lost her mind, but just a woman.
A woman just like me.