Whenever I hear Bing Crosby sing “Toora Loora Loora,” I feel a mix of grief and happiness. The song belongs to one of my homecare clients, a German Jewish Holocaust survivor. It was her favorite, her anthem. We sang it together every day at the end of my shift. She died this year, at 98.
Grief is part of my job. As an eldercare worker, I lose people serially, people I’ve washed and fed and lifted, people I’ve laughed with and held. I miss them sorely.
At first, I didn’t know what to do with all the grief. Then I learned about anthems.
I first stumbled onto the power of anthems with my client Faye. The daughter of Irish immigrants, she was drifting through the early stages of dementia and fighting all forms of assistance. Sitting on her beige couch, she wielded her remote like a wizard’s wand, drowning me out whenever I suggested a shower, an activity, a phone call. She was polite, determined, and opinionated and I liked her. But I was cowed and spent much of my time watching her watch Patty Duke and Gidget reruns from my designated spot in the kitchen. Then one day I grabbed the wand, turned off the TV, and turned on a CD called The Celtic Viola.
Suddenly, the weather in the room changed. Faye relaxed. She asked for second and third helpings. With the new soundtrack, we became friends, told stories, ate Oreos. She took showers. Through my work and training, I knew that music has a special power for people with dementia. What I didn’t know was that Faye’s favorite song, her anthem, “The Humours of Scariff,” would stay with me and help me. Somehow it has turned the loss into something softer. I often play it to remember her—the games we played, the stories we shared, and even our fights over her walker and treacherous high-heeled boots.
Sometimes clients present their anthems to me. Sometimes anthems just happen.
It was that way with Jean. Driving to her funeral, I heard a song about Venus for the first time. It sounded like an aria, something Jean would have liked. Adventurous, brave, and very nearly blind, Jean sometimes wrangled her way into performances of the Chicago Symphony, armed only with her charm. She was bold. And now it was as if the universe was giving me this song from Barbara Strozzi—a courageous woman who was rumored to be a prostitute because she dared to write music in the 17th century—as a way of celebrating Jean. That song has been with me ever since.
An anthem allows me to choose my moments of memory and sadness. Not always of course. Sometimes grief has its own ideas. It can ambush, it can sucker punch, and my heart responds accordingly. But when I’m ready, and I want a dose of Faye or Jean or Bob (“1812 Overture”) or my mother (“New York, New York”), when I want to remember the work I’ve done and the life I was lucky to know, I play an anthem. There is nothing like that flood of feeling, the rush of awe for an elder’s stories and fears and struggles, and the privilege of having shared them.
“Toora Loora” starts, and I am renewed.
Lee Reilly is a CNA and the author of two books. She’s at work on a memoir about care work.