Never underestimate the power of music. Even accordion music.
I recently visited a friend at her apartment in an assisted living center. Like the sign says, it’s a place where people go to be assisted in their day-to-day living. Nearly all the residents there are less than two decades away from their century birthday. Their pace of life is very … very unhurried. Even the elevator takes a long time to come, as though it, too, is methodically, cautiously moving from one place to the next.
My friend and I sat visiting in her little apartment when one of the staff stopped by to remind her that a musical performance was coming up in half an hour, and she’d better get on down to the Sun Room, just six doors down the hall from my friend’s room. But at walker speed, which includes the time it takes to bring the walker over to her, position it squarely in front of her, hold onto it while she carefully pulls herself upright to it and then begins walking, six doors is no skip in the park. So we slowly made that journey and managed to get to the Sun Room in time to acquire two good seats in the back. Seats “in the back” are premium because the farther back you sit, the less obstacles your walker faces.
I watched the steady stream of folks coming in from all directions. Nearly all either slowly, carefully wobbled in on walkers, or rode in seated in wheel chairs. Lots of grey hair, lots of wrinkles, lots of gentle smiles. That quiet, calm, careful collection of sage folks are everything most of us would like to think we are, but usually are not.
Their role at the performance was to sit and enjoy the music of two accordion players — a husband and wife team — who looked maybe 15 years younger than the median age of the audience. They introduced themselves, even as stragglers wobbled up the aisle to find a last seat at the front. A staff member was helping an elderly resident steer his walker up the aisle in front of me just as the accordions began to blast out their first song. And I watched a miracle happen. That elderly man, who just a moment before had been slumped over his walker as he slowly shoved it along, straightened his back and clung tighter to his walker as his legs started dancing to the tune. The rest of him hung onto that walker for dear life, but his legs danced on their own, knees rocking and heels sliding, and even a little kick to one side. He twitched his way to his seat, still bouncing as if 20 years had fallen away from him.
I turned to my friend to see if she saw it too, and noticed she was tapping her thumbs together to the beat of the music. The woman next to her was beating time with a slightly uplifted hand. The woman to my left twirled her foot in rhythm, while next to her another woman raised and lowered her knees the tiniest bit as she kept up with the beat. Studying the crowd closer, I noticed nearly every person keeping time in some subtle way. Subtle was key. No big show, no huge movements, no intense swinging or swaying. But here a head bobbed ever so slightly, and over there a hand tapped a wheel chair arm. Shoulders over there shifted, and next to them, another head nodded.
I’ve never held an appreciation for accordion music. But that softened somewhat as the cheerful, wheezy, vibrant music wove around us all, inspiring normally sedate, barely moving oldsters to move to the beat. As the performers changed songs, so did the collective beat of the grayed heads. And so did most of their faces — from quietly restrained to happy, even joyful.
The performance ended, the audience gave one final, quiet applause. But the change was evident. The group that wheeled in was not the group that wheeled out. Steps were lighter, frail bodies were stronger, movements were quicker, smiles were broader, wheels spun a little faster. And I swear that fellow who danced up the aisle coming in did the same thing leaving.
Music’s transformative, universal language was stunning. Music likely played some kind of a role somewhere in their long lives. On this day it came back to touch and enliven them once more, thanks to two musician’s generous gift of time and talent.
It almost made me wish I knew how to play an accordion.