Memories and soundtracks
In college, we played a game called the song game. Four of my lifelong friends from Villanova lived in a large quad on the first floor of Simpson Hall and each of them had a computer and access to hundreds of songs—in 2000, Napster made it possible to download any song you wanted (not so legally) in seconds.
I was never very good at the game, but I really enjoyed it. One roommate would press play on a random song and everyone would try to be the first to call out the title and artist. The game could last 10 minutes or go on for an hour. Fierce competition would ensue. I never won, but I could often guess the song within a few seconds.
Fast forward ten years, the speakers in my car were up way too loud and new radio songs were impossible to understand without access to lyrics. If a new song came on the radio, I would switch the station. I played the same familiar music from our iPod over and over again. My brain knew all the lyrics and could round out the tune when certain sounds began to disappear. I could never have played the song game.
I really love music. I grew up dancing and around a family of piano players and singers. Dance grew increasingly hard for me until it became near impossible. Music went from being something I craved to something that annoyed me. It made me sad.
My cochlear implant has changed this for me. At activation, I wanted to test music streaming through my CI and companion Phonak Marvel hearing aid. This feature was one I was most excited to try. I read the testimonials of many CI users who said that Bluetooth streaming and AutoSence OS (the CI’s operating system) made music enjoyable for them again. So we configured my phone, opened Pandora, and gave it a try. Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud started to play. Only I could hear it. I could hear it!
It had been declining for twenty years. Ten years of nonsense, ten years without words. Five or so years without music, lyrics, sounds. Over the crackling speakers of my laptop, Ringo, Paul, John and George ceased the silence that afternoon. The Beatles, one of the last bands Mom ever fully enjoyed, became one of Mom’s first new sounds post cochlear implant.
From my grandparents’ porch you could hear the crickets. You could smell the freshly cut grass and dinner on the neighbors’ grills. The yellow forsythia bushes lining the yard looked up to the blue fading into pink sky. We had exhausted the Beatles CD. Erin pulled a second CD from a bag, Anne Murray’s Greatest Hits.
“Track 11!” Erin said, as I put the CD into my laptop. I pressed play. We waited. Mom’s face confirmed recognition. The country waltz filled the room. Mom started to hum to the tune, loosely corresponding with the music as it played. Dad helped with the words to the chorus. Then, the second time it played through, Mom hummed and sang what she recognized: “Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?” My parents’ wedding song.
All the way home, and the next day, and for many days and weeks and years after that afternoon on the porch, Mom listened to this song. That day, every note brought back a memory. And with every note now, a new memory attaches to it. The quality of Mom’s life has been restored back to the clarity of Anne Murray’s voice the day she danced with Dad at her wedding.
It’s been twenty years since those song games in Simpson Hall. I’m playing my own song game these days. Kate’s extraordinary playlist, if you will. It includes my favorite songs and the last songs I remember hearing, really hearing. These songs can ground my ears after lots of listening and noise. My brain doesn’t have to work very hard. I can hear each lyric, the nuances of the signer’s voice, the notes, the individual instruments that compose the song. I hear harmonies I had forgotten, replaying versions of Hallelujah to hear “the fourth, the fifth, the minor falls, the major lifts.” So gorgeous. The clarity astounds me. Takes my breath away.
I listen to new songs that my kids love, too. (Dance Monkey, really?) Oldies that make me think of summers on the Cape singing with my cousins. Songs that bring back memories of high school friends belting out tunes in the backyard. Songs that take me right back to sitting on my dorm floor with my roomies singing along, knowing all the lyrics.
For me, some of my happiest moments have a soundtrack.