Hanceville, Alabama—this town is a wide spot in the road. Quaint downtown. Old houses with fading paint. Crowded barbecue joint. No bars.
The rehab center and nursing home is a cinder block building with keypad locks and alarm systems. White hallways. Fluorescent lights. Smells like Lysol.
I’m here today to play piano.
Christy is a therapist here. She’s been in this line of work for thirty-one years. She helps the elderly, the affected, and the injured find their seats.
“I love older folks. Always have. These people are everything to me.”
Here at the rehab there is plenty of love.
An older man in Auburn University colors arrives in the chapel. He drives a motorized wheelchair. He shakes my hand with his left hand—his right hand doesn’t work.
He speaks. His words are not clear. But his smile talks for him.
A woman rolls her chair behind him. She is not old. She is a middle-aged, blonde, blue eyes. Her hands don’t work well, but her mind is a razor.
She asks me to play “I’ll Fly Away.”
I play. She cries.
“My best friend,” she says. “He died last week. They’re laying him in the ground today at two. I can’t go to the funeral.”
She is grieving him hard today.
Another man introduces himself. An old man. His eyes become puddles when he stares at me.
“Oh my God,” he says. “I coulda swore you was my son. You look just like my boy.”
We shake hands. He has a firm grip.
Another woman arrives, riding in a reclining chair. A lady in scrubs positions her near the piano.
“I’m eighty-six,” she says. “Born in thirty-one, went through the Depression.”
We talk. I learn that she’s endured more than a Depression. She endured it all.
Her father was murdered when she was twelve. Her sickly brother was bedridden. As a child she was a caregiver. A breadwinner. A hero.
She is nothing but mortar and brick behind those silver curls.
“I’m eighty-six,” she reminds me. “Born in thirty-one. I love Hank Williams.”
So, I play Hank for her. Her face loses sixty years.
Then, I play a few hymns.
A white-haired woman stands beside me. She is pure spirit, wearing Velcro shoes and a railroad-engineer’s cap. Don’t let her age fool you. Her mind is faster than a caffeinated calculus major.
She sings every word to “Amazing Grace.” All fifty-three verses. Her voice is shaky.
“When we’ve been there, ten thousand years…” she sings. “Bright shining as the sun…”
Her eyes are looking at mine. She’s singing with all she’s got. And I’m in another era for a moment.
Another woman approaches. She says, “Maybe you can come visit me sometime. I’m a REALLY good friend.”
It’s enough to break your heart.
The music is finished, the middle-aged blonde woman steers toward me. She holds my hand in her weak one.
“Can we get our picture made together?” she says. “I don’t wanna forget you.”
“No way,” I explain. “I’ll look hideous standing so close to someone as pretty as you.”
We get our picture taken. I am holding her beneath my right arm. She is warm. And beautiful. How could anyone forget this woman?
“I love you,” she says.
Well, I don’t know if she means it. Maybe she just needs to tell somebody. Maybe it’s been a long time since she’s said those particular words.
Either way, it doesn’t matter to me. I liked hearing her say them.
Almost as much as I enjoyed saying them back to her.