Musical selection: Orchestral Suite #3 in D, second movement (Air), Johann Sebastian Bach, BWV 1068, courtesy of Classical MIDI Archives, © 1999 Pierre R. Schwob


Miss Irina used to spend her days wandering through the halls of the nursing home where I used to work weekends as a certified nursing assistant, her mind ravaged by Alzheimer's disease.

Miss Irina was one of those older ladies who must have been exceptionally beautiful in their youth. Even now, with the right hairstyle, jewelry, clothing, and makeup, she would still be stunning. Especially her hands -- the hands of the talented concert violinist she once was.

When she was 10, Miss Irina started taking violin lessions in her native Russia, later marrying her violin instructor, Vladimir. They emigrated to the United States and had two children. She played in the symphony orchestra of a large city for over 20 years.

The disease eroded the mind which had earned her a bachelor's disease in education and a master's in music. The elegant, graceful hands which once brought a violin to life now only picked idly at a stained sweater. The lips which once spoke about Bach concertos and Mahler symphonies were now silent except for an occasional murmur or empty giggle.

One night I walked Miss Irina back to her room while I whistled a few bars of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons" or the first movements of Beethoven's Sixth Symphony (the "Pastorale") to her. Her eyes widened and she smiled broadly. Maybe the music touched something deeply hidden in her memory. Most likely it was because she was amused at my off-key, off-tempo renditions. Another aide entered with a dish of ice cream. "Time for your snack, sweetie," she said, and proceeded to feed her like a small child. The sweet strains of a Mozart violin concerto drifted from Miss Irina's cassette player as I got her ready for bed.

Did she remember how nimbly her fingers once danced over the strings of the violin tucked under her chin? What did she remember of the feel of the strings against the fingerboard, the sweep of the bow, the delicate melodies, the applause? The notes of the sheet music now appeared to her only as black and white ovals across rows of lines, scattered like birds perched on telephone wires.

One of the nurses said someone once put a violin in Miss Irina's hands. She seemed to know what it was but not what she was supposed to do with it. Alzheimer's does that -- it erases the memory piece by piece, until the patient no longer seems aware of even his or her her existence.

I wish there were some way to reach deep within the empty shell that Miss Irina had become and rescue whatever there once was so she could once again share her music and her stories. Did she ever play under wuch great conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Leonard Bernstein, or Leopold Stokowski?

What extraordinary treasure, I wonder, might still remain buried under the debris of Miss Irina's mind?

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