Man is music

Abi at the one concert she got to go to - One Direction October 2013
Abi at the one concert she got to go to - One Direction October 2013

Last week I drove to the other side of town determined to catch something of this year’s International Film Festival. Scanning the programme earlier that morning I’d already decided to watch the mid-morning picture, regardless of theme. I’ve yet to see a film festival movie I didn’t enjoy - living in small town New Zealand makes these windows on the world a coveted commodity.

I went to see Alive Inside, a movie about the power of music for people suffering dementia. Because Martin Seligman, the professor leading my Masters programme in Positive Psychology, had told us in our final lecture that “man is music”, and having a personal connection with dementia, I knew the film would interest me. I had no idea, however, how much it would resonate with my grieving for Abi, Ella and Sally.

I have always loved music; my childhood was full of it. Not oboes, drums or clarinets, but Elton John, Neil Diamond, Genesis, Dire Straits, Queen and the Stones. Later my husband expanded that playlist to include Talking Heads, the Stone Roses, EMF, the Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and a whole load of dance tracks, all of which are now integrated in our memories, my life, my soul.

Alive Inside is a remarkable documentary about the power of music to re-ignite memories and spark joy in people who have lost both. It shows the power of music to transport us back in time, unlocking memories and opening up communication channels with loved ones lost to dementia. It shows how music changes us physically - prompting residents of nursing homes that have hardly moved or responded in years to physically open up - emotionally, enabling us to reconnect, and cognitively - neuroscience shows how music enables us to code memories and that musical practice actually grows the brain. Music is elemental to the human spirit.

Watching the movie, on a Saturday morning far from home, sitting on my own, allowed me to process some of my recent experience. I wept silent tears and laughed out loud. I recalled that, in the immediate days after arriving home from identifying Abi’s body in the hospital, our house was without music for the first time since we moved in 12 years ago with her as a baby. I remembered on day three or four after her death observing, “We haven’t played any music… I just don’t know what I want to listen to”. I also remember being baffled by this at the time: never before had we gone four days without music; never before did we not know what we wanted to listen to - it’s usually a fight to select the next song in our house. I guess that numbness comes with the shock of sudden death.

Once we’d brought Abi home (it’s traditional to bring the dead home for a few days in New Zealand giving the family, friends and community the time and place to mourn), music returned to our lives. Paddy sang the songs he loved with Abi, Ed strummed along. I sat in her room each night, playing her favourites to her: One Direction, Ed Shearan, Adele, American Pie, and Glee. Trevor and Nolan met daily to work out who was going to be singing and playing at her funeral and, under my brother Andrew’s supervision, the stereo was turned back on.

In the weeks and months since I have found great solace in music. On those sunny winter days that Christchurch does so well, I have flung open the sliding doors, cranked up the stereo and belted Titanium out, over the sea to the mountains beyond. It feels a fitting tribute to our dear daughter, a durable reminder of that tiny body's immense strength and irrepressible spirit. Shoot me down, but I won't fall, I am titanium. Screaming it out helped me feel better. I have cried and smiled, sung to Abi in the car, sung out loud running in the hills with my headphones, we’ve danced together and I’ve matched my mood with music, day in day out. Old songs, new songs, the songs Abi sung weekly at the local Mexican diner, old power ballads that have given me strength in the past, haunting piano mixes I discovered on Spotify, and “Abi’s favourites” playlist on my phone. Kodaline, Of Monsters and Men, Pink Floyd, Mazzy Star, Fleetwood Mac and Imagine Dragons saw me through the bleakest winter.

Music has the power to shift our darkest mood, to bring back forgotten memories, to create and solidify new ones, and the capacity to heal. Four days in my life without it was enough for me. We hate that there are already new great tunes that Abi never got to hear and we know she would have loved (Hozier's Take me to Church chief among them). But, even without her here, music still has the capacity to connect us to her.

Always and forever Abi, always and forever.