The Frenchman

My friend Nancy and I do a little musical act at The Forum, a nursing home and assisted living facility just down the street from our church. We pull out every Reader’s Digest songbook we own and have a heyday singing and playing the golden oldies from yesteryear. It is a joy to see dim eyes light up at the sound of a familiar Rodgers and Hammerstein song or tired heads begin to bob knowingly at a particularly witty Ira Gershwin lyric.

Sometimes, a tired hand magically lifts from a wheelchair and begins directing an imaginary orchestra. At other times, a pair of eyes flutter open for an entire song before shutting closed to the world again. Inevitably, whenever I hold out a long note and let it waver with full vibrato, one gentleman in particular sitting right next to the piano opens his mouth and sings the note with me, belting out a voice that sounds fifty years his younger.

I love it.

This last time, the nurses wheeled a new guy into the room. His eyes were bright, and he looked right at me with a special knowing and understanding. This man didn’t just know the music. He knew the music. I felt like he was giving me permission to sing, not just the song, but the way I know how to sing, and I suddenly felt transported back to my jazz club days. I could almost smell the cigar smoke and hear the ice tinkling in their tumblers. As if on cue, I started changing the sensibilities of my phrasing.

“Belle, belle, belle!” the man cried mid song, clapping his hands. The nurses quickly shushed him so as not to interrupt the music, but I didn’t mind. The man’s behavior was good, right, and salutary in my eyes. Jazz is not a passive sport, and cheering on a musician mid song is the best of compliments.

When the song was over, the man looked me in the eye and quietly crooned, “C’est magnifique!”

“Merci beaucoup,” I bowed my head.

His eyes lit up. “Parlez-vous Francais?”

“Anglais, Anglais,” I apologized, shaking my head.

He nodded. It was okay. We would just speak to each other through the music. He leaned back in his seat for the next song.

In moments like these, I don’t mind being barren. In fact, I forget all about it.