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The Whistling

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

My father is always always always whistling. Always.

He's always been a whistler. His father was a musician, and he plays piano and guitar himself. He would listen to music and sing along if the car radio or home stereo was playing. When music wasn't playing, he was always whistling a tune. Even when I was young and he was working around the house, I could just listen for the whistling, and he'd be easy to find.

When I was younger it always seemed he was in a good mood and singing in his head. But in dementia, it feels different somehow, like the whistling is somehow grounding him or keeping him moving forward. But I never gave much thought to *what* he was whistling.

Then one day a musician friend was visiting and said to my dad, "That's a good tune." My dad seemed almost surprised that someone recognized it, or maybe he was just surprised to find himself whistling, as I'm certain he does this unconsciously. But for some reason, in that moment, I stopped hearing the whistling as noise and focused in on the tune.

And now I'm obsessed. Like how you experience an optical illusion: you see it one way, but then when you change your focus or perspective, you see it a different way and can no longer see it as you first did.

It's as if suddenly my own brain went on a hunt, always trying to identify the tune he's whistling. And once I identify it, I try to figure out where he is in his own mind, as if the song is some tell-tale symbol. If I know the song, my reasoning went, then I can put it in a timeline.

Was it a song from his youth, so this would be a good time to ask him about growing up with all those siblings? Or was it something from his teenage years when he liked to drag-race cars? Was it from the time when he wanted to get married but my mother went to college, so he ran off to Louisiana to get his mind off of her? I can only imagine this was a "blues" period, given the state of his heart and that particular geography.

It's as if I thought that knowing the song in his subconscious would be a key to the greater mystery of what's happening in his brain. Of course that's ridiculous; my logical brain knows that. But I've latched on to this silly idea, and I have yet to let it go.

I tried it out on him too, one day when it was the Mamas and the Papas "Dedicated to the One I Love," on repeat over and over and over. "Did you hear that song today?" I asked, but an abrupt "What song?" shut me down pretty fast, likely he didn't want to be reminded that he was whistling unconsciously, so I didn't ask him about the family harmonizing in the car to the radio sometime in the 1970s.

When I found him in the kitchen whistling Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon," I asked him, "Are you flying to the moon today?" "What? No," he said stormily. "But I'll send you to the moon."

I started to realize that he's completely unaware -- none at all -- of the song he's whistling. So I tried a little different approach when we were working outside together, while he whistled what sounded like arpeggios, chords played one note at a time, but he was going up and down the scales, like he was practicing.

"You're whistling arpeggios," I said to him. "Are you practicing the piano in your head?" I asked. "Oh, no," he said. "I couldn't play the piano like that." But that's completely false: of course he can. So wherever he was in his head, was it before he mastered the piano, I wondered. But I couldn't get him to talk about it.

Another time when I was working outside I found an old Christmas decoration in the dirt and I asked him to throw it away for me. For the rest of the afternoon he was whistling the Christmas song "Up on the Housetop." I asked him about that one too, did he know what he was whistling a Christmas tune in the warm weather of late spring. "It's a good tune," he said.

Another day my mother sent him outside to help me with a gardening project and it was Glen Miller"s "In the Mood" on repeat, which might explain why my mother sent him outside. And no, I did not ask.

I also didn't ask the day he was singing a piece of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. And I didn't ask when it was "Summertime" from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, even if it was just hours later when "I Loves You Porgy" was his tune of choice. (See? I whispered to myself. There's something to it.)

This past week Doris Day's "Sentimental Journey" has made me feel a little mocked by this tune-recognizing and mapping exercise I keep doing. Is it him who's taking the sentimental journey renewing old memories, or is it me?

But then something happened over the weekend when my mom's cell phone kept ringing. For the rest of the day my dad was whistling her ringtone. No mystery, no mapping to memories in his brain, no stories to unlock.

Regardless of my need to want to make sense of it, his brain is chaos, just like the mess he leaves in the kitchen after trying to clean up. What's happening to his brain is like the last few minutes of every science fiction movie when the system implodes, fritzes out, goes haywire. It's nothing more than that.

And yet I'm still listening for the tunes.

Drinking coffee, watching the cars go by, throwing the dog's toy, and whistling.

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