← Articles20 April 2020

Rock ‘n’ roll dreams do come true (even during a pandemic)

Rock ‘n’ roll dreams do come true (even during a pandemic)

This story originally appeared in The Spinoff. It was written by historian and author Rachel Buchanan, whose mother Mary lives at Arvida’s Village at the Park in Berhampore, Wellington. The photo is of Rachel’s mum Mary reaching out to her rock star daughter.

Ever since I was Dorothy in the New Plymouth Operatic Society’s production of The Wizard of Oz, I have wanted an international music career. Some 40 years later, this virus has made my dreams come true.

My debut gig was a sundowner at a place I like to call “Le VAP”. It’s an exclusive, members-only establishment in Wellington. If you’re in, you’re in and if you’re not – well, forget it. Le VAP is off limits to all but an elite few. Aditi, my new booking agent, is one of them.

The call went out last week via email. Subject line: “Any hidden talents?” That got my attention. Yes! Toto nipped at my heels. Where troubles melt like lemon drops, away above the chimney tops…

Aditi wrote: “We are seeking any of you who may know how to play an instrument or sing. We are here supporting our residents with online music concerts; however it would be great if any whānau member would like to do any online singing or play an instrument.”

I emailed. Then called. Aditi already knew I could play the ukulele because she’s heard me sing when I visit Mum, a popular resident at Le VAP. The singing fills the gaps in conversation – which can be quite long when you’re speaking to someone with dementia.

Mum, Mary Buchanan, mother of eight, grandmother of 10, aged 75, lives in the Mary Coleman Hospital Wing of Village at the Park (VAP), widowed 2017, likes to whistle, grew up on a farm in Dipton, religious, has a large collection of beanies.

Aditi is the wellness leader at Le VAP. She has to pep people up, even during a pandemic. Aditi lives in a flat with four others, all students. “They stay in their rooms studying and watching TV,” she said. Aditi was the only one who still had a job. Public transport was now free but Aditi walked to work because she felt it was safer.

I sat at my kitchen table in Melbourne. I listened to Aditi and watched nobody walk by. Three teenagers and me in lockdown. Another work video-conference looming. Across the road, a train flicked by between the houses. It was empty but on time.

Somewhere over the rainbow, bluebirds fly…

Could I do the concert today? Not cool to be so keen but whatever. I’d only been waiting four decades for this chance – my first solo gig! I told Aditi one of my daughters could play trumpet and would join me in a back-up capacity.

The hardest time of day for people with dementia is 4pm. “The sundowner. Have you heard of it?” Aditi said. People could feel blue, confused, agitated and alone. Could I play then?

The flyers went out. “Rachel and family music concert, 4pm. Join the Zoom meeting.”

Rachel and family. The phrase conjured Julie Andrews and outfits made from curtains. I loved it!

Set list, warm-up, tuning, standing up or sitting down, outfit, location, computer position, I was really nervous and immediately started badgering the teenager to practise – a massive rock ‘n’ roll power move and it went down very well, as you can imagine.

The suggestion was made to start with some ballads, then move onto the jazzier stuff. I pulled out the greatest hits from my last visit to Le VAP, just four weeks ago. ‘You Are My Sunshine’, ‘Love Me Tender’, ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’. Mum could magically remember quite a few words in each one.

I had to throw in ‘Kumbaya’ because it’s easy and it’s got God in it.

As I was rearranging the sheet music, a forgotten tune fell out. As if possessed, I started to pick the notes out, then strum the chords, then shout out the single lyric. “Tequila!” Then I recalled how much Mum loved the Nancy Sinatra track ‘These Boots Are Made For Walking’. Then I thought, why not also go the punky ‘What I Like About You’ by the Romantics?

At 2pm Australian time, I let rip with ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean’. Then the trumpeter played ‘Danny Boy’ and ‘When the Saints’. The screen flashed up Mum in the front row of the hospital wing. She waved. Then it switched to the scene in the dementia wing. Then over to the rest home. Then Aditi’s face frowned into the camera. Then the woman next to Mum asked to be wheeled out. This was stadium rock at its finest.

I pulled out ‘Tequila’. My youngest one started to laugh. I shouted out the name of the eponymous hard liquor and suggested everyone at Le VAP be given several shots of it before dinner.

Behind Mum, carers unfurled waterproof tablecloths. I picked out the opening notes of ‘Boots’. The show was nearly over. You keep saying, you’ve got something for me, something you call love but confess….

Suddenly a figure burst into the left-hand side of the screen. It was the carer with the long blond dreadlocks, the one with the French accent, and he was leaning back and he was kicking his legs into the air and he was moving across the dining room, dancing.

He helped Mum stand up and she walked up to us. Mum lifted up her right hand and reached out to the screen. She was smiling. We were clapping and cheering. Mum wiped her cheeks. The carer picked up his skateboard and walked out. Aditi said thank you.

The only lyrics that came into my head were from a song I don’t know how to play.

We can be heroes. For ever and ever.