Don’t Worry About the Key

I’m not supposed to hear this. I’m not even supposed to be awake at this hour.

It’s 3:00 a.m. Lying beside me, gently asleep, my wife is making a whistling sound. She inhales, then exhales, and there it is: a soft, clear whistle, with each exhaled breath.

So it’s true. When I was a kid, in pretend sleep my brother and I would make whistling sounds, mimicking what we had seen and heard on television, in cartoons.  This is the first time I’ve actually heard her–or anyone–whistle in their sleep. Sometimes she’ll wake herself up, elbow me, and ask, “Was I snoring?” And I’ll say no, of course not. “Please wake me up if I snore,” she’ll say. I promise her I will.  We’ve never talked about a whistle. I didn’t think we needed to. 

I lie there, transfixed, careful not to disturb her. This is possibly the most wonderful thing that’s ever happened. I don’t want to stop her.  What I want to do is slide out of bed and go downstairs to the piano.   

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Sleep quality matters. As does quantity. I get pretty good marks for quality sleep, bad for quantity. Over the past six months my wake-up time has been shifting nightward, from six in the morning to five, then five to four, then four to three in the morning. The first Sunday in November, which we recently passed, we set our clocks back, the end of Daylight Saving Time. That’s always trouble. That’s when I hit 3:00 a.m.  That’s where I’ve stayed. 

What goes through a person’s mind, wide awake at 3:00 a.m.?  Death. Water in the corner of the basement. Ground pork for ragu, leaves in the ditch, pumpkin pie, sex, a soft tire on the car, Covid-19, air travel, murder in Oxford.

Dementia. 

In her eighties, over a period of 3-4 years, my mother disappeared into dementia. It was an erasure. Before her, her brother, my Uncle Don, did the same. That’s something to contemplate at 3:00 a.m., genes being genes. And it’s precisely the place I should think about dementia because in everything I read about dementia–warning signs, the ten things to do to avoid it or at the very least to slow its advance–good sleep is indicated, a hedge against losing your mind. Good sleep as in how much

It’s right there in the Harvard Health Blog I consult, in the title of the article: “Sleep well–and reduce your risk of dementia and death.”  The first heading in the article: “Sleep six to eight hours each night.” I get five a night. Five hours of deep, delicious, uninterrupted sleep. Add an hour of discontinuous sleep during the day, dozing with my mouth open while the television talks, and I get six. “Each night” the Harvard Health Blog says. Not once in a while. 

I rarely get to six any night, unless I take drugs. 

Her whistle, I’m willing to bet money, is in the key of A. Each exhaled breath, I hear this silvery Aaaaay, Aaaay, and, lying in bed wide awake, I think immediately of that long droning A string on John Lennon’s guitar at the beginning of The Beatles’ “I Feel Fine.” I want to ease out from under the covers and go downstairs and touch one of the A keys on the piano. Sometimes I have almost perfect pitch. I blow over the top of an empty wine bottle and hear B flat. A horn honks in traffic. Could be F sharp. 

With respect to whistling in general, my wife and I are at odds. I put my lips together and blow. Yes, that, just like Lauren Bacall says to do in “To Have and Have Not.” That’s how I learned to whistle, if one can be said to learn whistling. My wife, on the other hand, draws air through her lips when she whistles. She draws, then blows. She says it’s more efficient. She doesn’t have to stop and take a breath.

Whistle science is sparse. Healthline, a website where you can find information about acid reflux, chronic pain, and STD’s, makes this claim about the drawing (they call it the sucking air) technique: “It may be hard to whistle a tune with this technique.” That’s certainly true in my case. I can make a sound, but it doesn’t resemble music. It’s just whistle. But my wife can whistle a tune and does so with delicacy, if not with great precision, by drawing as well as blowing, filling and emptying. 

In bed last night, however, the air flow was unmistakable. It was definitely on the exhale.     

The next morning we’re out walking. I must walk. Cardiovascular exercise is good for keeping dementia at bay. All the advice is clear. I must also learn something new, every day, if possible. Also eat good food. And quit smoking, if I still did. And brush my teeth. And stay socially engaged. On our walk I’m still relishing the whistle I heard last night and the droning A string in “I Feel Fine.” 

“Did I tell you I almost hit a deer the other morning?” my wife says. We’re on a stretch of road where we frequently see deer. 

“No,” I say, then think, Did I tell you you were whistling in your sleep last night? 

I can’t bring myself to share this news with her. It will disturb her. It will keep her up at night, worrying she’s whistling in her sleep. This may well have been a once-in-a-lifetime gift. I may never hear it again. Suddenly my mind clears. I remember, about the deer. “Yes! You did tell me. Where was it?”

“I was driving home from Lisa’s. A big doe, crossing Quarton Road close to Franklin.” 

“I remember.”

We talk about deer, about grandchildren. I stop to take a picture of a haunted tree. In front of one house we walk by is an antique tractor with Christmas lights hanging off it, also vestiges of Halloween decorations. It’s a holiday tractor.  

It was A, I’m sure of it. 

Almost perfect pitch, occasional perfect pitch–is nonsense. Something is either perfect or it’s not. There’s no almost. Maybe what I have is pitch memory and relative pitch. I think those are things. To test myself, while we walk I start humming a section of “Die Meistersinger,” a Wagner overture, and thinking about Neil Young at the same time, really crossing genres, trying to place the key of the overture relative to the key of other music I remember, like the droning A string. I could whistle a little Die Meistersinger, but years of experience have taught me to keep whistling to a minimum. It annoys my wife. Whistling people sound happy, even kind of foolish. The overt happiness of whistling grates on her nerves. I hum some of the triumphal fanfare in the overture to myself. 

“Die Meistersinger,” I announce.

“What’s that?”

“A Wagner opera. I’m trying to figure out what key it’s in.” I listened to Wagner in the basement of the library when I was in college, Tristan and Isolde, Parsifal, and Die Meistersinger, on scratchy lp’s. When the digital age arrived, I downloaded the overtures. I can hum parts of each. It’s a kick to hear them on the radio. I say to my wife, “I’m thinking it’s in the key of D major.” 

“I don’t know how you do that,” she says.

“Neil Young’s song ‘The Cinnamon Girl’ was in D major. For three years we played that song, first set of The Skinner Brothers bar gigs. I think I remember the key.” I tell myself to check Die Meistersinger on the piano when we get home.

It’s C major, I will discover later. I listen to a few bars on my phone, then stand at the piano, in verification mode. I’m kind of disappointed. 

“C major,” I say.

“What’s that?”

“Die Meistersinger. I could have sworn it was D.” I touch middle C on the piano again. Of course. Like that Allman Brothers song, “I Must Have Done Somebody Wrong.” I might have known. 

When my wife sings, she changes keys freely. She has an ear for melody. She just can’t stay on key. The meaning of the phrase “stay on key” eludes her completely. Same when she whistles. Melody fine. Her key tends to wander.  With the exception of birthday parties (happy cacophony to you), finding the right key and staying on it rarely matters. 

Oddly, many people who can’t carry a tune when they sing can do so when they whistle. There may be an old brain thing going on there. In evolutionary history, did whistling precede singing? Did singing precede speaking? 

Conventional wisdom is that language came first, that music was a by-product of spoken language. Researchers at Rice University put forth the opposite thesis. Language, writes music therapist Kimberly Senna Moore, “may have evolved as a subset of music.”  Across the globe today, on every continent there are “whistle languages,” which scientists suggest may have come before spoken language. According to new science, the Guardian reports, “people who speak this musical language are using their entire brain while whistling instead of only the left hemisphere, which contradicts the common notion that language is dominated by the left half of our brains.” So whistle and song are full brain activities.

It seemed like a good idea to someone. Years ago at a gathering of my mother’s brothers and their wives, my aunts and uncles, we were all seated at a table in Frankenmuth. It was someone’s anniversary. 

“Don, would you like to say grace?”

He rose and smiled. My uncle Don smiled with his whole body, a huge radiant smile. “Well, sure,” he said. He began with a traditional “Our heavenly Father, we thank you for this food,” and after a few halting sentences, he was trying to remember what came next, or he was trying to make it new. He began to meander, still smiling, then came to a full stop. We waited, he stood, eyes closed, searching for the next thought. We waited. Then he sat down. A few years later after cousin Bruce’s funeral, my Aunt Gerry would break off her conversation at the dinner table and go looking for Don, who had wandered away from the community room where we were eating, disappearing down a hall, out into the foyer, lost but not afraid.

A few years after that we attended his funeral. By now, my mother was starting to fade toward silence. We sat in the second row of the church. I don’t think she knew it was a funeral. I don’t think she understood we were there for Don. She sat, alert, content, and vacant. When one of the churchmen stepped forward and began to sing, a hymn that was intended to be a solo, my mother joined in the singing. “And He walks with me, and He talks with me. And he tells me I am his own.” Just her and the churchman, singing. She was oblivious, happy, possibly somewhere else. She was singing. 

The last thing we forget, neuroscience suggests, is music. 

Many people saw the recent performance, a sad miracle, the melancholy spectacle of Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett at Radio City Music Hall, a concert called “One Last Time.” Diagnosed with Alzheimers in 2016, now 95 years old, Tony Bennett sang, almost like the old Tony Bennett. “As soon as the music started,” Gaga said, “Tony knew exactly where he was.”

As she receded further, my mother started waking up in the middle of the night. She had to go to the farm, she told my dad. It was urgent. She had to meet her grandma and help her get dinner ready. She didn’t know where she was. Where was the bathroom? These 3:00 a.m. episodes happened more frequently, every night a struggle. He started giving her medication so she could sleep through the night.  So he could sleep through the night. Not long after this, we moved her to a memory care facility. The doors in and out of the facility automatically locked, opened only with digital codes the residents wouldn’t remember.

I knew the code. I would let myself in, sit next to my mother on one of the couches in the day room. She was away. Looking back now, I wish I had whistled a tune. Maybe I could have whistled her briefly back. I wish I had sung to her. We might have been a duet together.

I’ll have to tell my wife: If I get there, whistle me back. Maybe sing just a little. Don’t worry about the key. I’ll feel fine.

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