Music to Mine Ears


The musics of the mental ward confound, delight and distress. Writing the songs into a narrative would seem gauche, the titles coming off as blunt cliches, pathetic attempts at retread jokes. One would laugh the author’s words of the page. But to watch these melodies unfold, with no particular author directing the acts, and the song list plays like a subterranean echo chamber, swelling and bobbing in the memory. So I will write them in.

7 AM

Up and about. First morning, lockdown. What does one expect in lockdown? Now, facing the idea, I have no preconceived notion. So I slog out into the main room. A few women roaming around. Behind the glassed off official area, an official looking woman, the floor watcher, or whatever it’s called. She’s in a purple dashiki. Turns out, she’s got a different color daishiki for every day of the week. Her hair is tightly bundled to scalp, reddish with honey blond streaks, and a cluster of perfect tiny ringlets hanging from a forwards topknot, like scissor swiped ribbon, curling on christmas gifts, dangling a bit onto her forehead.

Breakfast arrives in a tall wrack. Before the individual trays of food get plopped on the table, all 5 or 6 women of the ward are whisked together, and we must, ”stand up, stand up, people. it’s that time again. face in and all join in!”  Purple woman raises her slender hands and clap, her long purple nails glittering in the florescent light. “The sun is shining this morning, it’s a good day, and we are singing Penelope’s songs!” And she sings in a beautiful voice, a voice ready for primetime gospel choir.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy, when skies are grey. You’ll never know dear, how much I love you, please don’t take my sunshine away.”

She prompts us to clap, clap along. “Everybody, I can’t hear you, lets do another round, this time, y’all sing out!”

You Are My Sunshine, Round 2. I sing heartily, worried we might loop the verse until all voices reach some arbitrary decibel level. The round ends, and she applauds us all. This is a relief, and I imagine sitting, when she waives, “Lets go, you know it, lets sing some more!”

I feel good, ba-da ba-da ba-dah duh – I knew that I would now, ba-da ba-da ba-dah duh.

The “ba-da ba-da ba-dah duhs” seem particularly poignant when mumbled by a group of grouchy morning mental patents.

 Monday afternoon in the big house.

Jim, the music therapist, arrives. He plays the baby grand in the main room for an hour each afternoon during the week. Requests are taken, and Caroline runs up to Jim and whispers in his ear. He agrees, yes, he knows that song. Everyone settles in for the performance.

Caroline is in the hoozgow by mistake. She’s talked about her situation – it’s a matter she needs to settled on the phone. This is problematic. We can only use the group home phone for 15 minutes at time, and usually a line of grumbly people wait for you to wrap it up. Obviously, long phone calls involving legal technicalities are unpractical. Not to mention, to get a call back, the caller must have your patient number, which is a tad awkward on a message to police or county official. In any case, Caroline was accidentally brought to the facility after the police arrested her. Caroline’s sister, who has stalked her for years, and to make matters worse, bought the apartment building where Caroline lived. Then, the sister would sneak into the apartment while Caroline was asleep, and leave the stove’s gas on. This went down, not once, not twice, but  – 5 times. The sister clearly wanted Caroline dead. The last incident, when the fire-truck and police arrived, they arrested Caroline, not her sister, the true culprit. It was an egregious mistake, and Caroline now struggles with phone complications to get the whole thing ironed out.

But back to the music, wherein Caroline will entertain with her mystery song. She stands with invisible mic in hand, swaying to the jazzy chords of her intro. She tosses her burgundy red locks and begins, “My analyst told me, that I was right out of my head…”

Who could make this up? Or why would anyone make this up. It all seems so implausibly iconic and impossible in an actual situation.

In Closing

My last morning. It’s time for the first group therapy of the day. Who do I see? Penelope.  In a sky blue daishiki. “C’mon people, lets get ourselves into the room and participate with that which we know helps us!”  The woman smoking next to me mumble. “Oh Jesus. It’s Penelope’s romper room. Guess we better go in and get it over with.” She snubs out her cigarette and walks toward the room where voices emerge, joined in joyous song: ”You are my sunshine…”


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