What a Musical Meant to a Woman with Dementia

When her mother started singing along with the show, she was ready to leave. Then a voice ordered her to stay.

Posted in , Jul 25, 2019

Karen's mom meets the actress who played Belle

Beauty and the Beast! Live on stage! I slowed the car to read the sign more clearly. The same sign that was posted on practically every telephone pole along the whole block. My old high school was putting on a musical.

Mom would love this, I thought. I’d been searching for something to cheer her up since my dad’s death. She’d already been living with dementia for a while. In some ways we were lucky. Mom could still live at home with my brother, where I visited her several times a week. She still recognized her family, even if she’d forgotten many details about her life. 

In fact, the loss of those details might have been a blessing. Mom couldn’t dwell on the memory of Dad’s last days. Sometimes she seemed to think he had just gone out for a while and would eventually come back. She’d sunk into a deep sadness, but she didn’t always understand the nature of her loss.

Even if Mom didn’t always remember that Dad was gone forever, she missed him. Especially with nothing to distract her. I tried to keep her focused on the present. I told Mom about a cake recipe I was trying out. A classic movie I’d watched. Hummingbirds and butterflies I’d seen. Anything I could think of to keep Mom’s mind from drifting somewhere too sad—or just some-where too far away from the here and now. 

By the end of every visit, I was exhausted and discouraged. I’d leave knowing that I’d kept Mom diverted but not truly happy. Not the way I wished she could be again.

Now here I was, staring at an actual sign advertising a performance of one of Mom’s favorite stories. Could this be the answer to prayer?

When I was growing up, Mom told me the tale of Beauty and the Beast. She and I had rushed to see the Disney movie version when it first came out. Watched the video over and over. I even caught Mom dancing around, singing the opening number, “Belle,” while she cooked dinner once. The sight of my quiet, dignified mother dancing and singing was one I would never forget.

Maybe this show could really bring her joy, I thought. When I told her about the performance, Mom was eager to go.

On the day of the musical’s final show, Mom looked beautiful in the gray slacks and teal sweater I’d helped her pick out. We found seats that had a great view of the stage. I could almost believe things were back the way they used to be before Mom got sick. I worked hard to keep Mom focused with conversation while we were waiting for the lights to go down.

“We’re going to see Beauty and the Beast,” I reminded her. “We’ve watched it together a million times.”

The lights dimmed. The audience quieted. The curtain rose. That’s when the trouble started.

“What is this?” Mom asked, as if we were sitting at home and not surrounded by an audience trying to hear a performance.

“We’re seeing a musical, Mom,” I whispered quickly. “Beauty and the Beast. You love this story.”

Mom and I had seen a few shows together. She was the one who’d schooled me on theater etiquette—how important it was to keep quiet, to think of the other people in the audience and the actors.

“Once upon a time, in a faraway land…” the narrator began. I glanced over at Mom. She was listening closely. Then the Beast appeared. 

“Is this Cats?” She asked it so loudly, I jumped in my seat.

“No, Mom,” I said, flustered.

“I want to see Cats!”

Heads turned. I felt myself flushing with embarrassment. I’d planned the whole night around our favorite show, Beauty and the Beast. I never dreamed she would now be demanding to see Cats!

Mom will feel differently when the singing starts. Surely dementia couldn’t take her love of the music away from her...

The music began, and the actors on stage sang. Then, beside me, came a different voice. One that was loud and off-key. Mom was joining in! 

“Mom, let’s just listen,” I whispered. 

Mom wasn’t having it. She belted out the tunes as if everyone were there to hear her. I stared straight ahead, trying not to picture the angry looks directed our way. I must’ve been crazy to bring Mom here! I should have just popped in a DVD at home. I reached for my purse and hoped that Mom wouldn’t make a commotion when I told her we were going home.

Then I heard something.


A strong voice that cut through all of it: my humiliation, the music, Mom’s singing. I stopped, startled. What on earth was that? I wondered. The command had come with such force, I looked around for the source. But the voice had come from within—yet it was separate from me. How could that be? I fumbled for my coat and got ready to stand up and walk out.

“Don’t move!” the mysterious voice ordered me, more adamantly than before. This time, I knew it was real. And that I had to listen. I settled in and suffered through the remainder of the show, trying my best to quiet Mom down. When the cast members took their final curtain calls, I gathered up Mom’s coat to leave. Head down, I made my way with her to the lobby. I didn’t want to catch the eye of any angry audience members.

The performers were waiting to greet members of the audience.  A bunch of little girls were lined up to get a picture with Belle. Mom stopped short.

“Kar,” Mom asked shyly. “Could I get a picture?”

I blinked in surprise. “Sure,” I said. 

I snapped a picture of Mom standing with Belle. Suddenly I saw a different Mom. Joyous and glowing from within. However fleeting her joy would be, it was pure and true. These were the moments I must hold fast to. The glimpse God had granted me.

I’ll forever be grateful for the sign that sent us to that show, and the inexplicable voice that kept me from leaving it. Because the very next morning, Mom had a stroke. A few months later, she passed away. Someone had given Mom one last night of happiness. And a beautiful memory for me to hold on to after she was gone.

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