The Dixie Chicken in Dementia

My brother Steve is three years older than me to the day.  He has rapidly progressing dementia.  For the past four months Ron, my oldest brother,  and I have been doing our stumbling best to support Steve so that he can live the remainder of his life safe, secure, and free of suffering.  It has not been easy.

Part of the problem has been logistical.  Steve lived in a trailer park  just north of Titusville, Ron lives in West Palm Beach, and I lived in Saint Petersburg.  We formed an imperfect three-hour-drive triangle.   Beginning in June, it seemed like Ron and I were continually on the road.  To relieve some of the burden, I relocated to West Palm Beach so that Ron and I could team up.  Meanwhile, our youngest brother Mick provided support from Little Rock, talking me off the ledge on more than one occasion.  Last month we were finally able to find a suitable location for Steve in Tequesta, about thirty minutes north of West Palm Beach.

Somewhere in the third month of this brotherhood journey, I began to ask myself, “Okay Big Boy, where are the luminous moments you’ve been talking about?”  I had to confess that I had none.  There had been moments that hinted at something deeper.  Steve, Ron, and I each experienced a love for each other we might not have otherwise realized.  Ron and I have done our best, me with more irritability  than I would have hoped, and Ron with more good humor than I would have thought possible.  You could also say we have  become closer, but the relief that offers is tempered by the  knowledge that we are  watching a brother we love suffer as he experience his own gradual demise,  a brother whose resourcefulness is being progressively claimed by delusion.

I had all but concluded that epiphanic moments were the luxury of those not worn to a nub.  I never doubted that the graceful, glowing, expansive, loving Sea of Awareness remained ever-present as the ground of our being.  I still believed that we could direct our intention toward God’s love, that we could surrender into a Self-Awareness that transcends our contraction, that we could abide in joy.  I had to confess, however, that  my body was too tired and my heart too heavy to know how to even try.  And some perverse part of me took pleasure in taunting, “I always knew you were full of crap.”

On my final two hour drive with Steve, I thought it might be useful to play some tunes.  I asked him what would be on his playlist.   He rattled off a bunch of songs, some familiar and others obscure.  “And I like zydeco,” he added.

“I think this is zydeco,” I said and played From Good Homes’  Fruitful Acres,  which he very much liked.  We found ourselves on a roll, sharing favorites from  Jack Scott to Credence.  I turned to him. “Do you like Little Feat?”  I asked.

“Dixie Chicken? I love it.”

“Coming right up,” I said.  As the song began, I found myself singing along with Lowell George,

I’ve seen the bright lights of Memphis
And the Commodore Hotel
And underneath a street lamp, I met a southern belle
Oh, she took me to the river, where she cast her spell.

“You sound good,” Steve said.

That was something I had never heard Steve say to me at any time under any circumstances.  Our sibling rivalry aside, we are not a singing family.  I can’t carry a tune and neither can Steve. I’m afraid to ask Ron.  To the best of my memory,  we have never sung in front of each other, much less together.  Not at Christmas, not at birthday parties, and not at church.  Never.  “Well, he is delusional,” I thought.

We listened to the next two stanzas, Steve tapping time on his knee and me bobbing along with the music in my dorky way.  But when the lyric found the protagonist in the lobby of the Commodore Hotel,  I jumped back in.

But then one night at the lobby of the Commodore Hotel
I chanced to meet a bartender who said he knew her well
And as he handed me a drink he began to hum a song
And all the boys there, at the bar, began to sing along

And then, to my amazement, Steve joined in full throat for the chorus.

If you’ll be my Dixie chicken I’ll be your Tennessee lamb
And we can walk together down in Dixieland
Down in Dixieland.

We sang those last four lines as one.  I teared up.  We were together, one connected to the other through song and heart, sharing a moment of purity, love and unrestrained, off-key joy.  Steve reached over and placed his hand on my knee.  I had never felt that love from him before.  “There it is,” I thought.  “There’s that glowing easter egg.  Delivered by a dixie chicken.”  The tears were now streaming down my cheek.

The song ended.  Neither of us spoke for a moment.  Then Steve said,  “That was good.”

And it was.

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