The conductor stately walks down the corridor towards us.
The tails of his tuxedo are perfectly pressed, the pleats of his starched white shirt under the lapels perfectly parallel, and his endless toothy smile reaches from cheek to cheek when he sees me and my mama. Once he was the kind of unruly boy my mom used to teach. Now he has harnessed his boundless energy into bringing out the power of music into young people.
He bends over to kiss mom on the head. “Hello, Mama,” he says as she looks up to him from her wheelchair. A smile of recognition lights up her face even though it has been eight years since she has last seen him, when he was her conductor in a Christmas choir.
“Hello,” she smiles endlessly back, squeezing his hand.
“I am so glad to see you, I was meant to see you today,” he said as he pats her shoulder.
After a hug he turns and marches toward the stage entrance.
I have watched my friend Dr. Jeffery Redding conduct award winning high school choirs beneath the lights of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, in the ancient colosseum of Verona, in the courtyard of San Marco Plaza in Venice, but tonight I watch his elegant tails march toward the stage of the American Gardens Theatre at EPCOT in Disney World to lead the time honored tradition of the Candlelight Processional, a Christmas Tradition that Walt Disney himself began at Disneyland more than 50 years ago.
Tonight my friend takes the honored position behind the podium to conduct the 50 piece orchestra and 300 voices of the Disney Voices of Liberty, Cast Member Choir, and auditioned high school choirs. Though I have watched him conduct many times, there was something special about this assembly of voices from all walks, all age groups, all levels on this stage to share a Christmas message.
The tradition of story and song together this holiday season seems to bring comfort and joy to a world full of randomness. Guests have lined up for hours waiting outside the theatre to enter, and when capacity was reached, watched from the courtyard across the stage. Many are drawn to the comfort of this familiar message, this familiar music, these familiar words we have heard over and over in our heads for years.
These words spoken and sung tonight bring tears to my eyes as I watch my 91-year-old mama, sitting next to me in her wheelchair, her Alzheimer’s riddled mind brought clear this night through the power of music, song and story. I see her face radiate with joy. I watch her hands moving gracefully to the music, mimicking the elegant movements of Jeff’s on stage. She turns to me and smiles.
“He is such a good conductor,” she states. This mama of mine, who one month ago was in ICU, suffered a mild stroke and infection and rounds of tests and antibiotics, is now a completely different person next to me, her whole body swaying and clapping and singing to the familiar songs of Joy to the World, Silent Night, and her favorite:
“Fall on your knees, oh hear the angel voices.
Oh night Divine, Oh night, when Christ was born.
Oh night, O Holy Night,
Oh night Divine.”
And tonight is a divine night, as I see my mama transform through the power of music, transform as she watches my friend bring to life and draw out from these voices and these instruments the power and glory of the words and the notes so often heard but not truly experienced.
I am one of the first to stand as I hear the strings start up the familiar introduction to Handel’s Messiah.
“Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!”
Mama also tries to stand, but her legs are so weak. I grab her hand and together we wave our clasped fingers to the powerful chorus and the strings and brass and percussion of the orchestra.
Mama’s words are very few lately. But these words tonight are crisp and clear and proclaimed with all her heart.
“King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And he shall reign forever and ever. Forever and ever. Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
Words crisp and clear and brief.
Words that need no explanation.
Words that are made more powerful in the repetition that accompanies Alzheimer’s are glorious tonight.
Timeless words and timeless melody that my mama revels in, heart and soul.
In this present moment, when all for her is crystallized in time, in place, in right now, this beauty is all that matters.
I may not have many moments with her like this. But this one Hallelujah Chorus will be eternal in my heart.
Even the guest narrator, Emmy award winning Joe Morton, acknowledges the power of song this night. He says, “Tonight, even for one night, this tradition, no matter what you believe, reminds us that Love wins out, that Love is the reality in this magical place, to bring Peace and Unity in this world.”
The performance is over. I don’t want this time to end, but I turn up the walkway to push Mama’s wheelchair up the aisle.
I hear his familiar voice near the stage bellow out…..”Don’t leave!”
Mama and I wheel back towards the stage. In the midst of all those around him, clamoring for his attention, Jeff hustles over for a quick moment.
“You were my inspiration tonight,” he leans over and whispers to Mama. “I was nervous when I first saw your earlier, but seeing you reminded me why I do this, to touch lives and inspire others. Thank you for reminding me.”
Her eyes twinkle, her smile stretches across her entire face as he turns under the lights and walks away, grasping hands, touching lives, touching others, even after the baton is laid down.