This story originally appeared on Ted's blog: Alzheimer's: A blog of my own
Found in the Shuffle
Don’t tell me the “shuffle play” on my iPod doesn’t know what it’s doing.
My father died from Alzheimer’s last February after a ten-year decline. Two weeks ago I was about to fly back home, as I have been doing about once a month since his death, to look after my Mom. I knew she and I would be visiting his grave. Not a day goes by that my father isn’t with me, but naturally, on the eve of this visit he was even more keenly at the center of my consciousness.
My iPod has over 4000 songs on it. Two of these tracks are different versions of the same piece of music: John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen,” his theme for the present-tense scene at the end of Saving Private Ryan in which the now-old Ryan visits the graves of his comrades. One version on my iPod is from the original soundtrack; the other is a re-recording by the City of Prague Philharmonic.
I love this piece, partly because it is gorgeous music, but also because it has associations with my father for me. On a surface level the music honors his World War 2 service just as it does the movie’s characters’. But the deep level on which the music communicates to me has to do with my father’s long fight with Alzheimer’s. I conceived my father as engaged in a war with it, one it was winning and would win for good. At some point, although my father was alive and would remain so for years, my real father, the one inside, became one of “the fallen” that “Hymn to the Fallen” now memorialized for me. The piece–stoical, unsentimental, brave, noble, ineffably sad was my father’s tragedy in music; it continued to be that, for me, for the rest of his years; and it is that now.
Music can do important things for us. This piece, somehow, helped me make sense of something that seemed to make no sense. Gave meaning, some kind of beginning middle and end coherence, to a story the end of which lacked coherence. Connected me to my father in a way I needed to be connected, when connection through any other means was no longer possible.
Back to the day that preceded my most recent trip back home. I was at the gym, on the elliptical. My iPod’s shuffle-mode decided to play the original soundtrack version of “Hymn to the Fallen.” What are the chances of that? Of having that piece come up, out of 4000-some possibilities, on the eve of my trip, when my father, his Alzheimer’s, the upcoming trip to his grave, were so present in my mind? Ah, you say, coincidences happen. But wait till you hear this. As soon as that track finished, the very next selection that played, out of the other 4000-some possibilities my iPod could have picked, was the other rendition of “Hymn to the Fallen,” from the City of Prague Philharmonic.
Apple has kept it very hush hush, but it’s obvious enough — our iPods know us. When you select shuffle play, what you’re really doing is telling your iPod to play the music it knows you need to hear.