Two years ago this month, my mother-in-law, Barbara O’Meally, died of Alzheimer’s Disease. She was a truly lovely person, vital and curious, and probably the best mother I’ve ever known. Alzheimer’s is a horrible disease that robbed her of that vitality and that curiosity and deprived her 6 sons (!) and their families of her presence even before her actual death.
When I heard that singers Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga had released a new CD of Cole Porter songs called Love For Sale, I rushed to Apple Music to add it to my library. As I was listening to it – and it’s absolutely wonderful – I decided to Google how old Tony Bennett was and found that he was 95. I also found out that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and that their recent concert at Radio City Music Hall was his last live performance. 60 Minutes covered that concert and Tony’s diagnosis in a segment this past Sunday evening. You can watch the segment here.
Anderson Cooper conducted the interviews with Bennett, his wife and caretaker Susan, his doctor, and Lady Gaga. Bennett was diagnosed in 2016, two years after his Grammy award winning recording with Lady Gaga, Cheek to Cheek. It was clear that he was cognitively compromised, and his wife had to handle most of the questions.
But there were two moments that were breathtaking and let you know that he was still there.
The first was when his pianist came over to his apartment and sat down at the piano and Tony began to sing. From memory, with nuance, with technique (one of my friends said that he had heard that he practiced his scales and vocalises every day of his life, and clearly, that works), and with joy.
The second was at the August 2021 concert at Radio City Music Hall. Prior to his entrance, he was in the green room with his wife, and he didn’t seem to know where he was and what was going on. When it came time for him to perform, she walked him to the stage, and left him at the crook of the piano behind the curtain. And then the curtain went up and the crowd roared.
And this is how he responded.
He came alive. He was the great Tony Bennett, who had been singing for 70 years, and sang as though nothing had changed. He sang 12 songs and then asked the crowd if they wanted more. Then Lady Gaga came out to join him for some duets, and he introduced her by name – which was the first time he’d used her name for the past few months. During rehearsals, he had only called her “Sweetheart,” and she wasn’t sure he knew who she was. Until that moment.
Music is powerful. Music keeps you going.
My husband and I both burst into tears when that curtain went up and he opened his arms to the audience. He said to me, “This could’ve been disastrous.” But it wasn’t.
As William Finn said in A New Brain, “The music still plays on.”
Tony sang an A4 in his signature song, “I left my heart in San Francisco.” At 95. Alzheimer’s or not, that’s an accomplishment.
Thank you, Tony Bennett. Your music will still play on on our devices and in our hearts for many years to come.
And Barbara O’Meally will live in our hearts for the rest of our lives. We miss you, Mom.
Help end Alzheimer’s by contributing to the Alzheimer’s Association. Do it for Tony, or Barbara, or someone you love.