The goodbye playlist: The first songs my mother taught me were the last I played for her

Oliver X.A. Reyes, ANC-X

Posted at May 14 2018 01:02 PM | Updated as of May 14 2018 01:14 PM

Mama stopped being able to speak, as well as being able to swallow. One of the final things though she was able to verbally articulate was that yes, she wanted to listen to music.

Until then, we had hesitated; we were used to her being annoyed when the volume was too loud—because the neighbors.

Perhaps she preferred to drift away to the sound of quiet? With that blessing, the hardly used backup Xiaomi phone was unshelved. Spotify was belatedly installed, and the downloads began.

It has been a challenge curating a playlist for an audience of one who lies mute yet still takes cues from sounds she hears. It has tested me on how well I know my mother. The surest answer—top of the heap—is Sinatra. Her love of Frank was one of the very first things I knew about her. She deemed it fortuitous we happened to be driving by Hoboken the night Old Blue Eyes died. Yet after some hours, the playlist would loop back to “Strangers in the Night” and its wail of scooby-dooby-doo. Didn’t she want a more diverse set, or was I projecting my own preferences?

I tried creating a unique playlist, based on LPs and later cassettes that she had owned, and snippets of conversation that emerged from memory while furiously scrolling down Spotify’s recommendations. She was surprised and glad to learn that The Cascades did not die in that train crash after all, so “The Last Leaf” went in. One of the records she took with her from Iloilo when she settled in Manila was from The Association, so “Cherish” and “Windy” made it in.

But soon, the options were testier. I remember that she had loved Martin Nievera, but she also took Pops’ side after the break-up. Was she cringing, or crying to “Be My Lady”? I was not sure. Was it The Corrs, or some other '90s girl band that she unexpectedly took to liking? I cannot remember.

Josh Groban I thought was a thing certain. One though, under the circumstances, may tend to be hypersensitive about the lyrics. Could soaring exhortations about being raised up on mountain tops be actually be the source of distress to one about to die against their will? Does hearing Italiano via Americano provide comfort, or is hearing Greek an annoyance to one who has not much time?

There was one song I knew she would want to hear, but I held back. The ballad, “And I Love You So,” the Perry Como version, not Don McLean’s. This was the song that she would play, and sing, to her first born baby in order to lull him to sleep. It had to go in the list. It was painful for me to hear.

Several hours immersed into the new, final soundscape, the nurses say that yes, the music helps. Silence is starker. After the deliberate choices had been exhausted, we finally settled on an existing playlist replete with 1950s ballads—the music of her youth. (I do shudder at the thought that during my final hours, it would be the strains of “Blame It on the Rain” or “Ice Ice Baby” that will give me comfort.)

When the loop lands on a familiar tune, her mouth starts moving, and she starts to sing along in that voiceless way that we are just starting to get used to. I will have to take her singing as an article of faith, as with many other matters associated with these circumstances.

(Adapted from a Facebook post by Oliver X.A. Reyes. After a 12-year battle with leukemia, his mother, Julita, died on March 18, 2018. As she passed, the Glorious Mysteries of the rosary were being chanted over Spotify. A few weeks later, a box of long unplayed cassette tapes were found tucked away in her car. They included several albums of The Corrs. This is dedicated to her memory.)