Rendahl: I’m Still Here

Special for the Armenian Weekly

A lesser-known fact about me is that I’ve played piano in church off and on throughout my life. These days I play at a small church in Minneapolis whenever I am in town over a Sunday.

I appreciate many things about it. It can be easy to live in a bubble with people of the same age and educational background and socioeconomic status and a host of other defining characteristics. I prefer the opportunities that real diversity brings. Not lip service to diversity, but situations that require one to adapt to someone else’s perspective in real-time.

This morning presented one such opportunity when there was some commotion at the entrance of the church a few minutes after the service had begun. The doors of the sanctuary were wide open, so the noise carried over the congregation and up to my piano bench. The pastor announced that it was Sam* and she suggested we wait for him to arrive.

Sam is 90 years old, always looking elegant in a full suit and a beautiful head of white hair. And he has the sweetest tenor voice. His dementia had grown noticeably and rapidly over the past six months, and the pastor told the congregation that, since he had moved to a nursing care facility a few weeks ago, he has been increasingly confused.

One day, he mistook me for a 14-year-old parishioner, a reference I readily accepted without correcting him.

But age has not stopped him from singing, as far as I can tell. Last year, I accompanied for a solo he sang for the congregation. This year, I accompanied for a duet he sang with the pastor. When I play arrangements of hymns, he sings. When he walks to the room where people share coffee and sweets after the service, he sings. He just can’t help himself.

When he entered the sanctuary this morning, he asked in a loud, cheerful voice, “Am I in the right building?”

It was an honest question.

“Yes, you are, Sam,” the pastor assured him with a smile while everyone watched him walk to the pew where he has sat for decades of services with his wife and family.

“Hey, that’s Don!” he called out as he walked. “It’s Lorna!” he said with excitement.

He saw the pastor’s husband, who projects the hymns and photos of paintings on a screen at the front of the church, and said, “Hey, you’re the guy who does all the pictures! You do a good job!”

I peeked around the corner from where I was sitting until I was to play again. He saw my face, pointed, and exclaimed, “Hey, I know her!”

It was no surprise that the pastor looked at me and asked if I could play “Morning Is Broken.” It was not planned for the service, but we both knew that he loves that hymn and that he may remember it.

When she encouraged him to listen, he said, “Did I tell you that I lost my hearing aids?”

And so I set about playing the music as loudly as possible. Within seconds, I heard him say, “I recognize this.” Then he sang.

His voice rose above everyone else’s. Just after I took my fingers off the keys, Sam let out a big sigh and said, with wonder and gratitude in his voice, “I’m still here.”

I put my hand to my mouth and quickly returned to my corner where I could sob in private. I had not found his dementia upsetting until that moment. How could I be upset about a 90-year-old man who walks about singing and greeting people in joyful tones?

And then I understood how long it had been since I had expressed the same. I’m still here. I go to sleep and I get up everyday with gratitude for all the people in my life, for food and shelter and clothes, for most everything all the way to the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

But I fail to be in awe of the simple fact that I am still here.

I saw that Sam was leaving the church building and called out his name. He recognized my voice and without pause turned around to say, “We need to get together. We need to sing a duet.”

“Okay,” I said, “you decide which song and we’ll sing it the next time we’re both here.”

“Okay, that sounds good,” he said decisively. Then, with his hands on his walker, he began humming a tune and walked out the door.


Kristi Rendahl

Kristi Rendahl is associate professor and director of the nonprofit leadership program at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Prior to starting with MSU in 2017, she worked for over 20 years with nongovernmental organizations on several continents, including living in Armenia from 1997-2002. She speaks Armenian and Spanish.

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  1. Kristi–you are such a sensitive, observant person. The world needs more folks like you! Thank you for sharing a personal moment.

  2. Blessed are the Sams of the world that sing cheerfully and bring a little joy to the world, even at 90. I am sure that many of us have an elegantly dressed sweet Sam in our family. Dementia is often not kind to its victims.Thank you for embracing and sharing this tender moment with us, Kristi.
    After reading your bio, I can only imagine all the pain and suffering you have been exposed to. I wish I could hear your duet…

  3. My husband and I had “Morning Has Broken” at our wedding — sung by my cousin with guitar. Kind of a rocking Cat Stevens version. I love the old hymns and I get melancholy thinking that someday they won’t be around.

  4. I love this story and the way it is written. My 104 year old father has had trouble getting to church in last years and now trouble hearing on the phone, and so when we can’t converse, I just start singing Amazing Grace and he sings all the words along……………

  5. Kristi,you and Sam inspire me with your enthusiasm. As a 90 year old myself, your story is good for the soul of its every reader. Thank you for sharing your musical talent and reflection. Percy

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