Honoring the soundtrack of my mother's life

(CNN)As my mother lay dying in September, we surrounded her with song.

Music had filled her life and often our household. Now, it became our way to connect with her when her deteriorating brain allowed for little else.
A mother of three, she was brilliant, sharp-witted, strong and creative. A longtime Detroit-area attorney and activist, she fought on front lines and danced circles around courtroom opponents.
    She advocated for abortion access, rallied for the Equal Rights Amendment and marched for civil rights on behalf of many, including the LGBTQ communities. She won the first sexual harassment jury trial in Michigan (some say the country), helped organize a fundraiser for the defense of two women who'd killed their rapists in self-defense and was included in a book about feminists who changed America.
    CNN's Jessica Ravitz with her mother and older brother in the early 1970s.
    Allyn Carol Ravitz was a force to be reckoned with, until she wasn't. A rare progressive neurological disease chipped away at her memory, cognition, balance, speech and muscle control. Before it killed her, the disease stole who she was -- with one exception: her love of music and song. It stuck when little else did, and my siblings, her husband and I clung to it like a security blanket.
    Depending on who was nearest the CD player or quickest to call up songs on a laptop, the selections by her bedside varied. We jumped from Miles Davis to Motown to Elton John, whose iconic album "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" spun on our home's turntable the day it came out. We were her personal jukebox, flipping from Bill Withers to Cat Stevens, Itzhak Perlman to Carole King, Stevie Wonder to Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole.
    My brother cranked up Traffic's "The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" and later wept beside her as Simon & Garfunkel sang "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
    Her husband of almost 10 years rocked in a chair, eyes closed, humming along to Ol' Blue Eyes as well as her favorite arias like "Casta diva" from Bellini's "Norma." My little sister and I caressed her hands and sang "You Are My Sunshine," "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and lullabies she once offered to comfort us.
    Until about a week before her death, my mother, too, had been singing -- and her songs told a story. She belted out Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York," a nod to the city she grew up near, the one she always held dear even though Michigan was her home for half a century.
    She sang old standards like "Side by Side," which her father had crooned to her and her sister when they were growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Sometimes she'd go with little ditties from our childhoods like "The Eensy Weensy Spider." On one of our last outdoor walks with her as a family, we pushed her down the sidewalk in a wheelchair as she led us in rounds of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat." It was at once absurd, heartbreaking and wonderful.
    And in the moments when this lifetime activist connected with her fighting spirit, my mother sang Helen Reddy's 1970s feminist anthem, "I Am Woman" -- a song I screamed out from the bathtub, thanks to her, before I was old enough to go to school.
    Studies have shown that music has the ability to activate the brain and its memories even as it fades. In my mother's case, it was as if each selection her brain called up represented a chapter in her 74 years. Collectively, those songs, and the music we played, bound us together as her end drew near. They helped form the soundtrack of my mother's life and history.

    Nurturing a gift

    My mom and her sister, Marilyn Gallant, were raised by a father who dreamed of being a professional singer. On tour buses and in South Florida club houses, Bill Biener gravitated toward microphones whenever he could. He sang to his two girls each night before they went to sleep in their shared bedroom, never mind if his choices weren't always appropriate. One of his favorites, and by extension one of theirs: "Just a Girl that Men Forget."
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    Aunt Marilyn, who was older by a couple of years, and Mom sang and harmonized in the back seat during car rides. They were in the same advanced glee club in high school, and these two Jewish girls entertained commuters with Christmas carols in the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York each winter -- dressed in "black sweaters, black skirts and pearls," Marilyn said. They'd go into the city to see Broadway shows for $12. While Marilyn bought lipsticks, my mom saved up her allowance to buy records.
    My mother in 1953, when she was 10.
    They came of age in the '50s, and my mother loved to dance. She once won an Alan Freed Rock 'n' Roll Dance Party contest and traveled to Philadelphia to be on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," Marilyn said.
    The two sisters also took piano lessons, though my aunt recently told me Mom failed them. It was a revelation that made me, a piano lesson dropout, laugh.
    "All she wanted to do was improvise," Marilyn explained. "She did not want to play the songs we had to learn."
    It was a fitting story, given who my mother would become.
    Mom in 1966, the year she had Jason, her first child.
    Mom never did learn how to read music, but she had a gift. She could play almost anything by ear, and her improvisation skills soared. Family lore says during breaks from bucolic Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, she waltzed into Manhattan jazz clubs, sat down and played. Often she was the only white person in the room. A huge fan of Ray Charles, she even wore sunglasses.
    My little sister, Dr. Elizabeth Eaman, recalls how Mom pounded out "Under the Sea" from the film "The Little Mermaid" minutes after they returned home from seeing the movie for the first time.
    My older brother, Jason Ravitz, has played keyboard in bands throughout much of his adult life. He remembers our mom teaching him the blues scale. They'd jam together -- "She'd do the left hand and I'd do the right," Jason said -- but not as often as he now wishes they did.
    He marveled at her skills. We all did. Every year after our family Passover Seder, which was like a reunion for her side of the family, she'd dazzle us with favorites like "Blue Skies."
    "She had incredible independence between her hands and could do things with her left hand I still can't imagine doing," Jason said.
    One of the first signs that she was seriously sick came when her left hand grew rigid. The hand that for so long amazed us could no longer perform.

    Even as she faded

    Our whip-smart mother, in her last six years or so, had become slow, loopy, off.
    I often wondered if retirement had done her and her brain a disservice. For a while, we thought she'd had a mini stroke or several of them, but scans proved us wrong. A doctor gave us hope at one point when she opined that mom had autoimmune encephalitis, a condition in which her immune system was attacking her brain -- an illness that can be treated.
    In the end, she got a diagnosis with no chance for a cure: corticobasal degeneration.
    Mom combined two of her other loves, travel and animals, while in the Dominican Republic in 2005.
    She and her husband left their house on a lake with multiple staircases and moved into a senior community in Novi, Michigan. Their piano sat in the new apartment, gathering dust. During their first meal at Fox Run, they sat in the dining room with other couples and were both tapped to be in the chorus.
    "She looked absolutely radiant when she sang," her husband, Dr. Charles Schmitter, said. "She absolutely loved it. It was like the sun came out."
    The last time he took her to chorus practice was about three months before she died. He led her there slowly by the hand, which was how they managed to move through the world. She could no longer read lyrics and needed help getting into position. Once the music started, she joined right in.
    That enthusiasm for song, her ability to lock in on it the second she heard it, stayed with her even as she became progressively more sick and the joy was harder to see.
    One person who became a bright light in her life and ours was Michael Krieger, a singer and songwriter who's been playing for seniors in the Detroit area for nearly two decades.
    Through music, Krieger finds connections with those who've become disconnected, a way to help people light up and communicate who they are.
    The memory care facility at Fox Run where Mom spent her last months is a regular stop on his circuit. He strolls into Rose Court with his guitar and takes a seat at the piano anywhere from 15 to 20 hours a month.
    Our powerhouse of a mother, who'd become so fragile and meek, stood out.
    "I can't think of anyone who's interacted with me the way she did," Krieger said. "There was such an intensity."
    As soon as he got the last note of a song out of his mouth, my mom would blurt out her next request -- often "New York, New York" or "Side by Side" -- which could very well be a repeat of the request she'd made just minutes before.
    And the songs she didn't request, she knew them, too, and sang along. When she couldn't speak and barely ate, she'd still find the music. We'd often weep as we watched her, wondering where she was.
    "She didn't have the neurological connections to have a meaningful conversation, to speak to you and listen to you and respond, but she could sing," my sister said.
    My brother saw it as her "comfort zone." It was the one thing she could still grasp, and it was as if she were announcing to the world, "I've got this."

    A puzzle with no specific answers

    Though her brain prohibited her from saying much, she comprehended everything happening around her, said Dawn Doyle, the social worker at Rose Court who observed my mother closely.
    "Music allowed her to feel emotion," Doyle said. "In the beginning, I could see that she was enjoying it. It gave her rhythm, it gave her movement, and some kind of memory was being triggered. I could see it in her eyes."
    Maybe that's why she chose the songs she did -- one about her beloved New York, one from her father, songs that connected her to her kids and her activism.
    "It's like a puzzle. There's no specific answer," Doyle said. "But the fact that there was a connection showed she had some cognitive ability. It was her way of trying to connect with you."
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    CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon, sat down with me to explain why music stuck with my mom when most everything else did not.
    He said studies have shown that music fires up the brain like nothing else. It's hard to prove why, but one possible explanation is that music "harnesses surrogate emotions" and has the power to transport a person.
    Listening to music is therapeutic on its own, but singing does even more, Gupta explained. It's why music can be so effective in rehabilitation. It's why musicians like Krieger see people come alive.
    First a person must remember a song, and that memory -- activated in the central part of the brain -- is tied up in emotions, Gupta said. Then, expressing or speaking the lyrics stimulates the brain's left temporal area. To speak those lyrics in the form of a tune taps into the right parietal lobe. And if you throw in a rhythm, say the stomping of a foot or clapping, that draws in the cerebellum.
    Singing crosses the mid line of the brain, Gupta said, and not much else does this.
    "It's really remarkable to watch," he said.
    Indeed, in her final chapter and up until a week before we lost our mother, we gazed at her in wonder.

    Saying goodbye

    The end for my mom came quickly. The final morning she was able to sit up, my sister and my mom's best friend sang with her one last time. Among Mom's swan songs: "I Am Woman."
    I am woman, hear me roar,
    In numbers too big to ignore ...

    If I have to, I can do anything. I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman.
    By the time my brother and I got there, she was tucked into bed.
    Against all odds, she made it to my wedding in Atlanta less than six months before she died.
    Her eyes never opened again, but she clung to my hand the night I arrived, as Hillary Clinton debated Donald Trump for the first time on the television she couldn't watch.
    She was now on hospice care, and with the next round of morphine, her hand let go.
    She'd been refusing food and drink, but she took the scheduled syringes of morphine willingly. Our mother was ready.
    During her final days, which extended longer than seemed medically possible, we floated in and out in shifts. Krieger visited daily, playing her usual requests. If she was agitated, his voice always soothed her -- and us. He provided comfort with one of her favorites, "Wonderful World," which he'd later play at her funeral. The other song he performed at the ceremony, one she specifically requested years before she was even sick: "Wind Beneath My Wings" from the tearjerker film "Beaches."
    These songs, and so many others, will forever bind us to our mother. She sang to us in our beds, as her father had to her, as she did for him in his last days. And as she lay dying, it was our turn.
    We stroked her hair, kissed her cheeks, whispered in her ears our gratitude for everything she'd given us. And the songs that filled the room as we said goodbye, the music that defined her life, became ours, too.