Few things move people the way music does. You don’t have to know the words or have rhythm or even carry a tune. All you need is a special someone who makes you feel the music deep in your soul. I have seen it in the young and the very old. It catches your attention through feet tapping, hands clapping, or a subtle smile when you thought they were sleeping and not hearing a word. It makes bystanders sing along, and even get up and dance. That is what I call “the Lionel effect” and it is surely something to live by.
My understanding of Lionel Crockett’s gift came through unlikely places – first an adult daycare dubbed “Club Mag” and then rehab hopping. In seven years of bringing the arts table side through Memory Cafes, there were just a few musicians who demanded repeat performances. Lionel and his wife Sheila had a way of connecting with the elderly, most especially those with dementia. While some performers saw it as just another gig, Sheila and Lionel came with intention to love on the lonely, to serve the often forgotten, to bring hope to those society mistakenly sees as incapable. The Lionel effect melted into the heart, mind and soul of all who saw and heard.
Time and time again, I delighted in seeing their God-given talent ripple through the care places we visited. Staff members joined in to dance when residents who hadn’t left their chairs were suddenly up moving! He met the residents on their level, with bended knee and serenade. Praises flowed in after each visit. Dispositions were different they said – the good mood vibe was felt for days. The Lionel effect remained.
There are times when we all need a little push; when the mind says yes but the body just won’t budge. Such times call for some creative thinking. As Lionel sang, I watched for tapping feet and swaying back and forth; then we sprang into action with a “may I have this dance” offer. Wheelchairs aren’t made for just a little push – they are made to be people’s feet, dancing included. Joy overflowed the room. The Lionel effect remained.
When the pandemic hit, and since lagged on, a lot changed. Businesses and non-profits folded (including mine), isolation became a heartache to all, senior care centers shut out visitors to protect their residents, life as we knew it was no longer, millions began grasping for hope. Such times call for some creativity.
So began a final season of memory cafe performances. Lionel and Sheila were as committed as I was – let’s not let the often forgotten become wholly lost and forgotten. They didn’t quit. It takes a special sense of compassion to be around folks with memory issues. Stories and surprises can slip out of nowhere, like the last time residents were brought outside to watch and listen. A lady made her way up to us before staff could catch up to her. She looked at Lionel with the most innocent smile and said “I didn’t know black people could sing like that.” He looked at me and said “we’re gonna remember that one” as he chuckled and turned back to her and asked her name. We both knew she was talking from old remembrances, racial micro-aggressions tucked into her fiber from childhood. She meant no harm and had no filter, dementia let it just flow out unhindered. In a world enamored by injustices, Lionel was enamored by grace and compassion. Surely, something to live by.
As doors closed and outside visits were banned, my non-profit (Hope Matters) changed gears, again. We distributed homemade cards and etched the sidewalks with hopeful messages. And, there was Lionel, outside in the middle of July with us, singing his heart out for all to hear through opened windows. Care center by care center, he delivered tender loving songs like hopeful medicine for front line workers and residents alike. Just like old times, the praises poured in. Staff let us know there was swaying and humming and tapping, and even wheelchair dancing going on inside! The Lionel effect remained even as our show was slowly being stopped.
As the pandemic waned on, we prayed, should we keep on or should we fold? Surrender. The heart-whisper answer came clear. In the final round at Safe and Secure in Crestview, we were joined by one of our volunteers and Emerald Coast Hospice. Together we huddled under a canopy as shelter from the blazing sun and sang our hearts out, following Lionel’s lead and marveling over his passion to make people want to dance. We parted that finale with an exchange of air hugs. Seven years of loving on the lonely, watching the effect of Lionel’s singing, surely gave us something to live by.
Lionel got into a car accident that afternoon on his way home. The accident injuries led to a scan and that led to an unexpected diagnosis. Cancer. If it wasn’t for the accident, it would have remained hidden, silently wreaking havoc. As is classic with Lionel and Sheila, the bad was used for good, grace and healing came shining through. The cancer was eradicated. Yet, the finale still came, sooner than anyone thought.
We have one guarantee in this life: we will exit, someday, somehow. Lionel lived a life full of love, compassion, and music – you could literally see it all rise up and flow out of him as he sang. He told me some musicians saw his going into nursing homes as beneath him, that he could “do better, get some real gigs.” He had those so-called real gigs, but to Lionel the care centers were the real gig! He shared it without reservation and mixed in compassion and grace wherever he went.
I went to Lionel’s hospital bedside with PPE on because that is the world we are living in. The guy at the check in desk said “he won’t hear you” – but I knew better. He was that special someone who made you feel the music deep in your soul. I saw it in the young and the very old. They caught my attention with feet tapping, hands clapping, subtle smiles, or just being there – all while others would have said they could not hear a word. I firmly believe Lionel heard me sing that off-key version of God Bless The USA. He didn’t blink an eye but his heartbeat was just like yours and mine. Did you know that thoughts originate in the heart not the brain, research has proven it. I have been thinking about the bystanders who sung along and those got up and danced throughout Lionel’s ShowStopper performances. Who has given you “The Lionel Effect” – that song-filled kind of compassion to live by? A new day has dawned. Don’t delay. Reach out and say, ‘thank you for making my life sing’.
I will never forget the way Lionel made so many lives sing, including mine.