I got a new job as activities director for an assisted living facility. There are currently only three residents, so already I've gotten to know them pretty well. When my kids asked to come and visit, I gave them a brief run down as to what to expect.
"Marjorie is really sweet, and very smiley. But sometimes she gets confused. Selma is very smart, but you'll have to be patient for her to answer you back. And Bertie makes noise all the time." This last one stumped my kids a little.
"What do you mean?" they asked.
"Well, she makes a quiet sound all the time. She'll stop to answer you, but then she goes back to her humming noise. Like this. 'How are you Bertie?' 'Mmmmmmmm... I'm fine... mmmmmmm.'"
"I think she likes the feel of it. It lets her know she's still there."
Then the kids went off humming to each other for a good 20 minutes.
There's good justification in Bertie's idiosyncrasy. Aside from the real explanation of the advancement of Alzheimer's, there is the idea of a constant awareness of presence. It's reassuring to someone to whom life might seem scary and difficult. It's like a heartbeat.
What a thing, a heartbeat. Your heart is always beating. It starts in the womb, 22 days after conception, and it doesn't stop until you're dead. It is a rhythm that God gave each of us. It's our involuntary awareness of presence, like Bertie's hum. There are minutes, days, hours, phases of the moon that revolve around us in constant movement and pattern, so there is also an internal clock, a metronome of lifeblood that pulses through us. Your breath is like that too, but you can stop your breath, and control it. (I don't recommend this for your heart.)
It reminds me of Sylvia Plath's, The Bell Jar, when the protagonist states, quite mirthlessly, "I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am." It was her way of getting through a moment of despair, a way of telling herself that her body was stronger than her condition; her heart continued on in perfect time despite the melancholy of her mind.
Sure, someday Bertie's hum will cease. And someday our heart's song comes to an end. But we don't get to choose when our clock stops. It just goes on beating, beating the same pulse that it did when we were two, when we are 32, and when we are 82. Until then, it's a reminder that our time is here, our body is on earth. And our work is yet unfinished. Our heartbeat is a gift from God. It is our "I am, I am, I am" from the great I AM.