A couple of weeks ago, Otelia Watts died. She was in her late 80s, and had played the piano and organ at our church for over 40-years. But, Alzheimer’s had begun its slow march in Otelia’s life about 11-years ago, claiming her short-term memory, and much of her ability to understand life around her.
Slowly, the things she loved — her ability to play the piano at church, drive a car, and live by herself — had slipped out of Otelia’s life. But her spirit was strong, and last Easter, Otelia came to church with her daughter and son-in-law. She sat in the congregation that Sunday, and none of us suspected it would be the last Sunday she would attend her church.
Otelia lived at home until a couple of weeks before she died, and Debbie and I visited her several times over the 3-years since we moved here. I would introduce myself to her on each visit. “I’m the pastor at Chatham Baptist Church,” I would explain to her. “I go to that church,” Otelia would say proudly. And, I’d agree with her and we would talk some about the times she could remember, long ago.
The last time we saw her was at Christmas, when we went horse-and-wagon caroling to her house with a load of boys and girls. She loved children, and hugged each one who came to her door that day. Some she hugged twice because she couldn’t remember she had just hugged them. We sang for her, gave her a bag of homemade cookies, then made our way on down the street.
Each time Debbie and I would visit, I’d ask Otelia to play the piano for me. She would say, “What do you want to hear?” And I would say, “Just play whatever you want to.” Otelia would open a hymnal, set it up on the piano, and then proceed to play without looking at it again. She played wonderfully for someone who was 88 with arthritis and Alzheimer’s, and I would always compliment her. She would hold up her hands and say, “Well, my fingers are so stiff, I can’t play like I used to.” But, she could still play and you could tell she loved it.
At her funeral, we remembered Otelia, a strong woman with a gleam in her eye. I told a couple of funny stories about her, and then talked about the disease of Alzheimer’s.
“Alzheimer’s is a terrible, mean disease that takes your mind,” I said. “But, Alzheimer’s couldn’t take Otelia’s music, because her music wasn’t in her head, it was in her heart.”
I could see the silent nods in the congregation that day, as her family and friends recalled the vibrant life of Otelia Watts. On a windy hill in the cemetery, we laid Otelia to rest by her husband who had gone before her. As we left the graveside, we all knew our lives had been blessed by a lady who loved to play the music that God had put in her heart.