The magic’s in the music…* by
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I’m not much for magic, although I love “believing” the magician, probably out of sympathy for the performer. I don’t try to figure out his or her tricks, and I don’t feel cheated. I tried to watch Guillermo Del Toro’s adaption of Nightmare Alley, an epic novel about the rise and fall from grace of a carnival grifter. But Del Toro’s take on Depression-Era exploitation, superstition, and ignorance proved too grotesque and vicious in its portrayal of carnival “magicians” for me to stomach.

Del Toro’s cinematic magic aside, augury, sorcery, and alchemy do hold a fascination for me. I extend my notion of magic to include the realms of performance, science, healing, and the spirit. Magicians are performers. And some performers are magicians. I think Tina Turner is a magician. Cate Blanchett is a magician. John Coltrane is a magician. Lady Gaga is a magician. Bob Dylan is a magician. They are transformative, shape shifters. They create their own reality.

Magicians are descendants of shamanism. Sha-men and sha-women were typically individuals in collective communities who were unable to fulfill useful roles in hunting or gathering societies. They were often physically or mentally deficient. They had to make themselves useful. Many learned how to become healers. Many learned how to journey to the spirit world. And that is where magic becomes real for me.


My mother was a health-conscious woman. Even back in the 1950s, we ate right to keep fit. I stole that line from a book by the nutritionist, Adele Davis. While everyone else brought peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwiches to school, I opened my Roy Rogers lunch box to lima bean and cottage-cheese sandwiches on brown bread. Humiliating.

My mother continued her healthy ways through two husbands and a seemingly limitless lineup of smitten gentlemen. At 80+ she gracefully radiated beauty and health and could out-hike me. But, after her second husband died, she moved out of her home in the Sierras to live in an ecologically designed cooperative housing development in Davis, California.

Davis, California is the proud host of U.C. Davis, an aggie school known for its adventurous work in agricultural and environmental sciences. The community surrounding the campus makes a governmental and collective effort towards sustainable living. But just a few miles north of this green, eco-dreamy paradise lies one of the largest tracts of agri-industrial land on the planet. The giant fields are constantly being dusted with fertilizers and pesticides.

My mother loved living in her sustainable condo surrounded by sustainable friends, flora, and fauna. But she began to develop throat problems and a speech difficulty. She was misdiagnosed with mini-strokes. She insisted the doctors were wrong.

The doctors were wrong. My mother was diagnosed with ALS, which stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord and leads to a loss of muscular control.

We moved my mother to an assisted care facility in San Francisco where my brother and I could be close by. In her last years, she and I worked hard to resolve all differences. She could not speak so we both took to writing on yellow legal pads. With her throat paralyzed, she also lost the ability to eat. She gradually lost weight and finally, at 87, well ahead of any failing in the rest of her health, she went into hospice.

Fortunately, we had followed her demise closely, so, when the time came, all her children had gathered at her bedside. While the hospice gently counted off the lengthening times between inhale and exhale, she finally released her last breath.

Until then, I had never understood how much energy it took to maintain the life flow. With that final breath, my mother’s body collapsed, imploding upon itself. And in that moment, a lithe, blithe wisp of white, translucent mist danced upward from her body and disappeared through the ceiling. It was there; I saw it. I can still see it. And I heard the music.

I’ve seen Tina Turner, Lady Gaga, John Coltrane, Cate Blanchette, and Bob Dylan prove that “the magic’s in the music…” Because a shaman or woman uses tempo as a bridge between our world and the spirit world. Because tempo is the most essential element of music. Because that translucent wisp that had been my mother for 87 years danced to the music while it danced through the ceiling and out into the cosmos. So yes, I believe in magic.

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*Sebastian, John, “Do You Believe in Magic,” 1965





Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website

Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. susanrubin says:

    The magic for me is often in words. Like the ones in this piece. I have seen that last wisp of breath leave a body. In fact, four days ago I was watching a beloved friend, struggling with a lengthy coma. I didn’t see the tubes in her throat but they were there. Shortly after I left my friend’s room they took out the tubes when an MRI showed that she had just had a series of strokes. There was no more hope. The magic was that I believed I would see her again. I left her room crying, but I was sure she would survive. She did not Much like this piece, the description of his mother’s last wisp of breath, I watched my friend take her last breaths without knowing it. I am grateful for the magic of love I feel for my friend. Grateful for the magic that she lived on this planet when I did. Sorry for the magic of the mourning process that began three days ago.

  2. Thanx Charles for this beautiful tribute.
    Losing your vital mother to ALS was heartbreaking, but thankfully at the end you found redemption in the music you saw her spirit embrace.

    • Thanks, Dana. We had worked together in her last years to compare our perspectives as mother and child. It was a rich experience, largely because she was as curious as was I about who we had — and had not — been for each other. We parted with a deep, expressed love for each other.

      • That’s the best way to part Charles.

        When I wept at my mother’s hospital bedside when she was terminally ill she told me not to cry, she had a full and good life.
        That was 20 years ago and comforts me still.

        • It was, Dana. My father’s rapid removal had impacted me greatly because we hadn’t said goodbye. My long visits with my mother were, in contrast, as you described, deep and comforting sessions leading to her magical departure.

          • Understood.
            I realize how lucky I was on that score as my dad also left me with comforting words.
            He was a dedicated and compassionate physician, and shortly before he died he said to me, I’m a physician, I know death and am not afraid to face my own.

            But luck ran out for my sister who suffered terribly with MS for many years dying at age 61. Thankfully my parents were already gone and blissfully ignorance of what was to come.
            Ah, life.

  3. Suzy says:

    Charlie, this is breathtaking! I totally agree about the magic being in the music, as the Lovin’ Spoonful so memorably sang. And the performers you name are certainly magical.

    You have shared tidbits about your mother before, including the wisp that rose from her body when she died, but I’m glad you gave us so much more detail here. I’m sad to think that living in Davis might have led to her death because of the fertilizers and pesticides. At least she had 87 years, you had time to work on resolving your differences, and you were all there with her at her very magical end.

    • Thanks, Suzy. Yes, the irony of the eco-green Davis community being so close to eco-greed was not lost on either of us. I dug into the causes and effects of ALS during this time and found that a high incidence of ALS appeared our soldiers who had handled Agent Orange during the defoliation of Vietnam. So the connection with the chemicals of agribusiness seemed to make sense.

  4. This is one piece that ended up in such a different place than where it began! I mean, I can also see that it was continuous and that the end related to the beginning. But it was quite a journey, and a rather magical one. It sounds like there could be much more to write about that mother of yours.

    • Yes, Dale, I did wander a bit through this recollection. Thank you for sticking with it. And I don’t find it surprising that my mother is beginning to surface in my awareness after spending such a great deal of time and energy exploring my enigmatic and fatally unapproachable father.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    An amazing tribute to your mother and the power of whatever we think of as spiritual, magical moments.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    I agree that performers are magical in their transformative powers. But your mother sounded like a sha-woman herself; ahead of her time in healthy living and body and spirit. ALS is a horrible disease, the vital person is trapped in a body that cannot move. At least you were all there to witness your wonderful mother’s magical release. You write movingly about that translucent mist, dancing through the air, using tempo as the essential bridge in the musical element that makes up magic.

  7. Thanks, Betsy. As always, I love your power of description. Tempo as the essential bridge, indeed!

  8. Khati Hendry says:

    Your mother sounds like an amazing person, and your experience with her at the end of life quite magical indeed. You were lucky.

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