I hoped all morning that I would come up with something profound to write in honor of the first day of the new year. The start of a brand new year should bring some kind of profound revelation to guide the unfolding days and weeks ahead. Instead, it is an ordinary winter Tuesday, gray and rain soaked. Being Tuesday, I pack up harp and bench and music stand and drive with windshield wipers flapping on high to my regular 11 a.m. playing date at the hospice unit.
Two weeks ago, the last time I played, every bed on the unit was filled. The nurses were frantically busy with family members touring the unit for last minute hoped-for admissions for loved ones, and with arranging the discharges of patients who were now just stable enough to spend Christmas at home. Today it’s a calmer, quieter vibe. The Christmas tree is still up, lit, and sparkling. Crimson poinsettias in the windows are a brilliant contrast to the even darker rain clouds blowing by outside. Only half the rooms are occupied, and the staff have time to look up from their charting as I roll the harp by the nurses station and wish them a Happy New Year.
The room at the end of the hall, closest to where I play, has a sign on the closed door: “Do not disturb – patient resting.” I walk back to the nurses station and ask if I should set up the harp somewhere else on the unit, but the nurse assures me that the sign is to help the family limit visitors, and that I will be fine playing in my usual place. I am on my third piece when I hear the door open, and ten or so minutes later a tall man, dressed in a red plaid shirt and blue jeans wrinkled from too many nights spent sleeping in a hospital recliner, walks from the room to my side.
I smile hello and ask if my playing is too loud for his loved one, let him know that I can move down the hall if they need quiet. That’s not why he’s here. Instead, he says that the music is beautiful. His eyes fill as he tells me he’s there with his mother. She is near her end, and is not often coherent, but she hears the harp and smiles. He apologizes for the tears now finding their way down the creases on his cheeks. I don’t know if I can find the right words in response, but manage “Thank you,” and say that I hope the music will ease them both.
I’ve played at the hospice unit nearly every week since August. Patients have passed away while I was playing. Family members occasionally thank me as they walk by. Mostly I play in faith that Music will ease grieving hearts and tired spirits, without feedback that it makes a difference. But today, I feel consciously a part of this patient’s and family’s end-of-life journey.
I play longer than usual, play more slowly, more deliberately, with more air and space between the phrases of old Celtic tunes that give voice to love, longing, and heartache. Music is the thread connecting me to this family, to this mother and son who suddenly are no longer strangers, but instead are fellow travelers on this turning wheel of birth, life and death.
As I pack up to leave, the son steps outside of his mother’s room once more, to say thank you, to say again the the music was beautiful. This time, I think to tell him that it is an honor to play for them both, and that they will be in my thoughts today.
And so they are. As my new year begins with wonder and excitement about the unknown adventures that are ahead, her new year is ending. Soon she will travel off, as my friend Beth says, “to see what happens next.” Her son’s new year begins with the journey through grief and sadness, trudging through the days and weeks until the memories that pain him with reminders of all he’s lost transform into memories that bring him quiet joy.
It doesn’t sound wise or profound to write the simple truth that we’re all riding the same bus, on the same journey, to the same destination. It’s easy for me to forget that simple truth, to get caught up in my own story, and to feel isolated and alone in its plot line. But today Music won’t let me forget. Today, Music spins the thread that connects me to a larger story, a story of mothers and sons, a story of love and connection and learning how to say goodbye, where even a stranger with a harp has a part, and where I suddenly belong.