Welcoming A New Year At Hospice

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.


A Musician’s Saddest Task

This week, the joy and excitement of playing in ensemble and making music with others is bookended by the sadness and grief of losing an ensemble member and saying goodbye.

Last summer the evening recorder ensemble lost Ruth. She was hospitalized the week of our spring concert – after all her work to learn our challenging repertoire, she could not play with us. At our last class meeting I learned that she chose to only have palliative treatment for the leukemia that took her life only two short months later. But I had the chance to say goodbye, to tell her how welcomed she made me feel as a new member of the ensemble, and to fulfill the request she’d made many times – to play the harp for her.

Ruth played in this group for close to thirty years. When her daughter asked us to play at the memorial service, it seemed exactly the best way to honor Ruth’s memory and to say goodbye. The afternoon was a celebration of a life lived large, a life filled with love given and received, and a celebration of our own lives being enriched by having known and played music with Ruth.

Yesterday I said goodbye to John – too soon gone, killed as a result of a freak accident. He is someone I’ve known for years from attending concerts of the many ensembles he played in. A classically trained clarinetist, there was not a wind instrument he couldn’t play. The more ancient and obscure the instrument, the better, which is undoubtedly why he became a master of the hurdy-gurdy. He played in almost every ensemble at the community college – early music, baroque, big band – as well as more ensembles in the community that I even knew existed, including Celtic, Renaissance, contra dance band and klezmer. Almost any day I was in the music department I would see John, either with his head in his locker searching for music or an instrument, or scurrying to his next rehearsal.

He was so welcoming and supportive when I began playing with the early music consort last fall. He had a wicked sense of humor, and sitting just one chair over from me, he could always make me laugh and relax when the sight-reading and rhythms were just too much for me. Every week he reminded me that playing music was about having fun together. I so looked forward to many more years of playing together in consort, to many more years of getting to know him. I was just starting to say “hello” and now I already must say “goodbye.”

His brother asked that the consort play a prelude to yesterday’s memorial service. The church sanctuary is huge, seating a thousand people. Our joy at knowing John, and our grief at losing him poured into our recorders, and we filled the soaring space with sound. The music we played was from our hurting hearts, and was never sweeter or more beautiful.

The reception after the service included musicians playing a Celtic jam session. It was the kind of gathering that John loved; the kind of music-making where he would have pulled out any number of instruments from his backpack and played along.

So on this day, death is bookended with the sounds and songs of the living. For a few blessed minutes, there is just the music. For a few blessed minutes, healing can begin. The music binds us together, holds us tight against the sudden emptiness where John should be. And perhaps, if we squint hard into the fading sunlight, music allows us a glimpse of our absent friend, and gives us our only golden chance to say goodbye.