a:  the act of devoting <devotion of time and energy>

b  :  the fact or state of being ardently dedicated and loyal <her devotion to the cause> <filial devotion>

It’s another Tuesday afternoon, and I’m rolling my harp and gear down the hall at the Hospice unit. As I walk past an open door I can see a family in the room across from the nurse’s station. Curled on her side in the huge hospital bed is an impossibly old woman – tiny, wrinkled and weathered, wizened, and dying. Sitting at her bedside is an impossibly old man – not as wrinkled, but equally weathered. He rests his head on the bed beside his wife. He is looking into her eyes, and gently stroking her hand that lies atop the turned-down sheet. I can see his love in how he looks at her, in his delicate, soft touch. He loves her even as she leaves him, even as the life he knows with her comes to an end. I see devotion that grew and strengthened over the decades they spent together.

And so, I play for him today. I play hoping to ease the burdens of letting go, of saying goodbye. I play hoping to show that he is not alone as he walks the path of endings, that others knew and felt this pain, and told their stories of losses and leavings in these old tunes from Celtic lands. I play tunes for a breaking heart.

Towards the end of my hour on the unit, his granddaughters help him slowly shuffle down the hall to where I am playing. They find a chair and help him sit close to me. He listens so attentively, leaning towards me to hear the music. There’s a light in his eyes, a twinkle, and he smiles broadly when I finish. He looks deep into my eyes and says, “Thank you.” I look back as deeply. There are no words – the music said all that is needed.

This is why I play music, why I play the harp, why I devote my time to harp lessons, to practicing, to learning repertoire. This is why my love and my energy and my desire are all found at my harp bench. This is why I haul my harp and bench and music stand through the hospital parking deck and corridors and elevators on Tuesday afternoons. I play music for connection, and for transcendence. Today I receive both – gifts from Music, and from the ripened fruit of devotion.


Turning Towards Light

Ruth Ann died five months ago. Meanwhile, the earth completed another quarter of its journey around the sun. Spring’s pastels of iris and dogwood are replaced by bold watermelon pink and purple crape myrtles, scarlet gladiolas, and orange day lilies that defy soaring heat and lack of rain. The last of the magnolia blossoms still perfume heavy summer air. The hours of light grow imperceptibly shorter each day, while the hours of night lengthen towards the darkness of winter.

I live in a precarious balance between light and darkness. Daylight hours of walking, music, knitting, and being encircled in the kindness of friends brings laughter, peace, and grounding among the living. Quiet nights bring reflection and sadness. In daylight, when I remember to breathe slowly and appreciate the fragility of all that I love, grace and gratitude can guide my way. Darker nights assail me with futility, with knowing all will be lost in the end, and leave me relieved to see the sunrise.

Someone had just passed away when I arrived at the Hospice unit last Tuesday. Family had not made it to the bedside before the patient’s final breath. I had unpacked my harp and was playing in the hallway outside this hospital room when the family arrived in a rush of heartbreak and weeping.  Once inside the room a young girl began keening,”No, no, no….I don’t want her to be dead.”

I kept playing. I kept fingers moving on the harp strings while her sobs crescendoed into wailing that echoed down the hallways with desperate cries of “No, no, no….come back, come back.” I hoped that Music could in some way comfort her fear and ease her pain, could in some way say to this family, “The world has felt this grief, and created these tunes to stand beside you on this hard journey.”

I’ve thought about this young girl all week. Thought about how she was able to scream her pain and give voice to the same words I mouthed so quietly to myself when I found out Ruth Ann was dead: No, no, no. . . . Come back, come back. . . . I don’t want you to be dead. And I see how these are everybody’s words, everybody’s desperate desire. The price of love is that we will tumble down in seemingly endless eddies of grief and fear when the ones we love leave us behind on this suddenly empty and lonely earth.

When I was twenty-something, I thought the Buddhist concept of non-attachment meant that we were not supposed to love, not supposed to care. That we were supposed to walk blasély through the world, indifferent to who and what it offered to us. Life and love and loss teach a different translation: that we must care about, and love, all that the world offers with all our heart, but with open hands. Open hands that do not clutch and grab at what is passing from them. Open hands that allow the heartbreak of endings. And open hands that once empty, are willing receptacles for approaching, as-yet-unknown joys.

In the heat and glare of a July day, darkness grows, and winter approaches. But today I remember that it is in the darkness of December, and the cold depths of winter, that the earth again turns towards light.


Enduring Impermanence

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

I do not like this state of affairs one bit.

My teacher’s husband was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It has already metastasized to his liver. My dear friend just lost one cousin to stroke as she helped his brother with his chemotherapy appointment. A long-time friend, five years younger than me, is near the end of her fight with the stage four pancreatic cancer diagnosed six months ago.

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

Everything in the outer world that fills my heart with joy hangs by the slimmest of threads, ready to end in nothingness. The people I love, and the people who create the places and things I love to do are so fragile compared to entropy’s onward march to oblivion. How does one tender heart hold both love and loss in equal measure?

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

When it gets this ugly inside my head, I head to the ocean, head to the solace of the sea. Sitting on sand beside blue-green water, breathing to the rhythm of wave in, wave out, impermanence does not frighten me. Each wave breaks on shore in its own fashion, unique and separate for one brief moment, and then dissolves back to ocean’s depths. Light dances, each sparkle on the water existing for barely a second, yet the air shimmers like diamonds.

With only an eye-blink the scene changes. The water darkens from blue-green to turquoise. A cloud scuds across the sun and the ocean is cobalt. A line of pelicans glides overhead, wings motionless, and disappears into gray dots on the eastern horizon. The retreating tide exposes sand that moments ago was sea floor. Here, impermanence creates beauty that quiets my thoughts and soothes my soul.

Back home, it’s the impermanence of chlorophyl that creates the world of color in which I walk each morning.  Trees glow with garnet, topaz, and carnelian in morning light. With each night more green disappears; with each morning fewer jeweled leaves adorn the trees. I walk on carpets of color that crunch and crackle under my feet. Impermanence brings beauty once again.

My friend is not yet so close to death that time has lost its meaning. Her hours are long. Her days drag on even longer, the monotony broken by visits from friends and hospice nurses, and from the nodding off that the narcotics deliver in place of real sleep. She bears the pain better than the boredom. An active life that six months ago was filled with career, travel, and a vivacious social life is pared down to a narrow path between recliner, bathroom and hospital bed.

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be.

I brought my harp to her house and played for her today.

I’ve not played for one specific person at their bedside before. My hospital harping is in the hallway – I don’t have direct patient contact. I play there with the intention and hope that Music will bring ease to whoever might be troubled, be it their body, heart, or soul, but without knowing if or how patients are affected.

My friend was tucked up in her recliner, staring at the muted television when I arrived. As I set up my harp and bench, I told her that she did not have to do anything – no applause or conversation – but drift with the music as much as she was able. I played my favorite Celtic tunes, the ones I know by heart – tunes that echo joy and heartbreak, tunes that remember journeys and leave-takings and lands and people lost or left far behind: Aran Boat Song, Skye Boat Song, Loch Broom, Glentain Glas, Inisheer, and more.

What my friend Kristin calls the “harp magic” did its work. Despite my own uncertainties and fumbled notes, her breathing deepened and she slept, deep restful sleep. When she awoke an hour later, she whispered one word: “soothing.” I told her I would come and play again if she liked. “Yes,” she said. “Please play again.”

Everything changes. All that is, someday will not be. Impermanence marks every wave, every turning leaf, every breath, every life. My friend is dying. But today Music, the mystery wave that exists without form or substance, lives and works her magic. Today Music allows us both to endure impermanence. My friend finds moments of comfort and ease, and I find joy in and gratitude for sharing these moments with her.

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.