Inaudible Voices, Clear Message

I hadn’t even thought of doing workshops on songwriting when I was offered work in 1989 doing music at health care facilities. Most of the clients were nursing homes, hospices and some rehabilitation centers. I enjoyed studying and working on guitar arrangements of standards, songs from the Tin Pan Alley era, big band and Broadway music as well as hymns. It was like researching the history of popular song. Through it I learned about Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Thomas Dorsey (the hymn writer), and Duke Ellington. In my monthly hour long performances the songs and my arrangements were hits among the staff, residents, and families. Aside from an occasional instrumental my own songs were not considered by me to be performed for this audience.

Then one day an activity director at Westland Manor Nursing Home in Lakewood, Colorado, asked if I could visit rooms of residents that couldn’t come to the dining room group. She gave me a list, and instructions to write down reactions to the music. The music therapist that was employed by the center had recently moved and music therapy was still not readily available in the care of geriatric patients. So I strapped my guitar on and headed out to the rooms on my list. From dementia patients to Parkinson’s victims, most of the individual visits went well. Occasionally there were residents who were bitter and grumpy and told me to get out. One wing was full of hospice patients where most of the requests were hymns. Tears would well their eyes and it made me realize how powerful the relationship was to some of these people, between hearing a hymns message and their closeness to meeting God in eternity. The mixed emotions and meeting people where they are at that point is both exhilarating and draining. Some laughed, others cried, and still others would scream and yell obscenities in the middle of a song.

That initial visit was coming to the end as I turned the corner and headed to my last resident. I came to the room, knocked on the door. There was no answer. I slowly entered the room and I almost let out a gasp. In a wheelchair, reading a book, was a younger woman, about my age. Our eyes met and she looked at my guitar and had the biggest smile, like when my children see me when I get home. I introduced myself and quickly realized that she was unable to speak. I noticed that in her lap was a letter board and I realized that’s how she communicated. I asked her if she would like me to play a song for her. I took out my pad as she pointed to the letters. “I want to write a song”, was her reply. I smiled and under my breath I said to God, “Interesting methodology Lord.”

Here I am struggling with the meaning behind writing songs. My plans were clearly to separate the ministry to geriatric patients and the very last room involved this woman, who wanted me to write a song with her. I got the message. On top of it this woman with a tracheotomy could only communicate by a letter board. I couldn’t tell who needed this more was it this woman named Sharon or was it me?

I started by asking about a subject she would like to write about. She spelled out, “My cat.” I started writing down the images that came to her mind about her cat. “Fluffy,” “mischievous,” “cuddly.” She spelled out. We established color, sound, and other quintessential elements, and then I asked her to spell out a story about the cat. After that we took some of the lines and worked out a rhythm and rhyme structure. It was totally roughed out and then our time was up. She spelled out to me, “It has been my dream to write a song. Thanks.”

A strange sense of purpose about writing songs came over me. When I was back in the activity office I gave the director the clipboard and showed her the song that Sharon and I had started. The activity director’s eyes got really big considering the scope of the visit. I asked her about Sharon’s story. She told me that Sharon was injured the night of her senior prom. Her date was killed and since that time she has been back and forth from rehabilitation, her parent’s home, and for a dozen years in the nursing home. I learned that Sharon was in a time warp back to her senior year which was 1976. The director asked me that day if I could do personal music visits once a week. I couldn’t say no.

The scope of a songwriting lab, mixed with observing how music could affect the spirits of the elderly, the sick, and the dying was a revelation to me. Soon I was getting calls to repeat the songwriting sessions in groups and through mental health facilities as well as hospitals, and day centers for early stage Parkinson’s patients and Alzheimer’s patients. I was quickly becoming an advocate for the populations I was caring for. If there was a caregiver problem many of the residents would confide in me and I took up their cases to the resident social worker or ombudsmen. I had begun using a tape recorder to try out different tunes and musical style for the songs my songwriting residents were working on. In the years that went by the technology was beginning to help speed up processes. Specially made computers with mouth activated wands helped in working out the groups. At one point I was seeing over 100 songwriting residents alone. Between the groups, individuals and combined groups I had 7 songwriting labs per week. The week always began with my visit with Sharon, after the geriatric wings at Westland Manor. Through four years of weekly visits we wrote about 11 songs together.

One Monday morning I turned the familiar corner by Sharon’s room and noticed that her name was no longer on the door. I prayed that they moved her to a “sunnier” room. I asked a nurse who told me that Sharon had died that weekend. I went into the room where the bed was stripped. A basin full of her belongings was at the foot of the bed. Her tape player was still on the windowsill with one of our tapes in it. It was a cassette with the song about her cat. The very first song we had worked on. I wondered if Sharon had a chance to play it for her parents.

For a little while God’s voice came to me from a letter board. His will for me at a time when I was listening for something audible. Instead he let me be the voice for a woman who needed a reason to carry on. I don’t know who’s experience was richer but I know that through it my heart caught up with my mind.

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