on death and music

February 28, 2010 at 11:28 pm 1 comment

Even though I work in a hospital, and even though I’m around sick people on a daily basis, and EVEN THOUGH I’m working in hospice… I have to admit that I haven’t really accepted that many of the people I bring music to have probably died in the time since I’ve worked with them. I don’t like thinking about it (I mean, who does?). At times I think it’s probably better that in almost every case, I don’t know who has passed away and who has been discharged from the hospital. It’s easier that way. The other thing is that I’m not really sure what death is yet – what it looks like, what it feels like, what it smells like, what it sounds like. I mean, again, nobody is, but when I look into the future and see that sort of a void, it’s enough to keep me firmly rooted in the present.

Sometimes, though, I get curious. Such is the case with a leukemia patient who I just looked up and found in the San Diego obituary section. Without disclosing too much, this gentleman was intermittently in the hospital from last November to January, diagnosed with leukemia. The first time I was referred to this gentleman by the nursing staff, I entered the room and before I could introduce myself, he sat up in bed and said “Is that a GUITAR?!” He proceeded to play my guitar for over an hour, singing and telling me about songs he learned while in the Marines during WWII. When I looked him up several days later, he had been discharged, and I felt a little disappointed – we had had such a good session, and bringing him my guitar to play had brought back so many pleasant memories.

Several weeks later in December, one of my co-interns came into the office saying she had met a woman on the elevator who noticed her guitar and asked “Are you Stephanie?”. When she said “no, but I work with a Stephanie”, this woman told her that the gentleman in room ___ wanted Stephanie to come visit him. Hmmm… I strapped on my guitar and headed up to said room, and there he was – re-admitted to the hospital. This patient had told his entire family (including his daughter, who was the woman who accosted my co-intern in the elevator) about our visit, and they all knew my name. I was flattered, honored, and of course, ready to make music!

As this gentleman was discharged and re-admitted to the hospital several times, the nursing staff knew to send us a referral whenever he was back. Each time they did, I went up there, guitar on my back, bringing drums, jingle bells (for Christmas), shakers – whatever I could find that he would play. I would sing through songbooks and play instrumens with his family, reminiscing about times from the past. His daughter wanted to take pictures of our session, which I consented to – and the next time he came to the hospital, I found a picture from that session among the pictures of his family. The joy that permeated the room during our sessions, however, belied a deep sadness. He was dying. The family knew it, I knew it from reading his chart, and I could see it in his eyes, in the way his energy level decreased every session, until he no longer had the energy to sit up in bed or to play an instrument. The last time I saw him, I arrived at his room to find the family waiting for transportation to bring him down to the car. He was going home, and by the way his family spoke, I knew it was for the last time. No more hospitals. Home, to rest. We sang “Country Roads”, a song I sang during our very first session together, and then he was gone.

Tonight I looked up and found his obituary on the San Diego Union-Tribune website. He died in late January. The short entry about his funeral services and arrangements contained this simple line:

“He loved music and enjoyed playing guitar.”

Yes. Yes, he did.

It makes me less troubled about his death to know that I made a difference at the end of his life. Sometimes you don’t know whether or not you make a difference.  This time, I know that I did.  I’ll never forget the way his daughter teared up as she told me “this is the happiest I’ve seen him in weeks”… “you’re the only thing that gets him to smile”.  She took his decline very, very hard.  I’ll be praying for her tonight.  It also helps me enormously to think fondly of him trying to play a D chord and not quite getting his fingers in the right place, getting frustrated at his declining motor ability despite my encouragement.  In heaven, he can play as many D chords as he wants, and they all sound great, and he is happy.  🙂  Rest in peace, my friend, and thank you.


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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Michelle Kennemer  |  March 1, 2010 at 1:03 pm

    Stephanie, this is a beautiful story. I am happy that you are having such meaningful experiences during your internship. No doubt that you made a difference to this man and his family. I hope that you have many more gratifiying experience like this during your career.


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