Saturday, August 1, 2015

Report from Pillville: Have I mentioned the harpist?

art by Sulamith Wölfing

THIS  was in today's New York Times.

And since my head has been rising higher and higher into the clouds these past several weeks, I honestly can't remember if I've blogged about the music therapy hospice has provided for my mom  Forgive me when I tell you I was skeptical at first, but when the nurse told me a harpist would be coming to play for my mom, I envisioned something hokey. Please don't let her be wearing an angel costume was the wish that kept circling through my head. I was more than a little bit relieved when a woman wearing ordinary clothes showed up at the door.

The harpist has visited us four times now. Sometimes she brings a large harp and sometimes a smaller one with a set of bells and gongs. My mom sits in her chair at the dining room table since it's usually around lunch time. I lie across the room on the couch and the harpist sits between us, a bit closer to my mom than to me. She talks to my mom between songs and my mom talks to her. I remain silent unless my mom gets confused about something she wants me to straighten out--like whether he twin sister has been dead for one year or two, or if I was already living in California when my father died. These brief conversations are far more lovely than they sound. While there is talk about the dead, there's also talk about love, and about the different places my mom has lived in her 90 plus years on this planet.

I didn't know that harp and vocal music woven into end-of-life care was actually a formal discipline called thanatology until I read the article in this morning's Times. My awe and respect for our harpist's talents is now even deeper. At some level, I think I understood the depth of the experience from the beginning because I chose to do nothing but listen from the moment that very first note was plucked. I'm not quite sure why. It would have been more like me to hover near by, quietly folding laundry or to use the presence of another person in the house as an excuse to slip upstairs to my room. But after introductions were made that first day, I fluffed up the pillows on the couch, stretched out facing the water, and closed my eyes.

The music is mostly instrumental. But twice now the harpist has played and sung that old song by the New Christy Minstrels. The first few lines are pretty good instructions for living.

Today, while the blossoms still cling to the vine
I'll taste your strawberries, I'll drink your sweet wine
A million tomorrows shall all pass away
'Ere I forget all the joy that is


Joanne said...


S Kay Murphy said...

When my brother was in his last days (dying from the stupid cancer that claimed him at 62), the other brother was sitting by his bedside when a harpist came into the hospice-care room. She asked if she could play. My brother told her yes, go ahead--and then watched the expression on our oldest brother's face change. He had been deep into bone pain and morphine for days, not existing on any conscious level. Kevin said his face relaxed--and he let go. He passed away ten minutes into the harpist's serenade. He had loved music all his life. Oh, sing me to heaven when I go....

Ms. Moon said...

That is just pure blessing.

Karen Pokraka said...

I haven't mentioned this before, but I have a 48 yo adult disabled son who is in a nursing facility. I've been looking for a guitar teacher perhaps (he graduated from USC's Music School Jazz Guitar program just when he was beginning to be affected by the multiple sclerosis that has side-swiped him now 25 years in). He is in a wheelchair and incontinent so altho' he lived with me in the mid 2000's, he needs such a large amount of care and we don't have an ADA accessible bathroom, that he remains in the nursing home. I visit him every other day and he's home on Sundays (we bought a used Access van). So again, I've hired a musician who is a retired special ed teacher and a professional jazz trumpet player to spend time with him and it's worked out pretty well, but he wants to play guitar again and has very limited facility as his hands are really affected. So I think a music therapist/music teacher might be better. My husband's sister is a retired Board Certified Music Therapist from NY state and she has put out a feeler with someone she knows in the LA area, but it might be prohibitively expenseive. I've got an ad in Craigslist and a few people who've responded look promising. I just retired, so I have more time to think about these things.
I think it's really great that the hospice care pays for this harpist. Is this hospice care through an HMO?

Elizabeth said...

That sounds so beautiful, and I love that you're relaxed by it as well. I am continually amazed by how many truly good people there are in the world, doing nothing such wonderful things with their lives.

And this is a note for Karen Pokraka -- I read your comment and would like to speak with you further about the caregiving that you've done for your son. I have a couple of specific questions to ask. Please email me at, if you see this comment!

37paddington said...

Thank you for those lines. They are a good recipe for living. And I'm glad you and your mom get to experience this lovely musical interlude. I no longer think talking about the dead is sad or depressing. Sometimes it is just the thing.

Karen Pokraka said...

Interesting, the this Sunday's NYTimes, there is an article about a woman who became a thanatologist, a musician (harpist who made her own harp) and she plays for the dying, what it felt like to be on that path, telling people about what she does, and the realization that we are all dying, some just more slowly than others, and how she can't talk about that at the birthday party of a 3 year old, or a mother's day celebration.