The Hallowell Singers bring music to the dying. They came last week to sing to my father – and to me.
Five singers quietly entered his hospice room and sang a cappella, transforming his standard hospital room into a space as sacred and holy as any mountaintop or cathedral.
The folk, gospel, and sacred songs didn’t bring only Dad comfort; they comforted everyone in the room, including my husband, a friend, nursing staff, and me. Others outside the room but in earshot told me later, in voices denoting awe, “I heard the singing.”
My dad has always liked music. My very earliest memory is of him holding me on his shoulder and singing me down from a fright of elephants trampling through a dream. As he waltzed and sang, each scary pachyderm grabbed the tail of the one in front with its trunk and sashayed out of my fears.
I also remember my father singing to my younger brother and me from The Fireside Book of Folk Songs, at bedtime. The Riddle Song was one of my childhood favorites; Hallowell’s version included a verse that’s not in the Fireside book and which I’d never heard before.
I told my love a story, that had no end . .
How can there be a story that has no end?
The story of how I love you, it has no end.
Dad’s Musical Legacy
Dad loves music. In 1966, he replaced our old phonograph with a state-of-the-art stereo for our living room, where I listened to Tom Lehrer, Gilbert and Sullivan and Beethoven Symphonies. While he’s in hospice, I’ve been playing some of his old favorites: Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and – of course – folk songs.
When I was twelve, he took me to the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, where we had orchestra seats for Carmen. More recently, I’ve been taking him to the Latchis Theatre to hear and watch the live transmissions of the Met Live in HD. I owe my love of opera to him.
Music and Hearing Loss
For the past thirty years, my father’s hearing has been failing, and adaptive devices have never adequately filled the gap in conversation. But he’s never had trouble hearing music, and last week, when the Hallowell Singers sang, he heard them.
His eyes were closed and his breathing was labored, but his brow smoothed out and he grasped my hand; he heard the songs filling the room. The music crowded out the effort of dying and momentarily alleviated the difficulty of drawing breath. While Hallowell sang, we were embraced by melody and basked in the musical margin between life and death.
Community Resources for Dying
Hallowell is a chorus of volunteer singers trained to practice the therapeutic art of singing for the dying. Based in Brattleboro, Vermont, they serve hospice clients through their affiliation with Brattleboro Area Hospice and the greater community by request.
Learn more about Hallowell at their website, where you can buy a CD, a film about them, or On the Breath of Song, Kathy Leo’s book about how to start a hospice choir in your community.
Brattleboro Area Hospice is an independent, community-based, non-profit volunteer hospice that addresses the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of dying neighbors and their families with non-medical support.
Grace Cottage Hospital, a nineteen-bed community hospital, provides end-of-life care in its hospice suite, which includes a private hospital room and an adjoining family room. At Grace Cottage, Dad is receiving the skilled nursing care his condition requires while simultaneously having his wishes for comfort care only granted. Not incidentally, family members are also well cared for by a compassionate staff of medical, housekeeping and dietary personnel. The Grace Cottage kitchen prides itself on locally sourcing over 30% of its food, and they serve an awesome noontime meal.
All these resources make Windham County not only a good place to live, but also a good place to die. Such is Living in Place.