Songs like ‘I will Not Leave You Comfortless” by Everett Titcomb and “Bamboo” by Peter, Paul and Mary definitely left me comforted. I was a guest at a rehearsal like no other. The Threshold Choir, a national group with various local chapters of volunteers, sings to the sick and the dying. I often have sung to patients myself, and so I was eager to learn more about this choir with its exceptional name. (You can go to Thresholdchoir.org to hear soothing samples of the music and see their rehearsal locations.) “Threshold” to me implies a fuzzy boundary between life and death, between sickness and health, a boundary so uncertain and shifting that it creates a separate space. A middle ground. Music is one of the things that can dwell in this space, making the distinction between life and death less stark, less urgent even.
Little did I know that I would be experiencing not just one but two rehearsals that evening. After several songs, the leader placed a lightweight recliner in the middle of the circle we had formed to practice. It looked something like a hammock frozen at some moment in time, formed of a fine mesh of metal painted white. Anyone who wanted to volunteer to be sung to could lie down in it for a song or two, as long as they agreed to close their eyes. Since I traveled very far for this and figured I might not have another opportunity, a philosophy I have even when not traveling far, I volunteered. Besides, I was tired from the long hot trip and and rather keyed up from meeting a whole new group of people.
The recliner looked inviting. Fancy that, I was going to be sung to. Their music spread all over the inside of the circle and I felt it soak into me. But then I was startled as I realized this was a rehearsal for what I might experience if this choir were singing to me when I lay dying. After drinking in the mellow tones, I felt soothed yet afraid. I knew why they were there, and it was not just for aesthetic pleasure. I drifted in this fluid space as if the recliner had become more pliant, more giving. I was in the moment, and then a regret about my life surfaced: I had not lived in the moment often enough. I often had wounded the moment with distractions and anxieties. Those moments were half-lived at best. I then drifted to the mystery of what lay ahead and to the times when I dwelt alongside others in their in-between spaces. I filled those spaces with finely-tuned listening, with spirited teaching, with touch, with steady soprano song.
Related article: https://offbeatcompassion.wordpress.com/2013/11/21/hurry-up-time-is-of-the-essence-must-reads-for-the-dying/ (I talk about “must-listen-to” music as well.)
Announcement: Chapter Two of the book, Encountering the Edge, consists of stories about my singing to patients as well as the effects of other music. This link will take you to my author page at the publisher’s site. The link includes a free excerpt: http://pen-l.com/EncounteringTheEdge.html
What a moment that must have been, to realize you were, all unwitting, rehearsing a dying moment. I’ve heard there’s an order of monks who start each day with a meditation on their own death in order to help them spend the rest of the day appreciating each moment more. It sounds like you were following in that vein. It’s nice to know there’s actually an upside to being creatures capable of imagining our own death.
Dear Dia, Sometimes when thoughts of death are near for some reason, like when a friend is about to undergo a serious operation, life seems more vivid and intense. It’s as if standing here in my life and looking at the edge of death puts life into sharp relief. -Karen
Karen, we’ve posted this on the Threshold Choir “In the Media” page.
Most obliged to be referred to as “national media.” I’m making my way up in the world! Thank you. As some of my readers may not yet know, your national site is listed in my links page. -karen
I have been a hospice volunteer for 3 years. I like to sing to the residents that want me to.
When I do sing to a resident, a wonderful transformation occurs. Music acts as a portal to a holy place.
The line between this world and the next is a very thin line.
I have a vision of a choir of heavenly angels greeting the arriving souls by singing them “Hello”.
On this side of the line, here we are, singing them “Goodbye”.
What a divine honour to be part of this blessed and holy chorus!
– Ekim Nagirroc
Your image of our saying goodby and the angels saying hello is a very moving one, suggesting that we all have our role to play and our place in the performance of sacred acts. It’s also very intriguing what you say is a “thin line” between this world and the next. Jewish mystics go even further and suggest that life and death are not opposites. Maybe they are both part of something “bigger” than either. May you continue to provide musical solace to your patients.