The Music Worked Magic
Our family was supposed to arrive at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital that Friday night so we could be ready to sing by 6:30. We couldn’t find all our costume accessories, there wasn’t time for a supper together, and Dad was late getting home from work. No one was really in the mood to sing. It would certainly have been easier to stay home and watch television, but we had made a commitment. Tonight was duty, not pleasure.
At 6:15 we drove up in the dark February night to the two-story building at the edge of a huge complex of buildings. Only two cars were parked in the lots.
A smiling therapist waited for us as we lugged our violins and electric piano up the flight of stairs. She gathered us around her in the hall.
“Most of these men you’ll be singing for are old, and they are all sick,” she told our girls. “They are sitting in special chairs called Geri-Chairs. They may not act as though they are listening to you when you sing, but they enjoy music. They probably won’t clap for you.”
We’d sung in many nursing homes and retirement high rises, so age was nothing new to Erin, age twelve, Marni, age ten, and Courtney, age seven, but this was our first venture into a hospital. We trailed down the brightly lit corridor, following the therapist. In rooms on each side of the hall, we saw motionless men lying in beds. Some slept, some stared vacantly, some were surrounded by tubes.
We entered a large, open room where several Geri-Chairs were huddled around a television.
“We’ve got some special guests to sing for you!” the therapist cheerfully announced, flicking off the television.
They didn’t groan, but we could see they wanted the television back on. Aides hurried in to move the wheeled chairs into a semicircle. We set up the piano and found ourselves in a spot about eight feet wide and five feet from our audience.
About fifteen men sat around us, their pale, bare legs protruding from green hospital gowns. There were no smiles. Most eyes were open, but not focused.
All the men were over sixty, with the exception of one younger man with dark, wavy hair. An older couple with their coats still on were visiting him.
Unnerved at the sight and the silence, the girls quietly removed their coats, got out their violins, and waited in a huddle.
In their Geri-Chair semicircle the patients watched us.
“You just start singing whenever you’re ready,” our guide said as she left to get more patients. The girls were anxious—they didn’t know whom to look at without appearing to stare. Finally, because we couldn’t think of a reason not to start, we began the rollicking song that lets our audiences get acquainted with us and helps us to gauge their reaction.
“Oh, we ain’t got a barrel of money …” Only a white-shirted aide and two nurses answered our smiles. The patients watched us silently.
Our next number was a medley of patriotic songs. While we sang, nurses wheeled in more audience members. These patients were in regular wheelchairs.
We finished our medley and the aides clapped. Several of the wheelchairs were about four feet from us. One of the new arrivals, a small man in a red plaid wool shirt, moved his chair a few inches closer. Hunched down, with bottle-thick glasses and grey hair, he was totally alive. He was glad to be there. At last we had someone to smile at.
Launching into a medley of fun songs, the girls sang “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy …” Immediately our new friend began singing, too. We smiled at each other.
He clapped while we sang “Salagadoola, menchaga boola bibbiti bobbity, boo,” and when Marni started “Inka dinka doo” he couldn’t contain himself. “Jimmy Durante!” he shouted jovially.
That’s almost who he looked like, except for the nose. He started singing again and kept up with us right through “Ta Ra Ra Boom De Ay” and the finale, “Chickery Chick Cha La Cha La,” a real tongue twister. We had to work to get the words out, but he sang every one. He was beaming, and so were we.
The other patients, motionless before, began to respond to the music. Most of the faces were too tired to express life, but stick-like legs moved to the rhythm of the music. Arms moved, feet tapped, heads barely nodded. This had become an event.
The girls played their fiddle tunes, and most of the patients responded in the confines of their chairs. Still no smiles, but the involvement was there.
The friendly therapist put her hands on our new friend’s shoulders as we started to sing again and whispered, “Roy, maybe you shouldn’t sing so loud.” She wheeled him back a few inches. As she left, he wheeled himself back toward us.
He tried not to sing with us on “Commercials,” but when we got to “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper,” he just couldn’t help it. He had to sing.
Roy’s whole body was alive with the music. The visitors in the back, still in their coats, were singing, with tears running down their cheeks.
The aides and nurses walked among the patients, hugging a shoulder, touching an arm.
“Sing with us if you want to,” I said to them, and off we went with “In the Good Old Summertime.” People crowded in the doors singing “Casey would dance with the girl he adored” and “Meet me in St. Louis.” The patients sang too, not out loud, but lips moved and eyes focused.
In his ringside seat, Roy sang every word. He literally twinkled. Then it was over.
We moved closer to Roy. “Thanks for singing with us,” I said. “You know all the words to some really hard songs.”
He wanted to say something, and he tried, but he couldn’t get the words out. As if choking, he tried harder, with no luck.
“Slow down, Roy.” The therapist had her hand on his arm. “You can do it.”
He relaxed and finally said slowly, “Are … are … they all yours?” pointing to the blue-costumed girls.
It was hard to believe that a man who could sing “Chickery Chick” without missing a beat could have such trouble talking. The music had unlocked him, and it had unlocked us, too.
We were elated as we said good-bye that night, walking around the semicircle of elderly friends, touching limp white hands. Their eyes asked us to come back. We promised we would.
They Expected Last Rites
I first heard about Sharon when my bishop requested that I go to our community hospital to administer to a woman who had been hurt in an automobile accident. I had only just returned from visiting another sister in the same hospital, which was some distance from my office. Because I had not been able to get much done that day, I really didn’t want to make that trip again and was feeling somewhat annoyed at the inconvenience. As I drove toward the hospital, my thoughts were less than positive.
Sharon and her family had been on their way home to Utah from the East when they had collided head-on with a semitruck in Illinois.
Sharon was seriously injured in the collision, with a deep cut over her eyes, a fractured arm, a broken nose, internal injuries, and a badly crushed skull. One of Sharon’s sons was killed in the accident. Another son sustained a broken leg. Her husband and the two remaining children were slightly injured.
In the hospital emergency room the doctor had examined her briefly and had told the staff he had no hope of saving her life. Sharon had asked for a priesthood blessing.
When I arrived at the hospital, another member of my ward was waiting for me, ready to help me administer the blessing.
My companion searched Sharon’s head for a spot to apply the consecrated oil—a difficult task, because her skull was so severely injured. He anointed her temple, as this was the only accessible place.
I groped for the words for her blessing. I had never administered to anyone who was dying before, and I didn’t know what to say. I gave the Spirit full rein. I remember assuring her that she would live to raise her children, that her earthly mission was not yet over, that her family still needed her, and that her injuries would heal quickly.
This was startling to the Catholic hospital’s emergency room staff, which consisted of nurses and nuns. They were expecting last rites, and they were stunned to hear us tell a woman who was mortally injured that she would be all right.
One of the nuns spoke with us after the blessing, excited to think that Sharon had a chance for recovery. The same nun called me the next day to say that Sharon wanted to see me.
She was sitting up in her hospital bed when I arrived. She had a bright smile on her face and a sparkle in her eyes. She thanked me for the blessing and asked me to read from the scriptures. As I was preparing to leave, she asked me to adjust her oxygen mask, which kept slipping off her face. As I reached for the head strap, I noticed that there was no sign of her skull injury. Her head was whole, with no evidence of bleeding or broken bone.
Two weeks later, Sharon walked out of the hospital with only her arm in a sling and a small bandage on her forehead. The incident had afforded a rare opportunity for both of us. For Sharon, it was a chance to demonstrate her extraordinary faith in the priesthood; for me, it was a time to renew my commitment to render priesthood service readily whenever it is needed.
In His Father’s Shoes
One Sunday morning when I was serving as Primary president in the Palmyra New York Ward, a new ward member asked me if I could arrange for rides to Primary for her four children. She said, “I especially want Harvey to have a ride. Primary means so much to him.” Then she told me his story.
“A few years ago, before the current Sunday meeting schedule, I was helping with the pre-Primary activities in our ward. One Primary day we were getting ready to go when I remembered that eight-year-old Harvey would have to stay home. He had athlete’s foot so bad that his whole foot was swollen, cracked, and bleeding. I told him he would have to stay home because he couldn’t get his shoes on, and he certainly couldn’t go barefoot.
“Harvey was disappointed, but he seemed to accept his plight. Just then our ride came, and we hurried off to Primary.
“After pre-Primary was over, I walked into the chapel and received the shock of my life. Who should be sitting there, reverently listening to the prelude music with his arms folded, but Harvey! He had put on a pair of his father’s shoes and walked the eight blocks to Primary on the heels of his feet.”
Many times since hearing that story, I have thought of Harvey, and I have determined that I will meet my obligations with the same desire and dedication he showed.