I realized that I might have overdone it that day when I pulled into the grocery store on my way home from work at 7:30 pm on a Friday night. Instead of buying some nice, sensible salad fixings for dinner, or even a pre-made comfort meal from the deli, I bought a pint of cookie caramel crunch gelato and a tiny little jar of Nutella. Oh, and some salty, crunchy, calorie-dense, nutrient-poor condiments and side dishes to enhance the main course. This is what I ate for dinner while I binge-watched Glee reruns on Netflix. Predictably, by bedtime I was suffering from bloat remorse and a bit of queasiness. I confess, this is how I self-medicate.
The day started with me getting a late start on a one hour drive for a Mother’s Day lunch harp gig, only to discover when I arrived (after breaking speed limits without getting caught) that the lunch actually started an hour later. Since I was at a long term care facility, I had patients there to see anyway. I went first to the one patient who I had read via email was probably transitioning. I sat by his bed and played ionic, rhythmic improvisations in mostly major keys. I threw a couple of hymns in as well. I could not detect any sort of outward physical response to the music. For all intents and purposes, the patient appeared relaxed, calm and sleeping like a baby. I moved on to patient number 2 who was sitting in the dining room waiting for lunch. I played for him until it was time to gravitate to the Mother’s Day lunch celebration. I was put on the stage with a spotlight and microphone and played my heart out for an hour and 15 minutes. That is about my limit, without a break. When I reach that point of “so-done”, I start making a lot of mistakes. The brain begins to go first, and the fingers aren’t far behind, similar to hypothermia effect. It’s best to stop while people still think I’m a fairly good harp player. Fortunately, the facility staff in their gratitude for my serenade offered me lunch which was reviving as only lasagna, salad with raspberries and cupcakes frosted to look like flowers can be. I proceeded to see and play for another 4 patients at the facility.
My email alerted me as I was finishing up that there were no less than 3 patients I knew well who were transitioning to actively dying at a facility I would be driving right past on my way home. I felt compelled to stop and play for them and their families, if there were any family members present.
Before I got to anyone’s room, I ran into one of our hospice chaplains. He confirmed that there were three of our patients in various stages of dying, none of whom were expected to last the weekend. I assured him I intended to see them all before I went home.
The first patient I saw at the facility, patient #7 for the day, was lying in bed with open, unseeing glazed eyes and death rattle breathing. Her roommate had not gone to dinner and was lying in bed watching TV, which she blessedly turned off after I arrived and began to play. I am always so grateful for this thoughtfulness in shared space. No matter what someone’s financial situation is, they should be allowed to die in peace and not have to listen to the dreadful evening news or Jeopardy blasting 10 feet from their bed. So often though, they are left in a shared room where the roommates are doing their best to ignore the fact that one of their own is dying, while family and friends are present and grieving around the bedside. If there is space available, sometimes the nearly departed and entourage are moved to a private room but often, there is no space available and everybody must suffer together.
I played chord progressions with right hand improvisations, including both major and minor keys, the Kyrie Eleison from Hildegard Von Bingen’s Missa De Angeles written in the 11th century and pentatonic improvisation with some standard hymns thrown in. Finally, the patient closed her eyes and appeared to fall into a deep sleep. Her breathing was still audible and wet sounding but not so loud and labored as before. I left her quietly and went to see my next patient.
Patient #8 was surrounded by children, grandchildren and a young great grand-child. This room was also shared with another patient hiding behind a thin curtain surrounding her bed. A son told me that his mother loved music and came from a musical family. I had been playing for the patient for a couple of years as she slowly declined but she had never been able to communicate with me beyond gibberish, moans and cries. She had severe dementia in addition to co-morbidities so while I knew her, I never really knew her at all or who she had been before she became a hospice patient. The patient was sleeping peacefully and I didn’t know that I had much to offer her. However, the family was in the throes of grief and their pain and agitation was very real. I find that familiar music and hymns seem to help in those situations. I extended the repertoire with improvisations but I focused on standard hymns, finishing with Somewhere over the Rainbow, You Raise Me Up and Wind Beneath my Wings. More family arrived and I departed to make space for them and to see my third patient.
Patient #9 was a dementia patient who was blissfully alone in her room. There were no other patients or family with her at that time. Prior to her recent health decline, she used to love to sing along when I played harp for her. Even in her current state, she was still humming, very quietly, while she lay in bed with her eyes closed. I began with her favorite songs and then shifted to unfamiliar music and then improvisations. She continued to hum along anyway. When I left, she was still humming some favorite tune only she could recognize. She did not appear agitated or uncomfortable, which had been the case earlier, according to the nurse’s report.
I did not notice my own exhaustion while I played for our patients but after I finished it hit me. As did the pulsating neck pain radiating up into my head. I still had an hour drive home after seeing the last patient but at least the commuter gridlock traffic had abated by then. Good thing, because I think I drove on autopilot most of the way. That is, until I got close to the grocery store and began obsessing about ice cream and Nutella. Eight hours of Therapeutic Harp playing is too much, at least for me. But sometimes things happen and there is no real choice in the matter. You do what needs to be done; then go home, eat ice cream, watch Glee reruns, and hope tomorrow is better.