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An unexpected beginning in playing for the dying

I knocked timidly—I was 18 years old and new to my job as the hospital’s “Musician in residence.”


No answer, but the door was half open, and I had been told to go to this room first: “She wants to hear Amazing Grace.”


I walked in and recited my formulation to the tiny shape in the bed. “May I play some music for you, or would you prefer to rest right now?”


She turned her head in my direction; a sound began in her throat but did not form into words. Confused—but not deterred—I lifted the viola to my shoulder and played.


I played the hymn with all the skill, gentleness, and beauty that my conservatory training and countless hours of practice allowed.

When the bow left the string and the last resonance returned to silence, I opened my eyes towards the woman on the bed.


She had turned her head towards the window, closed her eyes, and taken her last breath.


She had died while I played.

Confusion and shock flooded me. I stumbled out of the room, past the arriving nurses. Did I do something wrong?


“No,” the social worker assured me. “She rode that song right up to heaven.”