Saying good-bye during coronavirus
I knew July 12, 2020 would be special—I didn’t know it would be among the most cherished days of my life. My son’s dream of attending a military academy would begin that day. We planned a 3600-mile road-trip that would start at our home in Fort Collins and reach West Point, New York on July 12 at 9:30 a.m. A new life for Tobias, and a new life for my husband and me, since we would return to an empty nest.
As we crossed the border from Pennsylvania into New York, my cell phone lit up. Text messages from my sister and cousins told me that our Grandma, who lives by herself in Los Angeles, had just entered hospice care.
We dropped off our son the next morning and returned to our friend’s apartment. A few hours later, the hospice nurse called to say it was time for a final conversation with Grandma. She couldn’t speak, but she could hear and understand.
What did I have at that moment? At first I thought: Nothing. Too far away to hold her hand. No instrument to play music. Because of coronavirus restrictions, no family members who could travel to be with her, and no one from her beloved church community who could go to her bedside and pray.
What did I actually have at that moment? I realized: An abundance. I had my Grandma. We had a phone connection. And I had a song, welling up from my childhood...
Deep, deep river
My home is over Jordan
For years, I have studied historical and contemporary practices of caring for the dying, and I have played music for patients in hospice care. Where was all that training and learning now? It was telling me to sing. It was telling me that repetition is good—the beauty of sound, not the engagement of novelty, soothes a suffering person. It was telling me that the only thing that needed to be perfect was the love we felt for each other.
I told Grandma that we had dropped off Tobias, that he was safe and happy and launched on his new adventure. I told her I loved her. And I sang.
The music did me good. To sing, I had to breathe deeply. Singing counteracts the knotted stomach, the shallow breaths, and the tight jaw of grief. When pain causes the body to crouch and close, singing coaxes it open. To sing Deep River, I had to trace a melody that winds down to the low tones of “river,” and then soars up “over Jordan.” The melody takes the singer on its flight to a new place. The melody journeys, just like Grandma.
The music did Grandma good, too. The hospice nurse came back on the line, whispering that Grandma had smiled, closed her eyes, and fallen asleep. Pain had kept her awake in previous nights, but now her body relaxed.
To care for our dying loved ones today, during a pandemic, is to innovate—beyond any ideal. To care for the dying today is to improvise with the materials we have, in the situations we are given. We find ourselves in difficult circumstances, but we are not empty handed.