Brattleboro (VT) Reformer
February 19, 2005
Photos by Jason R. Henske
Story by Howard Weiss-Tisman, Reformer Staff
DUMMERSTON On a freezing cold afternoon recently, a small group of men and women met outside the home of Conrad Wilson.
Wilson, 84, lay inside the house on a hospital bed, dying of lung cancer.
The group calls itself Hallowell, and they came out to Wilson's rambling farm house to sing for him and for his family.
The sky hung heavy and low with the promise of snow as Peter Amidon, the chorus leader for that day, handed out music. The singers stomped their feet and rubbed their mittened hands to stay warm as Amidon discussed the day's selections.
"We'll do 'I Will Guide Thee,'" Amidon said as he handed out the green folders to the singers. "The words are in there."
Amidon continued distributing the folders and he suggested another song that was not as well-rehearsed.
"That might be risky without words," said Amy Harlow, a chorus member. "Why don't we go in and feel it out."
They turned and walked slowly and silently toward the house.
A song begins
Hallowell is a loose collection of volunteers from a number of area choruses, who come together to sing for local residents who are days, and sometimes hours away from death.
The idea for the group was born about two years ago when Kathy Leo, a Westminster resident and member of the singing group Emerald Stream, witnessed the Guilford Community Church choir singing at the bedside of Dinah Breunig.
Leo had recently joined Brattleboro Area Hospice as a volunteer caregiver. Her first client happened to be Breunig who Leo knew through years of living in the area.
Leo sang with the Guilford Community Church choir that day.
"It was very powerful, and comforting to the family and to Dinah," Leo said about that first sing. "I don't understand it, the way the sound touches the soul, the sound of the harmonies, the voice, and the vibration of sound. It is calming. You feel the change of energy in every room."
After Breunig passed away, administrators at Brattleboro Area Hospice asked Leo if she might be able to organize a group that could sing for Hospice clients.
Leo sent out letters to singers in a number of choirs in southern New England. She did not have a clear picture of what it was she was after, and she had no idea how many people would want to come on board. She was surprised when 35 people offered to sing.
The group did their first sing for Hospice in July 2003 and then a second in August.
"We immediately knew we had something very special," Leo said. "It could have failed. We are with people in their homes at very intimate times."
Leo maintains contact with Hospice, and as a client gets closer to death the family calls the singers when they feel it is appropriate.
Leo gets the word and begins to call around for volunteers. Sometimes four people show up, sometimes a dozen find the time in their own lives to make it out to a home or hospital. She says she has never failed to find a group to perform, even on short notice.
Last month at the Wilson's home in Dummerston, 10 people came out on a very cold Saturday afternoon to sing.
They entered the house silently and removed their jackets. Some of the group members knew the family and they exchanged tight, prolonged hugs. Others stood off to the side and waited.
"I'll go and scope out the space," Amidon said, leaving the rest of the group in the kitchen.
When he returned he told them that Wilson was in a corner and he recommended they form a semi-circle around his bed. They set off down the hall.
"The singers are coming in Conrad," his daughter-in-law said to the old man as they made their way into his small bedroom.
A white sheet covered Wilson's thin body. An oxygen machine gasped in the corner.
Wilson's two grandchildren sat at his side. One held his hand, her head turned to look outside the window. The cold, bright January light illuminated her face that was red and pained with sadness.
Wilson's neck stretched back, and his chin jutted up like a man trying to get his head above water. His eyes were closed.
The singers started with an African spiritual, "Thuma Mina."
The words came long and slow, "Thuuu-Maaaa-Miiiii-Naaaa. Thu-Maaaaaa-Miiii-na."
Wilson's body moved, slightly, in the bed. His son rubbed his chest, seeming to massage the healing of the words into his sick lungs.
The voices rose and quieted. A baritone led, with the harmonies of nine other men and women answering.
The fading afternoon sun was the only light in the room. Soft sobbing punctuated the sound of the singing voices.
They stopped and the room went silent. The oxygen machine clanged.
The chorus started the American spiritual, "I Will Guide Thee."
"If you cannot sing like angels," they began.
Wilson's feet kicked under the sheets. His granddaughter rubbed his head.
"It looked like he was dancing," someone said when they were finished.
Wilson heaved a few words that were hard to understand.
"He said he was singing to himself," his daughter-in-law said.
"Do you want to hear another song Grandpa?" Wilson's granddaughter asked. He moved his head a little and moaned.
The group started "By the Waters of Babylon."
Offering music to heal
As the body shuts down, hearing is one of the last senses to fail, explains Brattleboro Area Hospice Care Coordinator Noree Ennis. Music, she said, the sound of human voices harmonizing, the vibration of the notes, offers a unique way of bridging the worlds between life and death.
"Sound separates the physical from the emotional and spiritual," she said. "It is a lovely goodbye."
Hallowell is now one of the organization's offered services. All Hospice services are free and they include volunteers who visit homes to help out, a shed full of medical equipment, and a library of books on death and dying. After the death Hospice offers bereavement support.
Ennis said the singers fit right in with what Hospice wants to deliver to families who are watching a loved one die.
"We have a tendency to think of dying as a time in life that might only be filled with sadness and sorrow," she said. "But there are other things. There is joy and forgiveness. The singers really embody that. They are singing goodbye, but they are also singing of joy and of love. It is hard to describe."
The service is not right for everybody, she is quick to point out. After four years of working with families through Hospice, Ennis said she has learned that each case is different.
But when families bring the singers into their homes, it is often transformative.
One of the strengths of the group is the ability to create whatever experience that family seeks.
For religious families the singers can perform gospel and spirituals.
They have sung old-time music for a fan of Appalachian ballads. And they even once pulled off a medley of Doris Day tunes for an eldery couple.
All of the Hallowell singers go through Hospice orientation. It is important, Ennis said, for the singers to understand their place in the dying process. There are boundaries. They are not therapists and they are not there to offer anything more than the gift of music.
In Conrad Wilson's bedroom, the group moved succinctly through the songs. They did not speak between the selections. Some sang with their eyes closed. A member suggested a tune, and the group sang it.
They did "Angels Hovering 'Round," a traditional tune that is like a call and response.
"There are angels hovering 'round. There are angels hovering 'round. There are angels, angels hovering round," they sang.
The rich sound of harmony filled the small room.
Wilson brought his hand up to his forehead, as if he was looking out across a plain, like he was shielding his eyes from a light.
"There are angels hovering 'round," they sang over and over, and a single woman's voice responded: "To carry the tidings home. To the New Jerusalem. Let all who hear them come."
Beside Wilson's bed his son knelt on the floor, his eyes swollen with tears. He looked at the singers while holding his father's hand and he smiled.
"Angels hovering 'round." And again the woman responded: "We're on our journey home."
After the fifth song, the singers closed their books, some fighting back tears, and walked out of the room.
They made their way back to the kitchen. Some breathed deep sighs and they paused, again in a semi-circle. A few family members came out and thanked them. Wilson's son said his father loves music.
Amidon collected the folders of songs. The singers got their coats and walked out. A steady snow fell as they got into cars, some in pairs, some alone, and drove off.
Editor's note: Brattleboro Area Hospice follows a protocol of confidentiality. The photography and reporting for this story were conducted with the family's, singers' and Hospice's permission.
(c) 2005 Brattleboro Reformer. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.