On this page, you can read some of the essays I have written. They have come out of my music healing work, and there are astonishing moments connected to music, healing, and memory.
But really, they are reflections for anyone interested in finding more love, meaning and magic in life. I am working on compiling them into a book. Enjoy!
Yesterday I sang to a man who may not be alive today. Ed and I both have deeply enjoyed the “private concerts” as he dubbed them, that I have brought to his room in the nursing home for the past year or so. He told me often that he felt so lucky, that they made him feel special again. He always thanked me and said that my singing was the one thing that made him forget his problems. Ed used to be a lawyer, and took a great deal of pride in being an important person. But like my father at the end of his life, none of that ego stuff seemed to matter anymore. He just wanted to connect with music.
Ed is now very close to death. Yesterday after my shift singing to people one-to-one, I ran into his wife Shirley, who is 92 but still full of sparkle and vitality. She was talking to David, the head nurse on that floor. She told me she had been playing one of my CDs for Ed every day and he had been soothed by my voice—but she had stopped playing the CD because she felt he was not responsive anymore. She said I would not recognize him, he was so changed. I asked them both if I could visit him and play some music. Shirley said she thought he probably would not hear me—but David agreed with me that at least it couldn’t hurt, as he had enjoyed the music so much. So I entered Ed’s room and pulled up a chair.
Ed was indeed drastically changed since I had seen him only two weeks ago. His eyes were closed, and he was even thinner than he had been. I sang softly, songs that I know that he liked, and also just some improvised and wordless vocalizations.
Ed’s eyes stayed closed, but I felt sure he knew, on some level, that I was there singing to him. At one point I felt him struggling to respond, and I told him it was OK, I knew he was hearing me. I told him I loved him. I thanked him for our connection.
Then I sang one of my own songs, Stars of Orion. I had begun composing that song when I first began the music healing work as a volunteer, at the bedside of another person who was dying. It’s a song about being free to fly out in the stars. For me, it is also about the fleeting and precious gift of a human life.
At this point, I saw Ed smile—a faint smile that I knew took effort. I learned later that it had been weeks since he had smiled. It was the greatest gift he could have given me.
I will miss you Ed.
There is more about Ed and his last smile.
After I left Ed’s room, I stopped to see his nurse David. I had been crying, as I knew I had just seen Ed for the last time. I didn’t try to hide my tears, but I also didn’t want to break down crying as I had some things I wanted to communicate to David.
I wanted to thank him for encouraging me to go in and see Ed, even though Shirley did not think he would respond. Nursing by the best nurses is an art as much as it is a science. The way he handled that moment was masterful, the kind of stuff not everyone learns in nursing school. It is the reason David was chosen to be the head nurse in that unit. The care has to do with understanding medications and taking care of patients– but nursing also involves dealing with family members and others in the ecosystem of the patient. People like me.
It had been a delicate moment with David and Shirley before I went to sing to Ed. It seemed to me that she was dealing with his final days by focusing on practical details, such as what would happen with his body right after he died, who she would need to contact, what was the process of death. Shirley reminds me of my mother: a deeply caring and vital woman, but also incredibly pragmatic and most comfortable in her skin when “getting things done.” In that moment when I offered to sing for Ed, it may have been easier for her to think of Ed as completely unresponsive. It may have been easier emotionally to think of him as already departed. She had not thought he would hear me, but David’s authority as a nurse and low-key encouragement gave me the permission that I needed with Shirley. It is something I wanted to give to Ed, but I also needed to say goodbye myself. We had our own special bond, our own groove together.
I also wanted to tell David that Ed had smiled when I sang my song Stars of Orion, a gesture that probably took some real effort. David was glad to know. He said he had not seen him smile for at least two weeks. He thanked me for singing for Ed one last time. Two days later, Ed breathed his last.
I ran into Shirley myself a few weeks later on the Panorama campus. She was elated to see me, and clearly had something she wanted to communicate. We embraced as I gave my condolences and then Shirley let me know that the story of the last smile had not ended on that day. Right after it happened, David had passed on to her that Ed had smiled during one of my songs.
Shirley told me that when she heard that, she said it was as if she suddenly woke up. In that moment, she realized she and others in the family had been talking about Ed, and had stopped talking to him. Her husband of many, many years was so close to death…but he was still there, still alive in that room. Even though she only had a few days left, she used every moment she had with him to communicate with him, to let him know she loved him, and to say goodbye. She told me that it changed everything for their entire family, who used those final moments with Ed to express all they wished to express.
I was so humbled and awed by this experience that I couldn’t write about it right away. What I had done was so simple, it was nothing extraordinary. I just connected with Ed, as I usually did. The fact that he couldn’t obviously “respond” was only because his body was in the process of dying—I knew that he could hear me because all the science and all the mystics say that hearing is the last thing to go. It was a miracle of sorts, and a precious gift, that he used what muscle strength he had left to smile, as he had so many times before when I sang to him.
The fact that this experience changed and enriched his family’s last moments with him is much more important than what I had experienced. I knew Ed a short time compared to them. His wife, his children, and his grandchildren all changed how they communicated with Ed. This was probably good for Ed as he was letting go of life, but it may have been even more important for them.
When I saw Shirley that day, I told her that I had written “Last Smile” about Ed. I knew she would want to read it. As usual, I had changed all the names, but I sent her a version with the actual names enclosed in a condolence card. I also added my phone number in case she wanted to stay in touch.
She called me the day she got the card, in tears. I cannot remember everything she said, or what I said as we were both crying and present with each other. But clearly the piece I had written had had moved her deeply. One detail that she had not known before was that the name of the song I had played for Ed was “Stars of Orion.” Of course, she had been playing my CD with this song for Ed daily for a few weeks too, so he knew the song. But what I hadn’t known is that Orion is also the name of one of their grandsons. So the story took on a fresh resonance for Shirley when she learned that.
Shirley and I stay in touch. She gave me permission to use their real names in my public sharing of this story. She felt that Ed would prefer his real name be used, so I have done that. I saw her this week, and she again told me how much my contact with Ed and with her has meant to her. Shirley is a bright and shining light in her community. She has decided to donate money to the Activities Department in the CNR at Panorama, which hires people like me to bring music and other enrichment to the residents. She has also told many people the story of the last smile and how it impacted her family. The word has gotten to my mother, who naturally has loved hearing about how her daughter has impacted people.
One smile, so much love.
© 2019 Elizabeth Hummel
Please do not copy or distribute without permission from the author.
What Can I Learn About Love?
“OK, now I am going to play a love song!” I said to the dozen or so people fanned out around me in the Gentle Care unit of the nursing home. Many of them were asleep in their wheelchairs, heads drooped over like a field of bluebells. A few gave me faint smiles of expectation. Dan peered at me from under his green John Deere hat, always ready for some tunes.
Helen was the most engaged that morning, smiling and open-faced from one of the recliners. Her friend Natalie was visiting with her, holding her hand. “Helen was there for me when my husband died,” Natalie had told me when I first came in. “Weren’t you?” she said to Helen.
This is what they call the Gentle Care unit of the nursing home, where they care for people with various kinds of dementia. I rarely know anything about the diagnoses of these folks, some of whom I have come to know and love over the months and even years in some cases. Do they know me too? I do think so, but most of the time it’s more in an energetic way than a cognitive way. I sense that they have a feeling of familiarity and connection. “Do I know you?” they sometimes ask. “You look familiar.”
Right as I announced I was going to play a love song, a white-haired gentleman strode towards Natalie and Helen. “Perfect timing!” he said. This was John, Helen’s husband. “OK, this song is for you and this handsome young man!” I said to Helen. John and Natalie laughed, and Helen’s smile brightened.
The song I played is one I wrote about 15 years ago called “You Tempt My Touch.” (You can listen to this song here.) I walked around and sang for the whole group, but circled back often to Helen and Natalie and John. Then I came to the bridge of the song, which is simply this line, repeated twice:
“What can I learn about love?”
I looked at John, whose eyes were full of tears. As I was singing these words, I realized I was looking into the eyes of a man who had learned far more about love than I had even begun to learn when I wrote those lines.
It was hard to keep singing without crying, but I closed my eyes and powered through, as I didn’t want to spoil it by breaking down in sobs!
After the performance was over, I sat down to speak to the three of them. John told me that Helen had been first diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s 30 years ago. He said it has been so hard–especially hard lately, as Helen recently had a heart attack. Natalie said, “Helen knows about love, don’t you?”
“Love can hurt!” Helen declared, with her sweet smile.
“You are so right, it sure can!” I said, and we all four laughed.
“It’s the dark and the light, both sides,” Natalie said. I told them that I wrote a song once called “When You Love You Always Get Burned” and we all laughed again, especially Helen.
“But love keeps us going, and it feels good too,” I said. Helen nodded happily.
Maybe Helen has learned more about love than any of us.
© 2019 Elizabeth Hummel
Please do not copy or distribute without permission from the author.
Hold the River, Let it Go
Last night my friend Bob died. He was someone’s Uncle Bob, he had a nephew in Portland. Bob was not my uncle, but he was my friend and it hurts in my heart. I had my own Uncle Bob too, and it hurt the day I found out that he died, through a telegram sent to me while I was living on a kibbutz in Israel, many years ago. I wandered around in the desert and cried all night long, thinking of my Uncle Bob’s kind face and twinkly eyes that I would never see again.
So I feel for Bob’s nephew, who I have not met and whose name I do not even know, and I feel for his wife Sandra who is a new friend, and I feel for his children and everyone that knew him. Because like my own Uncle Bob, this Bob was one of the good ‘uns. He was kind and funny and wise. He was not a taker, but a giver. He will be missed on planet earth.
I haven’t known Bob all that long, but we connected the way you just do sometimes with people. “Hey! I know you!” That feeling. He came for the past year to all my performances at one of the retired and assisted living places where I have the privilege of sharing music. They treat me like a rock star, and I love them too. Bob was one of my “Elderfans” as I think of them. He’d sing along with Irene Goodnight and other singalongs and he appreciated the songs that I wrote too. He had a young vibe. I thought he was about 70 but turns out he was 82.
I also sing for people one-on-one in this same facility, people who can’t make it out of their rooms much. A few weeks back after I sang for the group, it was time for my one-on-one work. Anne, the Activity Director, told me that I should spend the entire hour with Bob, as he had just received the harsh and unexpected diagnosis that he only had weeks to live. Anne’s face was hung with sorrow—she deeply cares for the people there.
My heart sank: I knew this day would come sooner rather than later, the day when one of “my” elders who I especially liked would pass on. It’s a risky business to the heart and the tear ducts when you are an empath AND all your new friends are over the age of 80! But I took a deep breath, knocked on the door and just focused on connecting with these beautiful people.
I sang for him and Sandra that entire hour, an hour full of jokes and music and talk about rivers and being in the wild woods, something we all love. We realized we knew some of the same people in the Washington Trails Association, where we had all volunteered doing trail work.
Afterwards, I told Sandra that if she and Bob wanted me to come again, I could do that, either as a volunteer or for my normal rate. These days I sing for my supper, but it is also a calling, even a ministry of sorts. I didn’t want money to get in the way, especially at such a sacred and difficult time. Sandra was adamant about paying me. I can still see her face as she smiled and fought back tears: “he is worth every penny!”
So we got in two more precious and beautiful Tuesdays of singing, laughing, telling stories, and crying together. Bob would often have his eyes closed and seem to be sleeping, but then he would impishly open one eye and let us know he was following every word. “He’s like a possum!” Sandra exclaimed. I started making up a song about an Awesome Possum making my songs blossom or some such nonsense.
The last time I saw him, just one week ago, some of the songs caused him to cry. One of them was Amazing Grace, as perfect a song as it gets. It felt like a good thing that he was crying. Sandra joined him on his bed, put her hand on his heart, stroked his face and cried with him. So much love mixed with the sadness of saying goodbye.
Impermanence: it is the truth for all of us and for everything that is. It is also sad to encounter this truth, no way around it. Accepting that sadness as part of the grace of being alive seems to be part of the path we all try to find. If we fight off the sadness, we also fight off the joy. Afterwards Sandra told me that they needed to cry and grieve together, so she was glad for those loving moments.
I found out Bob wants his ashes to be spread on a river, because he loves water so much. I can relate! I played every single song with a river or water that I could think of!
I don’t know what happens when people die. I know lots of people think they know, and maybe they do, but I don’t. I tend to think the Tibetans are right, that it is a process, and that the last breath and the last heartbeat are just part of that process. The Tibetans and the scientists agree that the hearing is the last sense to go, which makes sense to me.
I do know that I can still hear his voice in my head, I still can see the way he smiles too. Something of him is still in existence, in our hearts if nowhere else.
I had one more song with a river reference lined up to sing for Bob today, before I found out that he had left us last night. It’s a recent song called “In the Moment,” about meditation and being present. Sandra noticed the phrase “in the moment” in another song of mine called “Cheshire Moon,” and told me she was glad of the reminder. It’s a through-line for me in this experience with Bob and Sandra. So much of what she was encountering was emotionally painful and even physically difficult—but she knew she would treasure each moment she had with him. She kept her heart open every step of the way.
Some of the words to this song I was going to sing for Bob today are:
Love is a question
Will we ever know?
Hold the river
Let it go
I want to go out dancing
Will you dance with me?
Here is eternity
It is an exquisite and sunny day, and the water is peaceful and serene below the mountain. I am singing this song for Bob today, just in case he can still hear me.
© 2019 Elizabeth Hummel
Please do not copy or distribute without permission from the author.
This Little Light of Mine
“I’m waiting for a doctor! Where is the doctor who will tell me what is wrong with me?” A petite and elderly woman is parked in the middle of the hallway in a facility where I play music for elders. She glares at me, gripping the arms of her wheelchair. I am on my rounds to sing for a few people in their rooms, a slip of paper in my hand with names and room numbers.
This woman was not on my list, but she demands my attention—and besides, she is blocking my way.
“I am 94 years old!” she exclaims angrily. “Why don’t they know what is wrong with me!”
I tell her that I am not a doctor, but I do play guitar and sing. “Maybe while you are waiting for the doctor, we can enjoy a little music together?” I suggest, though I know it is unlikely that a doctor is actually on the way to see her. “Right here in the hallway?” she asks, tilting her head in surprise. Maybe the surprise knocks the anger aside for the moment.
“How about we go into your room and sing there,” I suggest. She hesitates, then nods and turns around, wheeling into her room. I learn that her name is Jane, and I tell her my name. I also tell her that I had an Aunt Jane, and that it is my middle name. I follow her, set up my camp stool with a pillow plopped on top, and take my guitar out of its case. The entire time I am setting up, she tells me about what is bothering her.
“Everything you ever have, they take away from you,” she tells me bitterly. “Not allowed this, not allowed that.” Her close-set eyes are like angry brown marbles, and her mouth is set in grim line. She picks up a small, curved candy dish and waves it in disgust. “There is supposed to be candy in this—but it is empty.”
Sometimes the only way I know to interrupt cascading loops of painful thoughts a person is expressing is to just start playing and singing. Music can sweep the pain away, at least for a bit. I keep an ear out for my moment. When a person takes a breath between the litany of sorrows, I jump in with a song.
With Jane, I launch into “How Great Thou Art.” I have noticed that there are Christian books and crucifixes in Jane’s room, so that seems like it might be a song she would like. For the first time since I have met her, Jane smiles and even sings along a little. I can see that the music makes her feel better, but when I finish the song she still wants to talk about how unhappy and frustrated she feels.
She points at a photo of her son, who died in his 50s. The photo is in a frame, stacked against the wall on her bed beside a book by Jay Sekulow and a few devotional books. “So he’s not here to help,” she says. She sweeps her hand along the row of books and the photograph. “And I read all these books, trying to understand what the answer is. But none of them know either!”
Jane wheels her chair closer to a nightstand by her bed, and with a shaking hand picks up a small, well-thumbed book of spiritual aphorisms. She holds it and pages through it as she talks. “And if there are angels, what do they really look like?” she asks in exasperation. “I just can’t figure it out!”
Jane is feeling a lot of emotional distress—everything from a lack of candy to existential angst. I tell her that I wonder about a lot of things I can’t figure out too, so I can relate to that. I also tell her that even though I don’t have the answers about the mysteries of life and the universe, music always seems to help me feel better no matter what. “How about another song?” I ask.
“Yes—a song about….everything we have been talking about,” she says.
Without giving it a lot of thought, I start to play “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” Partly because everyone knows that song, and it is so beautiful. And there is something inherently mysterious about the simple lyrics that connects to our conversation. Who is Michael, and why is he rowing anyway? Who is the sister that is helping to set the sails?
If there are angels, what do they really look like?
During my visit, I learn that one of the most painful things for Jane about living in this facility is being separated from her cat, Cammy. There is a large photograph of Cammy taped to her table, and she shows me other photographs of a big fluffy cat that she has tucked into the book on her lap. Jane tells me that Cammy visited her last night—she would know her meow anywhere. I ask if it was a dream. “She was trying to find me, she must have gotten out, and was lost,” she says. “There isn’t a better friend in the world.”
I can’t help but think it is Jane who feels lost, like a cat trying to find a home, meowing into the night, seeking safety and love.
But I know that Jane has people who love her, and that she has known love all her life. There are beautiful white Easter lilies her daughter gave her on a table, and a bouquet of purple flowers from someone who used to work at the facility. Jane also shows me the doll she was given when she was ten, photos of herself as a happy child with her family on the mirror of her dresser, and the little stuffed bears that are tucked into every cubbyhole of her room. It is as if she is trying to find comfort from all these images and things—but it is her cat she longs for the most. I think she feels she does not know how to be home without Cammy.
I don’t even know if Cammy is still alive. But of course, that doesn’t matter at all. It is the longing in her heart to belong somewhere that matters.
There are moments in the short time of our visit when Jane comes out of her misery to be curious and engaged. While she is very attached to her stories about what is wrong in her world, I see that she also truly wishes to be free of the pain she feels. She is trying to grapple with so much! And she cannot do it alone.
I tell her I wish I had more time, but I must go. I can see that that the contact and music has helped to soothe some of her distress, and I am grateful that I could make a bit of a difference. I tell her that I will try to have her name added to my list. Jane smiles a tiny smile and takes my hand. “Yes, I would like that,” she says.
When I leave Jane’s room, I see that Molly in 234, one of the people on my list, lives right across the hall. I knock on the door and walk in when I hear a voice say, “come in!”
Molly is sitting in front of a blaring television, picking grey hair out of a round hairbrush as she watches “The Price is Right.” Her hair is long, straight, and iron-grey—not surprisingly, the same as the hair in the brush. Molly is younger than Jane, maybe in her late 70s or early 80s. She has a warm smile and laugh-lines around her eyes. A batik painting is on one wall, and a beautiful painting of flowers is on another. My guess is that Molly is an adventurer at heart, and that she has had a rich and love-filled life. The kind of person who says “yes” more than “no” to life. Like my own wonderful Aunt Dot, who is probably about Molly’s age. When I ask Molly if she’d like to hear music right there in her room, she is delighted.
I can’t talk to people (let alone sing!) with the TV on, so with her permission I turn it off using the remote on her dinner tray. Molly smiles expectantly, and I play “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” which she seems to enjoy, moving her head in time to the music. The entire time I am singing, Molly keeps pulling hairs out of the hairbrush on her lap and adding the hairs into a little ball. When I am finished with the song, she says, “That’s just wonderful! I want my son to hear you! He’s a musician too. He’s in a band, in fact! I’m going to call him, so he can hear you.”
Molly also has a piece of paper on her lap with some phone numbers, so I assume one of them is her son, as she keeps picking it up and looking at it. I tell her that’s fine with me if she calls him, though it seems a bit strange. I wonder if she is going to put me on the phone’s speaker when her son answers?
Then Molly slowly picks up the hairbrush she has been cleaning and holds it to her ear, appearing to listen intently. “He’s not picking up,” she tells me with a little shrug.
“Maybe next time,” I suggest. Until that moment, I had no idea that Molly had some cognitive impairment that would lead her to think her hairbrush was a phone. All I could see was a positive and open person, willing to connect with me.
And a positive and open person is still who I see when I look at Molly. I play her another song, “Swing Low,” and she happily sings with me. Then I hear my name over the loudspeaker that is in every resident’s room: time for me to perform for a group of folks in the dining room. Molly insists on getting my contact information so she can tell her son about me, so I write down my email address on the piece of paper she holds. I have no idea if her son is even in contact with Molly. If he is, I don’t know if he will understand anything about who I am or why my name is on this piece of paper, but I am happy to share my contact information with Molly. She wants to keep the connection she feels, and that is what is important.
As I open the door to leave Molly’s room, I see Jane sitting in her room directly across the hall, her door propped open. I get the feeling she has been waiting for me to come out. She waves at me, and wheels herself forward. Clearly, Jane has something she wants to tell me.
“The woman who lives in that room where you just were. She has been very kind to me. Sometimes she sees me sitting out here in the hallway when I am struggling. And she reaches out to me. She really makes me feel better. She is so kind. And it helps me. I wanted you to know that.”
Jane doesn’t even know Molly’s name. Maybe because Jane and I had just had a heart connection that was healing, she wants me to know that Molly connected with her too. Maybe amidst her suffering, Jane is also holding on to these real moments of belonging too.
It is the next day, and I am singing for another group of about forty elders at a nursing home. At least half of my audience is in wheelchairs, most of the rest use walkers. About a third of them need special headphones just to hear me. And some of them have dementia. So these folks are pretty fragile too.
I have been performing here for many months, so most of them know me. I know many of their names, and always hold as many hands as I can both before and after I play. Physical contact seems to amplify the healing power of the music, and it just feels good to touch anyway. Some of them tell me they live for my interactive performances, that it is the highlight of their day. My “ElderFans” are dear to me too.
I tell them the story about Jane and Molly that just happened the day before. I enact the story of the hairbrush phone, and they laugh, because it really is very funny. But I know that nobody is laughing at Molly. They are laughing with empathy. “None of us are what we used to be, right?” I say. I tell them that even though Molly had some confusion, she was still able to give to her friend. I remind them that even though there are lots of staff here whose job is to help each of them with their needs, that they need to care about each other too.
It doesn’t matter that Molly thinks her hairbrush is a phone. It doesn’t matter that Jane doesn’t even know Molly’s name. They are two human beings on planet earth at the same time, across the hall from each other. Like each of us, Molly still has a light to shine. And Molly shines that light, helping her neighbor Jane when she is out in the hall and “struggling.” We all struggle, and we all need kindness, a gentle touch now and then.
I think my Elders get what I am saying. I see smiles, faces lighting up, and heads nodding. Maybe they are thinking of roommates that have hard days. Each of them has hard days too, days when they could use a kind word from a friend their own age and in the same boat, not just a staffer. There is more to the rest of their time alive than eating and sleeping, doing physical therapy and playing Bingo. Their love still matters, their kindness can still make a difference.
Music helps remind us that we are alive. And as long as we are alive, we all have a light to shine.
© 2019 Elizabeth Hummel
Please do not copy or distribute without permission from the author.
You can also read my article, “Ten Things To Remember When Your Loved One Has Alzheimer’s” here.