I remember the clear, crisp October day as if it were yesterday. I arrived at Tom’s house, guitar in hand, ready to help in whatever way I could. His two Yellow Labs, Moses and Lilly, greeted me warmly and wetly at the door, and Mike, the home health aide assigned to this case, invited me in.
When the hospice volunteer coordinator first called to tell me about Tom, my heart ached. At 56, he was too young to be a hospice patient, but his inoperable brain tumor made it impossible for him to dress himself, let alone continue his work as a corporate lawyer. He’d been struggling with the cancer for some time now, and at least hospice gave him the option of making his transition from the comfort (and elegance) of his own home.
As a singer-songwriter and guitarist, my role as a hospice volunteer included singing to patients. Sometimes, I’d get lucky and one would want to sing with me. As I rang the bell, I was hoping Tom would be the type to want to raise his voice and his spirits with song.
I walked in to find him at the kitchen table. Though he was swollen from the steroids, I could see how young he looked and what a sweet face he had. He looked up at me and said, “The keyboard is downstairs.”
Confused, I said, “Uh, great. But I play guitar. See? Here it is.”
“Let’s go downstairs. That’s where the keyboard is.”
“Gee, Tom, I don’t actually play piano. I play guitar.”
”I want to learn how to play the keyboard,” he said.
“I’d love to help you, but I’m really not the person to teach you. I’m a guitarist. Would you like to learn some guitar?”
”No, I want to learn how to play the keyboard,” he said, now with determination.
“I can tell. Well, let’s see what we can do.”
As we went downstairs, I could feel my throat tighten and my heart pound. I don’t really know much about keyboards, certainly not enough to teach anyone else how to play one. But Tom had his own agenda. I tried a few more times to convince him that we’d have a much better time if I played my guitar. He wouldn’t budge.
Then it hit me – I remembered one of the training sessions I attended to be certified as a hospice volunteer. Whose visit was this, anyway – Tom’s or mine? I had to admit that it was Tom’s visit. He was the patient and I was there to serve his needs, not mine.
So we sat down and flipped the ON switch. Lights flashed at the ready. Timidly, he pushed a button and the keyboard started to play a pretty hip rhythm accompaniment. I poked at a melody line. Not bad, I thought. Tom was laughing.
“Your turn, Tom.”
“I don’t know how.”
”Sure you do. Just play. Play. That’s why they call it ‘playing the piano.’ Just have fun with it.”
Again, he pushed a rhythm button and seemed satisfied at the sounds.
“Go on. Try a melody.”
He seemed confused about where to start. I pointed to a note.
“Here. Try this one,” I suggested. He did, but it didn’t go far.
“Let’s try something, Tom. Are you game?” He nodded. “Look out the window. What do you see?”
”Any birds in those trees?”
“How do you think those birds sound?”
Tom tentatively plunked a few notes in the middle of the keyboard.
He laughed, “Those birds sound sicker than I am!” Then he tried some other notes, higher in range. “That’s better. They don’t sound so bad!”
“Can you find what that big old tree might sound like?”
Tom touched a few bass notes. Great. We were on to something.
Moses and Lilly curled up at my feet. They were clearly happy to hear their Dad laugh again.
I gave Tom some homework for the next visit to find sounds to go with everything he saw – the dogs, Mike, the mail truck, his wife, the clouds, the rain, everything! He seemed to like the idea.
When I arrived for my next visit, Tom was considerably weaker but still wanted to play on the keyboard. I asked him if he’d done his homework.
”No,” he said, with a grin.
This time, I suggested he express his feelings on the keys. The higher keys were laughter, joy and love. The lower, grumbly keys were fear, pain and depression. The visit was shorter, but I left him with plenty to play with.
By my third visit, Tom couldn’t even greet me at the door. Mike and the dogs escorted me downstairs. This time, Tom surprised me.
”Will you play your guitar for me?”
With pleasure! I took the guitar out of the case and started to strum. Tom brightened. He reached out his hand. I handed him the guitar and showed him how to strum it. He smiled at the tickly feeling of the vibration.
For some reason, hearing the guitar sounds brought up some old memories for him and he spent the next hour telling me about an old college friend named Dave who used to play and sing. The memories excited, and then exhausted him. I left knowing our time together was drawing to a close.
I saw Tom one more time, but he didn’t want to play the keyboard or my guitar. So I just sang softly to him while he held my hand. Moses and Lilly didn’t leave his side.
Tom died a few days later. His wife later told me that he’d asked her to put on some music, smiled and closed his eyes.
Author Sandi Kimmel is available for Keynotes & Workshops. For info click here.
You have permission to reprint this story for use in your e-zine, at your website or in your newsletter. The only requirement is to include the following footer:
© 2010 Sandi Kimmel. For more original content like this, visit www.sandikimmel.com. Reprint permission granted with this footer included.