About two weeks ago, I said goodbye to a wonderful friend. His name is Norm. I hadn’t known him very long. In fact, I got to know him the best in his last few weeks of life. My heart still fills with joy when I reflect on the time I was blessed to spend with him. Perhaps you can glimpse the sweetness of that time as I tell you the story; so pull up a chair and get comfy. Since I wrote out the whole story in my journal, I’ll share with you parts of my journal entry about this experience.
(Written 9/2/18 with an addendum a few days later)
Well I can’t sleep so I might as well write. 🙂 My heart is full to overflowing tonight.
Norm and Cathy have been our friends for some time, as have Mike and Marlene. Norm has been in and out of the hospital for the past year and has not been in good health the entire time. On Sunday we found out Norm was in the hospital, and Jon (my sweetheart) suggested that our family go visit him. So we headed up there on a walk. When we arrived at his room, we saw that his wife, Cathy, was there as well as Marlene and Mike (good friends of Norm and Cathy). As we were visiting, Mike mentioned off-hand that Norm had written a bunch of poems when he was in his 30’s and 40’s that were quite good.
I am always looking for words to set to music, so I started asking questions about these poems: Did they rhyme? What were they about? Could I look at a copy? Have you ever thought about having one of them set to music? Norm was looking a little down when we came in but at the thought of his poem being set to music, he perked right up. “I need to talk to you!” he said. It was a sweet conversation and I knew I needed to get my hands on those poems. Marlene dropped off her copy (a bound book of his poetry) that evening, not an hour after we left the hospital.
As I looked through the poems, I flagged several that I thought had potential for becoming songs (my favorite being one called “Sunset”). By the time I had finished looking through the book, I knew this was a project I wanted to take on. Before getting started, I thought it would be neat to ask Norm about his favorites. So I ran up to the hospital on Tuesday to chat with him. Mike, Marlene and Cathy were all there as well, and we spent a good hour going through the book. Mike read several of the poems to all of us, Norm made some comments about various experiences, we laughed at some of Norm’s light-hearted poetry, and they all pointed out their favorites. I left with Norm’s blessing to choose one and get started on the music.
Before I left the hospital, I knew that I would write two songs- “Penny in my Pocket”, and “Sunset”. There was something almost musical about those two poems; they both had a “ring” to them. I knew logically I would be able to put them to music without too much difficulty, but more than that, I knew this wasn’t all happening by coincidence- the timing and situation was just too perfect and felt so right. Because He loved Norm, Heavenly Father had sent me to fulfill a long-awaited desire of his heart. I was honored to be the messenger, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
Interestingly enough, when I had left home for the hospital that morning I had the thought that maybe I should write the music in his presence- wouldn’t that be special? I thought it might be a welcome distraction while he felt so lousy. I knew there would be some challenges to writing it somewhere other than my home: I would have to get my hands on a portable keyboard, get permission to bring it to the hospital, and I’d have to haul it around. Still, I felt compelled to pursue the possibility in case that opportunity was presented. I checked with the nurses and found that they were enthusiastic about the idea of bringing a keyboard into the hospital, so that was no problem. And I found a keyboard that a friend was not using after making one phonecall. I picked it up that evening.
Well, now I had a keyboard, but I didn’t know if Norm was headed home or not. Each day included many doctor visits and tests to see where he was at medically. It was challenging to know how persistent to be about the idea of bringing a keyboard up to the hospital. Knowing it would delight Norm, I tried contacting Cathy on Wednesday to see when would be most convenient. With so many unknowns it was impossible at that point to set a day and time, but I told Cathy I was available Friday and I would check in with them then.
Friday morning I tried getting a hold of Cathy and couldn’t. I didn’t want to be pushy, but I kept feeling like that day was the day to do it. I was antsy as I gathered my music-writing necessities together, and I eventually decided that i’d try to head up to the hospital about 1:00 and just feel out the situation. I’d have my keyboard in the car so that if the opportunity came, I could take it. Jon’s parents were in town and had decided to take the kids out at 1:00 to go play tennis. So when they left for the tennis courts, I left for the hospital. I had a prayer in my heart the whole way, hoping and praying that I’d be sensitive to Heavenly guidance moment by moment since I really wasn’t sure what this would look like.
As I walked through the upstairs hallway, I met Cathy, almost at the elevator. She was surprised to see me there and after a hug, shared that they had been given the news shortly before that Norm would not be leaving the hospital. They would keep him there until he passed, which would likely be just a few days. She asked, “Could you bring your keyboard up to his room and help take his mind off of it?!” Oh what a blessing!
I stopped in to visit with Norm for a few minutes before grabbing my keyboard while Cathy ran a quick errand. I remember him saying “I don’t have much time left.” “I know,” I replied. “I just saw Cathy in the hallway and she told me the news. How do you feel about that?” “Well,” he said, “I guess everyone has to go some time.” I told him that I wanted to collaborate with him on “Penny in my Pocket” in his hospital room, but first I needed to read him my revised version to get his approval (I had done minor edits so the rhythm of each verse was the same). He was enthusiastic about the revisions and was thrilled at the idea of me writing in his hospital room. I ran out to the car and brought the keyboard in to get started. Norm was (obviously) feeling pretty sick, but it was not hard to see that the idea of me playing music in his room cheered him up some.
Part of the reason for picking “Penny in my Pocket” was that I had the sense that a sad emotional song wouldn’t be the thing for that day; he needed something light and cheerful to listen to. I loved the spunk of his own words in that poem, and knew it would provide good atmosphere. I worked on “Penny in my Pocket” as Cathy answered questions from the nurses and Norm dozed on and off. It was just the three of us and the occasional nurse for much of the afternoon. When Norm would wake up, he would ask where I was at with the music, and I had many chances to share. The rest of the time I was providing background music: music therapy.
After 4 hours of joyful work, I had pretty much finished the sheet music for “Penny in my Pocket”. I was amazed how quickly the process had gone. It felt as if the music had flowed through me instead of coming from me. I felt that there was no explanation except that I had received Heavenly help, and I was so thankful for it!
On Saturday, I arrived at the hospital around 1:00. This time there was a lot of family there when I got there, and I was worried my presence would add chaos instead of calm. Though I wanted to be sensitive to the family’s time, I knew Norm would enjoy hearing the finished product. I was given the opportunity to sing “Penny in my Pocket” to him (using my music-writing computer program to accompany me) which was a joyful experience. He was so peaceful as he listened with a little smile on his face. I’ll always remember that.
Then I tucked myself into a corner and started working on song #2 called “Sunset”. The family gradually trickled out and soon there were only a few of us in the room again. It was interesting because the tone of “Sunset” is very, very different than “Penny in my Pocket”. This one is tender and emotional. It’s a “goodbye to life” song- one that could easily be used at a funeral, though it doesn’t specifically say anything about dying.
Working on this piece was a very different experience. Once again the music really flowed, but I found it was challenging to know how long to stay. Norm needed rest, but every time I suggested that I leave, Norm would say something like “No- don’t go anywhere”. It made me smile. So I stayed a little longer. I felt that the words provided him with the opportunity to process what would be coming next: “Across the blue horizon where the mountains meet the sky……soon the creeping shadows will engulf the fading light.” The music was soothing and overwhelmingly beautiful even to me.
I joked that my Grandfather who passed away in June (an extremely talented composer) must have been sitting on those yoga blocks with me (I sat on yoga blocks to prop me up to be able to reach the keyboard better) because this music I was writing was beyond my capacity; though I said it in a light-hearted way, I really did believe I was getting angelic help…and if Heavenly Father was going to send an angel to help me in this circumstance, I knew it would be him for sure!
On this day especially, I felt I was performing a sacred service; I was there on a divine errand to fill this man with love and peace from his Father in Heaven as he got ready to transition from this life to the next. I have always known Heavenly Father would be near in times that are difficult, but watching Him orchestrate a virtual symphony for one man made me recognize in a new way how much my Heavenly Father loves me, and how involved he is in my life, whether I recognize it or not.
After 2 ½ hours, I had finished much of the song but had not put much down on the sheet music. I felt it was more important to spend the time playing this time, so I did. I had everything pretty well nailed down- the melody, the chord structure- I just was needing to figure out the ending. I had some ideas, such as perhaps ending with a neat chord progression that really symbolized a new day had begun…but I wasn’t sure. I left feeling that if I wanted to share this piece with Norm, I needed to be done by Sunday afternoon (about 24 hours away). So I got cooking.
The experience of discovering the ending to “Sunset” was a special experience I won’t elaborate on here, but I miraculously finished the sheet music by 2:00 Sunday afternoon. Record time, by any stretch of the imagination, once again. I knew that this song was a gift- the music flowed through me as it had the day before. Perhaps I had previously underestimated how much of music writing is always a gift. Perhaps that one shift mentally would allow the music to flow more than ever before as I let go of the control for future music writing endeavors. My Uncle (David Gates) spoke at my grandfather’s funeral in June and I reflected on his comments as I wrote “Sunset”:
“I had known that my Dad had taught piano, music theory, conducting,
orchestration, and opera, and perhaps a dozen other musically related classes over
the years, but I only learned a few years ago that he had never taught composition,
when that was his greatest singular gift. I asked him about that. He replied that he
never taught it because he didn’t understand it. He did know how it worked. And
so he couldn’t really teach it to anyone else. He viewed it as a fundamentally
spiritual gift and sought to magnify it as much as possible. He viewed it as a kind
of worship. A way to express his gratitude and he constantly acknowledged its
That evening (Sunday) I went up to the hospital to sing for Norm and Cathy this beautiful gift, “Sunset”. It was a tender experience. I saw Norm one other time after that, on Wednesday afternoon. I had the chance to sing “Sunset” to him again, and share my witness of life beyond death. My tears flowed freely and I said my last goodbye. I was honored to sing “Sunset” at Norm’s funeral the next week. As my accompaniest played the interlude between verses, I smiled as I pictured him sitting nearby, listening.
I hope you enjoy Sunset!
(Recording of “Penny in my Pocket” is coming soon!)