Planting the Seeds of Hallowell

From  the Brattleboro Area Hospice 2011 Annual Report

On the first Thursday of each month, throughout Brattleboro and the surrounding areas, you are likely to see small groups of Hallowell singers meeting, gathering and preparing to go out to visit hospice clients and their families in their homes or hospital rooms or nursing home rooms.  They are exchanging information, piling into one or two cars and setting out.  Ryan and I have been busy during the days leading up to this, contacting clients,  making connections and organizing groups of singers to go out and sing for people who are unable to get out or just need some spirit through song brought into their home.  These sings are mostly what we call “social sings,”  though in the true spirit of Hallowell, we honestly never know what we will experience.  We are planting our own seeds.  Preparing the family through our light-hearted sings, for the deeper roots of what our practice has become over these eight years of serving the community.  

The beauty of these regularly scheduled sings is that we return to a home again and again. The way we did for Michael or Kevin or many others.  The family grows comfortable with the energy, sound and spirit of Hallowell.  They begin to know the repertoire,  the mix of joyful or quiet reverent songs.  When the time and need arrives for us to come and surround the bed for a vigil sing,  the family is comfortable with our presence.  Sometimes they call us directly.  When the call comes we don’t wait for next month’s first Thursday.  Instead, we leave work, change plans, turn our cars around and arrive at the bedside ready to sing for someone who has become dear to our hearts.  

We had been to visit Kevin and Wilma twice in their home during our Thursday’s out.  Each time,  Kevin was delighted, enchanted, anointed by the songs we shared with him.  And each time as we were leaving, he lifted himself up out of his chair to embrace each one of us with tears in his eyes.  When the call came for his vigil sing, we were told to hurry to his bedside.  He was actively dying and we might not make it in time.  The singers arrived, put on scrubs and entered the ICU prepared to sing Kevin quietly over.  Much to our surprise, we found Kevin sitting up awaiting our arrival with joy.  He requested songs.  He “directed” from his bed.  He welcomed the music as a departing gift.  He died quietly and peacefully just hours later. His daughter told us once he heard the singers were coming, he woke up and waited.  He knew what he was waiting for.  

Many of us had visited Michael on Thursdays over the past months and we all had stories to share of the delight we felt being invited into his home and being in his company.  When Michael’s time came,  the caregiver called us to come ASAP.  He was “close” now and the family wanted the singers to help him with this last part of his journey.  This sing would be different.  This sing would be our way of saying goodbye to a friend.  We circled in the driveway and I reminded the singers of something I had just heard while listening to John O’Donohue, wonderful Irish poet, philosopher and writer speak of death in his audio book Anam Cara. He reminded us that we have everything we need with us at the time of our death to make this journey alone. And so, with that thought in our hearts,  we entered the sacred space of Michael’s dying where he lay peacefully and comfortably on the bed in his front porch, the sun streaming in through the windows, his family around him.  We circled around the bed, the family a part of our circle while they touched him.  We sang sacred songs.  Songs in other languages.  Quiet harmonies that touch and free the soul.  We left as quietly as we had come.  In the driveway we circled again with our heads together. Our hearts open.  Fifteen minutes after our departure, Michael took his final breath.  

It is a privilege and honor to be welcomed into people’s homes and lives at this intimate time of transition, grief, loss and change.  We share so much joy with the families we visit socially.  We hear their stories and make connections.  It is always our hope that our Thursday visits will build a bridge of trust between us so that when the time comes,  there is an understanding of what we offer.  And when the call does come, we know we are returning to the home where the seed of our song has been planted and can now blossom into the fullness of the journey our friend is about to take alone,  with our songs to help him on his way.  

Hallowell is available for visits every first Thursday of the month between 4:30-7:00.  Contact Ryan @ Brattleboro Area Hospice @ 802-257-0775 or Kathy Leo directly @ 802-463-4563 to be put on the list for a visit.  

*The names of clients and details of this story have been changed to respect the privacy of our clients.