Our family has always been close – bound by poignant memories of our childhood and the frequent family gatherings/celebrations after we left the family home to study or raise our own families. With 8 busy kids, and parents that were very involved in their own business, their church, the large extended family and in their community, the house was filled with friends, laughter, debate and music! Mom was a piano teacher and coached several singing groups. Dad was in musical groups and played the guitar, trumpet and piano as a child and through to the early years as a busy young father. I have very early childhood recollections of Mom and Dad singing together at the piano after we were in bed, and Dad singing with his brothers in a quartet. As we grew older, all of the family studied music, sang in groups and played various instruments.
Music has always been an integral part of our expression of emotions, faith, and family traditions.
Dad retired at age 65 and within the first year of retirement, was diagnosed with the first bout of colon cancer. He was successfully treated and over the next 15 years fought 2 other cancers. During this time, he continued to be fully involved in his family and community. His family continued to grow until there were 34 grandchildren…and the family music traditions continued!
Life changed on June 7, 2011. Dad slipped on wet grass while walking his dog, falling onto the sidewalk and breaking his left hip. The successful surgery was followed by a negative reaction to morphine, renal failure, and subsequent weakness that he never recovered from. After 6 months in an acute care setting, Dad was moved to a local LTC facility. It was so difficult to see a strong and independent man who was a respected community leader, lose his strength and become reliant on others for personal care.
The local members of the family and others who flew home from Western Canada and India to assist, had been involved on a daily basis with Dad’s care from early morning until late evening every day from June onwards. Again, music played an integral role – whether singing as a family or in small groups, playing instruments, or family recordings and favourite music on the CD player, everyone who came to be with Dad, knew that this would be a part of the visit.
Unfortunately further challenges began for Dad mid-January 2012, as he fought 3 consecutive infections, then contracted C-Difficile and finally pneumonia. Dad was re-admitted into an isolation room in an acute care facility.
In late February 2012, as Dad’s body began to fail, and as he grew much weaker, I moved into his hospital room to help to care for him 24 hours per day, with the daily support of my younger brother, and other family members. At that time, it was with the hope that Dad would be strong enough to recover. Our family, including the grandchildren, surrounded Dad with constant care and spent time chatting, enjoying memories and photos, reading to him and singing his favourite songs with him. Nurses and other patients, asked us to keep the door open to hear the family singing together. Grandchildren would use technology to send voice notes by phone - singing their favourite songs for Grandpa.
As we realized that Dad’s body could not win this fight and would soon stop functioning, we created a virtual family circle – with family from across Canada and in India - speaking words of love and comfort to Dad by mobile phone.
On the final morning in March, just after I had called Mom back to the hospital, we gathered most of the siblings and their spouses on the phone with us in his isolation room - to sing Dad through this transition from life….singing an old hymn “Blest Be the Tie that Binds our Hearts” and several other favourites as we held hands and our mobile phones around Dad’s bedside. I could hear my older brother in Calgary singing bass, and my sisters in Vancouver and Cranbrook singing alto with the harmony of those at the bedside, and as we started to sing “Great is Thy Faithfulness”, Dad quietly and painlessly drew his final breath.
What an amazing and unexpected family experience!
Writing this story brings a mixture of pain and joy, but I am compelled to share these thoughts to encourage others who will or are currently walking through a similar time in their life.
Yes - there is tremendous grief as we see a loved one suffer, as we make difficult care decisions with the clinicians, and as we become aware that we will imminently lose them.
Knowing that in this very difficult time, that we could still bring comfort to Dad and to each other, and that we could add to the quality of Dad’s end of life care in an acute care setting, gives us the courage to encourage others to consider this as an option in care for those who receive comfort through music.