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  • Writer's pictureKarla Wilson

"I'll Fly Away"

I sat in my parked car, outside the apartment building of my next patient, reviewing the pertinent information from Mr. C's medical record prior to heading inside. The referral from his hospice nurse stated, "patient would like to receive music therapy for comfort and relaxation." A broad request, to be sure. Yet, one of the things I love most about being a music therapist is having the opportunity to meet and get to know people from all walks of life, each one coping with a diverse array of challenges, while open to me companioning them during times of such challenges. When supporting hospice patients, this most often occurs when they are most vulnerable, making their openness all the more significant.

Mr. C was experiencing increasing weakness and described being "stuck on the sofa now," as a result of end stage pancreatic cancer. He went on to inform me, quite matter of factly, "I love music and always have." This soon became observable, as Mr. C's face suddenly lit up while reeling off a well-populated list of favorite musical artists, running the gamut from Smokey Robinson to Roy Orbison, disco to gospel, Dolly Parton to the Pointer Sisters. Over the course of our sessions together, it became his routine to assign me "homework" at the conclusion of our sessions. My assignment came in the form of a long list of specific songs Mr. C wanted to me to sing with him in our next visit. I enjoyed these assignments, and I quickly learned that his lists were given much advance thought, as he utilized them to share the stories of how and why they became meaningful to him.

Early one Monday morning, I received a phone call from Mrs. C, asking if I would mind changing her husband's song list for our upcoming session on Wednesday. He'd created a new list. I reassured her that I'd be happy to make any changes he wanted. I jotted down the new list of about 8 songs, and we said our goodbyes. What she hadn't shared was that Mr. C's condition had declined significantly since we met two weeks prior. Upon my arrival that Wednesday, I immediately observed that Mr. C had grown more gaunt and was no longer engaging in conversation. He reclined on the sofa, covered with an afghan crocheted by his sister, and for the first time, invited Mrs. C to join him for our music session. Mr. C gestured for me to begin playing/singing his new song list, and whispered to his wife, "just listen."

The songs unfolded precisely the way Mr. C requested, starting with "Under the Boardwalk" then "Pretty Woman." I recalled from an earlier session that these were favorites reminiscent of when he and Mrs. C first met. Next came "You Light Up My Life," "Up Where We Belong" and "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing." When I began singing "(I've Had) the Time of My Life," from the movie, Dirty Dancing, Mr. C smiled at his wife, his eyes love-filled and hers glistening with tears. He reached for her hand and they held one another's glance as the song continued...

I've had the time of my life

No, I never felt this way before

Yes, I swear, it's the truth

And I owe it all to you

No other words were needed as the lyrics of Mr. C's musical story unfolded. Mrs. C understood the symbolic message each song held for her. Right up until the final song on the list...

Some glad morning when this life is over I'll fly away To a home on God's celestial shore I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh, glory I'll fly away When I die, Hallelujah, by and by I'll fly away

Just a few more weary days and then I'll fly away To a land where joy shall never end I'll fly away

I'll fly away, oh, glory I'll fly away When I die, Hallelujah, by and by I'll fly away

Music has the wondrous capacity to communicate emotion, intention, meaning and, of course, stories. In this, our final session, Mr. C told the love story he and his wife shared and expressed gratitude for their lives together, spanning several decades. With the last song, "I'll Fly Away," Mr. C disclosed his profound awareness that his earthly life was coming to a close. At the same time, he found a way to express his core belief that he'd soon be departing for that "land where joy shall never end." From what I'd learned about Mr. C in our numerous music therapy meetings, his faith provided him with a profound sense of hope. On this particular day, as I sang "I'll Fly Away," Mr. C not only expressed his desire to comfort his wife, but to impart hope for the days she would face in the future... a beautiful legacy.

(Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals)

Song credits:

"(I've Had) The Time of My Life" by DeNicola, Markowitz & Previte ©1987

"I'll Fly Away" by Albert Brumley ©1929


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