Happy November. Our theme this month is gratitude, which is one of my favorite topics to write about. This week’s essay may require some Kleenex. I was incredibly touched by Sarah’s story of music, healing, and gratitude. I believe in the power of music to heal. I hope you enjoy – Allie
My children recently attended a music class at the library. It was a wild, over-crowded affair, but it made the kids smile. They enthusiastically shook tambourines, swirled scarves in the air, and stomped their feet as they sang songs about birds, the sunshine, and a ladybug.
As I watched my strong and healthy children dance and laugh their way through class with the other pre-school aged children, I couldn’t help but compare the experience to a music therapy session I observed many years before.
At the time, I was twenty-four, and my fourteen-year-old sister was recovering at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center after suffering from a brain hemorrhage. After brain surgery, days in a coma, and then weeks in the ICU at another hospital, she entered the rehabilitation program at Hershey to re-learn how to speak, eat, walk, and basically every other function that comes naturally to an average teenaged girl.
As her mental and physical functions were gradually restored, and she was more able to interact with the world around her, she began to participate in some unique therapy sessions, such as music therapy.
On the first day of music therapy, the therapist placed a tambourine in her hand, but it immediately fell to the ground with a chorus of clangs. She simply did not have enough strength to even grasp the instrument.
For the remainder of class, she slumped in her wheelchair as I helped her hold the tambourine. As the therapist led the class in a song with lyrics containing the phrase, “happy and delighted,” I wondered if my sister would ever feel those emotions again.
For several weeks, she lacked the awareness to even react to the music; however, as motor and cognitive skills returned and she could again do things like brush her teeth, music therapy became even more engaging and beneficial to her. Eventually, my sister could grasp the tambourine or bang the drum with success, and as her speech became clearer, she even sang along to the music.
During my sister’s last therapy session, we sat next to her roommate, an eleven-year-old girl with leukemia. She had been discharged and then re-admitted during the five weeks we had spent at Hershey. She looked even paler and weaker than before, and she no longer smiled.
Another girl was new to the group. She had been in a car accident with her family, leaving her paralyzed from the neck down. She had little hope of recovering movement.
The music therapist tried to engage all of the girls by playing the guitar and asking them to share something that made them happy. Neither of the other girls said they were happy about anything. Eventually, one was finally encouraged to say, “Mashed potatoes.”
My heart felt heavier and heavier as the session progressed. These girls could not think of one thing that provoked joy. Would they ever find anything to be happy about?
When it was my sister’s turn, she looked at me and said, “I get to go home.” I should have only been thrilled to hear this, but I couldn’t help but think of how unfair it was that those two girls might never get to say the same.
The therapist then tried to urge the group to play various instruments. My sister selected bongos and began playing enthusiastically. The girl with leukemia initially refused to participate but then resigned herself to limply clapping her hands. The paralyzed girl tried to blow on a party horn, but she was too weak to hold it between her lips.
As the noise in the room escalated, my sister, still in a wheelchair, stopped beating the bongos, reached over, and held the instrument to the girl’s mouth. The two briefly made eye contact, but the music was the only communication between them.
This scene replays in my mind when I hear the sound of bongos, see a party horn, or watch my own able children dance their way through a music class. I often wonder what ever happened to those two girls. I want to believe that they are somewhere enjoying music and able to quickly list many things in which they find happiness. However, I know that not everyone heals. Not every patient gets to leave the hospital. Not every child gets the chance to sing and dance her way through life.
I am so thankful that my sister got to continue her dance through life. After leaving the hospital, her love of music only grew. Her body and brain slowly healed during months of outpatient programs. She eventually returned to her own high school to graduate with her class.
She now lives in Music City and attends concerts regularly. Just last year she smiled through her wedding ceremony as her husband played guitar and serenaded her with a song he wrote.
My sister doesn’t remember much of her rehabilitation at Hershey, but I like to think that she still, somewhere deep in her subconscious, hears chords of the songs she sang in therapy all of those years ago.
Maybe when she faces struggles in life, she can hear the reverberation of a tambourine, shaken wildly, but joyfully. Maybe the phrase “happy and delighted” runs through her mind when she sees something beautiful. Maybe those healing notes of music that helped stitch together the wiring in her brain and helped her recognize the world around her again, maybe those notes play on for her.
They play on for me.
I hear them when I press play on the car stereo, so my son can listen to his favorite song “just one more time.” I feel them when I abandon dirty dishes in the sink to go help fasten my daughter’s Cinderella costume, so we can dance at a pretend ball.
The echo of songs from long ago remind me that life is short and unpredictable, so I encourage my children to always sing strongly, play loudly, and dance wildly because others cannot. I hope this is a lesson that hums through their veins not just during music class but throughout their entire lives.
Sarah is a current stay-at-home mom. After years of teaching high school English, she is enjoying focusing on her two children while learning to slow down and look at the world through their eyes. She has learned more about dinosaurs and princesses in the past few years than she ever thought possible. Sarah writes about parenting on her blog, One Mile Smile, and has recently been published in the following sites: Mothers Always Write, Parent.Co, and Her View From Home. Find her on Instagram and Facebook.
**The holidays are upon us! So Glad They Told Me: Women Get Real About Motherhood makes a great gift!