How Music Heals

Photo: Jose Ruiz / Photo Art by Kidman J. Williams

by Indigo Pearl

When Patrick called to let us know his mom died, I was sitting on the living room floor with my best friend, talking about music. She wanted to know how I write my songs, how a feeling or idea ends up as a collection of words and notes and chords. 

The call wasn’t a big surprise. Coreen had been losing the battle with breast cancer for about a year, and everyone who knew and cared about her was praying for it to be over. The vivacious woman with the kind smile and the boundless energy I had met a handful of times, was long gone; all that remained was a thin shell of a diseased body occupied by an angry, agonized soul who couldn’t let go. 

Three weeks earlier, when my partner died after a short and painful surrender to metastatic cancer, Coreen called me, barely able to speak, to tell me how sorry she was and to offer me help she was in no position to give. I think we were both surprised that she outlived him. I was grateful that my love’s bout with “the silent killer” was short and relatively peaceful. By the time he was diagnosed there was really not much that could be done, but go through the motions of ineffective radiation, which he opted out of. He focused instead on letting go of his fear and letting everyone know how much he loved them. He didn’t fight and he died at home. 

Coreen, even after the doctors have given up, was still arguing, demanding more surgery, more chemo, more something! She wanted to live and she wasn’t about to take no for an answer. She wouldn’t admit she was dying or let her husband get the support of hospice nurses he desperately needed. She fought, and everyone around her, her family and friends, honored her by enduring her verbal abuse and not taking care of themselves. Now it was over. 

After I hung up the phone my friend and I just held each other for a while. There had been way too much death in our lives recently, and it was good to be with someone I trusted. We cried. “Here, I’ll show you” I said “what?” she said with a sniffle, letting go of me. “How a song is made. Tell me some things about Coreen, I don’t really know her all that well.” I got up and picked up my guitar, a pencil and a piece of paper. “give me some adjectives that describe her.” 

“Loving, generous, kind, mothering, courageous. She had a way of bringing out the best in people. Did I tell you she carried the “Relay for Life” torch last month without pain killers? It must have been excruciating, but she wanted to do it without the cloudiness of the drugs; it was the happiest I have seen her all year. It’s too bad the last memory her kids will have of her is how difficult she has been in the last few weeks. “ “That’s good” I said strumming a chord progression on my guitar and humming the beginning of a melody. 

A week later I entered the mortuary chapel where Coreen’s funeral was held, along with two hundred people I didn’t know. This would be my first time participating in an open casket funeral, and I was nervous about seeing her dead body. An usher handed me a program, in which my name appeared after my friend’s eulogy. A young man led me to a seat near the casket where I could easily approach the podium. The chapel was a gently undulating lake of black, gray, and white. Elegant flower arrangements and formal outfits dominated the hall. The Buddhist priest, dressed in earth tones and a hint of gold, led traditional Vietnamese rituals I was unfamiliar with. Incense was burning, speeches were given, but no one cried, at least not very loudly. It was a stately, dignified funeral, in which grief rippled through the crowd of well dressed dignified people, like the tracks of invisible koi fish on the surface of a pond. 

My friend completed her eulogy and walked to her seat. I got up, took my guitar out of its case and glanced at the casket as I approached the podium. Coreen looked as though she was having a pleasant dream. Her face was painted tastefully with make up and surrounded by her beautifully composed hair. She looked a lot like the people who came to grieve her death, formal and calm. 

I walked up to the little microphone, a wall of silence buzzing at me from the rows of suits and gowns. “My name is Indigo” I began. “You may be wondering why I am dressed like this to a funeral. I can’t say I knew Coreen very well, but I know she was a musician too, and whenever I saw her she was wearing bright colors and smiling a bright smile. She was passionate, excited, energetic, hardly as peaceful as she seems today. I wrote this song for her the day she died, and I am honored that her family asked me to play it here today without even hearing it. Coreen offered me support when my partner was dying, just a few weeks ago; and when he, too, succumbed to cancer, I think, for her, trying to help me with my loss was a way to know that she was still alive. Much of what I am wearing today belonged to him, and reminds me of the qualities he and Coreen shared -passion, beauty, fervent love, playfulness and authenticity .” 

I stepped away from the podium and stood a few steps from the front row facing the center isle . I could feel eyes scanning me from the top of my beige cowboy hat, down to the blood red button down shirt, the black leather vest and striped rainbow jeans, to the pointed tips of my light blue cowboy boots. 

I took a breath, and began to play. “You fought so hard to keep the dragon from taking you away Courageous soul, it’s OK…” As I sang, I could see the still surface of restrained pain before me begin to break. Heads that had been held high and stiff leaned on near by shoulders; carefully made up faces became truly beautiful with the rivulets of tears and mascara that now flowed over them. “courageous soul, you gave your best Courageous soul, it’s OK to rest…” Chests heaved with emotion and relief. Warmth permeated the coolness of the chapel with the sweet scent of incense and the breath of roses. It was OK to cry and to grieve, it was OK to let go.