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Wings of song for the dying

At the bedsides of the terminally ill, the gentle-voiced Threshold Choirs have taken on the role of easing the final crossing.

January 30, 2007|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

Inverness, Calif. — IT was a simple visit to a sick friend. In the morning, Kate Munger weeded Larry's garden and did chores around his house. In the afternoon, she sang sweet, soothing songs at his bedside.

For a music teacher and lifelong member of one chorus or another, singing was as natural as herbal tea. But over those hours in 1990, she felt she was delving into deep reaches of herself and pulling out glittering, unexpected gifts for her comatose friend, a San Francisco quilter who was dying of AIDS.

Larry's bedside would be the first of thousands at which Munger and a legion of women she has trained would try to help the terminally ill die in a state of musical grace.

Today, about 30 groups called Threshold Choirs rehearse twice a month in cities throughout California and several other states. In small clusters, they are invited into hospices, homes and hospital rooms where death is near, singing soft, ethereal melodies to people who might or might not be conscious.

Depending on whom they are singing to, the 700 women of the Threshold Choirs might throw in a show tune or a love song. But mostly, they create a veil of tranquil sound for the dying and a balm for the grieving family members around them.

"The women who sing are willing to be curious about death," said Munger, 57. "We like to say that our audition process is a shiver when you hear about our work."

A minister's daughter who grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley, Munger has a zest for the sacred. She says "If Spirit wills it" the way other people say "We'll see." She wears a frog pendant not just because she likes frogs but because they symbolize transformation. Her dog is named Surely, as in the 23rd Psalm: "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life."

After Larry died, Munger did not instantly transform herself. She taught elementary school and raised a son with her husband, Jim Fox. For more than 14 years, she and Fox, Inverness' volunteer fire chief and head of the water system in the Marin County community, lived in a trailer while they built an airy, secluded hilltop retreat that gazes out toward Tomales Bay.

Meanwhile, she organized groups that specialized in singing rounds, those complex compositions that depend on themes repeating and voices entering at different points.

But she didn't forget the simpler gift she had given her dying friend.

*

ABOUT 10 years ago, Munger was driving back from Montana to California when she found herself singing to dead animals she'd passed on the roadside:

May your spirit rise safely.

May it soon become a cloud....

It's a practice she follows to this day.

In 2000, Munger gathered 15 Bay Area women to form her first Threshold Choir, inaugurating their service with weekly visits to an ailing psychiatrist who ultimately died of lupus.

Now, she puts more than 30,000 miles a year on her 1990 Plymouth van, guiding singers in the Bay Area and beyond through lengthy, emotionally freighted rehearsals. Groups are starting in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles as well.

Two or three times a week, Munger is summoned to bedsides.

"We always have to be invited in," she said. "We don't press this on anyone."

One autumn afternoon at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, 94-year-old Miriam Sherwin lay ashen and unconscious as three of Munger's singers hovered over her. Her head was tilted back, and her breathing was labored.

"We're going to sing to you now," one of the chorus members said quietly, stroking the woman's forehead.

Leaning in, the three joined in a subdued harmony. The lyrics were simple and calming, repeated numerous times:

We walk not into the night

We walk up toward the stars.

In a few minutes, the halting breath of the bedridden woman became regular. Soon it stopped.

The three singers stared at one another.

Then Miriam started breathing again.

The women recognized the prolonged pause as just another bump on the road to death. After another few minutes of singing, they tiptoed out, and, in the hallway, embraced.

The next day, Miriam died a death made easier, her son Rob believes, by music.

"It was just a very beautiful, peaceful thing, both for my mother and for me," said Rob Sherwin, a retired hotel executive.

Earlier, he had argued with a nurse who refused to provide more painkillers for his agitated mother. And he had rejected the Catholic hospital's offer of pastoral counseling.

In a sour mood, he came across Munger and a half-dozen choir members singing in a corner of the lobby. He asked them to visit his mother and ended up so taken with them that he played their CDs at her memorial.

"A few minutes of gentle singing seemed to quiet her, and it certainly quieted me," he said. "For the rest of that evening, things were peaceful."

*

MUSIC therapists often bear witness to such scenes.

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