Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Singing With Joan

Tonight will be the third Thursday evening that the local shapenote singers will head over to sing at our friend Joan's comfortable hippie house overlooking Powderhorn Park, where she is now in hospice care. I here forward the bulk of the note she wrote us all. This was written to a public list, so it doesn't seem a privacy violation, but mostly I want to quote directly so that you can see Joan's personality shining through. I couldn't otherwise do her justice.

The bad news is that the Parkinson's disease that I've been living with for 24 years has just now become a big problem.  I can't predict my mobility any more; I get frozen,twitchy, spastic, awkward in general, etc. ---as has been obvious to you on occasion, I'm sure.  I am extremely lucky to have had such a long run.  

The good news is that I do not have to face a "Home" even now.  Because---very black humor warning---the liver cancer I've been dealing with for two years is getting out of control at the same time as is the Parkinson's disease and will finish me off before I am truly helpless.

At any rate, I am neither physically nor otherwise devastated.  I'm on hospice care, I have a great deal of support of all kinds, and I want you all to know that our singing has been one of the best things in an already rich life.  I wouldn't have believed I would ever enjoy such a community.

Joan has asked us over to sing once a week, for as long as she is up to it, and boy is she up to it. I'm not sure whether she saves up all the energy she has in anticipation of Thursday evenings, or whether she allocates whatever drugs she has, but she is so fully herself -- direct and warm and bawdy -- that the singings are fun and lovely and moving. Two weeks ago she told us that whenever we sing "Akin" (Awake, asleep, at home, abroad; I am surrounded still with G-d) she hears "abroad" as two words, and identifies with it, since she is "at home a broad". We told her this will be her legacy -- none of us will ever be able to sing this again without thinking of her, at home a broad.

In her note providing the details of the first singing she wrote "Denson plus a request to Levine for the Sultan's harem song."  I thought, "Which Sultan's harem song?" (I know a few) but when I arrived she said "the one with the knives" -- meaning the Cole Porter song Solomon from "Nymph Errant" (1934) which I usually only sing in very limited company (it has some culturally questionable aspects) but sure enough we took a break from religious songs and I did my best.

A couple of years ago, when our group lost our gracious friend Cindy, her husband Charlie organized small (4-6 people) singings in their home during her final weeks, and that's when I learned that getting together and singing like this for an hour is not mournful or maudlin or sad. It is energizing. It is a gift. It is using music to express the inexpressible.

But oh, Charlie really got Joan last week. During Cindy's time Charlie wrote a beautiful piece in the shapenote tradition, so beautiful that it will be in the next Cooper book revision. After singing for Joan two weeks ago Charlie said a song came to him and he wrote it down (like Coleridge with Xanadu, I suppose). It's lovely, and deceptively simple. He distributed it last week, dedicated to Joan, and we sang all three verses. By the end Joan had covered her face with her copy of the music and when the last chord died out said, "Please sing that third verse again".

Individuals come and go, but in general the group of people who come to Joan's has been singing together and traveling together and eating together for a couple of decades now, give or take. The magic is not specifically the words and the notes, but the history and the affection and the shared humanity. We sing for an hour, but it is an hour out of time.

The prognosis is that we won't be doing this much longer -- we don't know until Tuesday or Wednesday whether there's a singing on Thursday. Two weeks ago Joan said that her doctor told her that day that she's still too snarky to die within the next two weeks. Last week I asked if the doctor still considered this to be the case but in her very Joanlike way she said, definitively, "He's not the one making those decisions any more."

It will be a blissful hour again tonight, with sunlight streaming in from the park and big open chords filling the living room.

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