Thursday, March 24, 2011

hope, end of life, and a musical memory

As so often happens, the lines between my work and my other life and converging this week. I’m reading about hope in the context of palliative care, and learning to play the theme music from On Golden Pond
My thoughts turn to an article called Hope in palliative care: an integrative review and then they stray back to the music.
The authors of the article, Kylme et al, observe two over-arching themes in the literature that documents patients’ experience of hope in the palliative context. These themes are: living with hope, and hoping for something.
As for the theme music from On Golden Pond, well, I started learning that from my piano teacher, Linda Borty, on Saturday mornings one spring, back in the 90’s. I loved it from the very first note. On linda’s grand piano the low notes were as mellow as a sleepy afternoon at the beach. Alas, I’m still learning it.
I would most certainly have finished learning that music had Linda not suddenly become ill. The prognosis was poor, but Linda was absolutely determined to be well again. Unable to do everything she wanted to do, she made some compromises. Through it all, she steadfastly insisted on living with hope.
“I’m planning a big dinner and dance in June for all our friends and family,” she said. ”We’ll be putting together the old rock band that used to play in the 60’s. We’ll stop lessons for a while to give me more time for that project.”
And so it was that hope abided as the spring melted into summer. May blossoms flowered. In June we ate the dinner. We danced the dances. Summer gave way to autumn but not to the resumption of our lessons.
One Saturday morning we went to Linda’s house—just for a visit. Her husband helped her make it down the stairs to the kitchen. He served coffee.
Linda said, ”I’ve been awfully tired lately. But I’m hoping to have more energy soon. Let’s set the date for our next lesson. That way we’ll know we’ll be having it.”
So we set the date. Three weeks hence. Linda’s funeral had already happened before that day arrived.
Whenever I am called upon to talk about hope in the context of palliative care, I feel the pressure to say that hope keeps people alive. This, in a limited way, I believe to be true. But, like so many other things, it is both true and not true at the same time. If hope alone could keep people alive forever, then Linda would certainly be with us today, and I would long ago have finished learning to play the theme from On Golden Pond. For Linda knew all the best hope strategies. Plan things to look forward to. Immerse yourself in new and fascinating projects. Keep in touch with friends. Follow medical advice. She did the best she could on all fronts.
If hope, in the end, can only do its work when it gets cooperation from the body, then surely it owes us no apology. It can still be thanked for the work it does. And I, in gratitude to Linda, am at last getting around to learning the rest of that song.

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