“I’ve known a lot of Terry’s,” I sighed to my husband, putting the morning paper on our dining room table. The disconnection of Terry Schiavo’s feeding tube had affected me deeply. As a music minister in nursing homes, I’m often assigned to the “Terrys” -- bedbound, dependent on medical equipment, or unresponsive to surroundings. It was heartbreaking to think of Mrs. Schiavo, like so many other brain-injured adults that I know, and of a family that wanted so desperately to care for her, but had no control over decisions that meant, literally, her life or death.
And because of her, I thought about the other “Terrys” in my life. Unlike Mrs. Schiavo, most are anonymous. Some have frequent visitors, others are more or less alone. Some are occasionally responsive, others seem completely lost.
I thought about all of them. But mostly, I thought about Annie.
I met “Annie” (a pseudonym) about two years ago, shortly after she had suffered a brain injury. How extensive the injury was I don’t know. What I do know was how difficult it was to be with her. My then 10-year-old, Jonah, put it best. Jonah is so empathetic with my patients that, from the time he was about 7, my husband and I called him “the little minister.” But after one or two visits to Annie’s room, he refused to go back. “She gives me the creeps, Mom!” he said. I didn’t argue. Although I didn’t necessarily approve of his choice of words, he was right; it was nerve-wracking to be around Annie.
You see, at seemingly random intervals, Annie would open her mouth, revealing gums swollen by some underlying disease or medication (I was never sure) and scream repeatedly: “AHHHHHHHHH!!!” In the midst of a song like “Jesus Loves Me” or “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” this behavior was unnerving, to say the least, especially when I literally couldn’t hear my own voice. After a few weeks of this, I began to dread my visits to Annie.
But one day, about three months after I’d met Annie, I saw her in the nursing home’s hallway. The nurses had gotten her out of bed, propping her in a wheelchair.
“Would you like a song, Annie?” I said, knowing that there would be no response to my question, hoping that her screams wouldn’t disturb the staff at the nearby nurses’ station.
To this day, I can’t tell you why I picked the song, “Oh Shenandoah.” I can say only, with gratitude, that the choice must have been the work of the Holy Spirit. I began to sing, not really expecting anything in particular. “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you,” I sang, when suddenly I realized that Annie’s mouth was open—no, not to scream. Annie was mouthing the words. “Away, you rolling river.” Annie was making sounds. “Away, I’m bound away ….”
Annie was singing.
I heard something – I remember that it sounded metallic -- clatter to the floor behind me. “Could somebody get the social worker?” said a voice that I didn’t recognize. I finished the first chorus, and moved to the second verse. “Oh Shenendoah, I love your daughter …” Annie was still singing. “Are you watching this?” I heard another voice say. I felt a small group gather behind us, watching the incomprehensible happen, but I didn’t turn to look. Annie and I didn’t care. We just sang the second chorus together. When I moved into the third verse, she stopped, apparently only because she didn’t know it. When I sang the final chorus she joined in again, as smoothly as a professional musician coming in after a bridge…..
It is our family’s custom to gather at mealtime and tell each other the best and worst parts of our day. When it was my turn to speak, I looked at Jonah. “Honey, do you remember the lady who screams?” He shuddered. “Do I ever! Did you have to see HER today?”
I knelt down next to him and looked into his eyes. “I have two things to tell you, Jonah,” I said, very gently. “First, God did something very special for that lady today. And there’s one more thing,” I said, taking Jonah’s small hand in mine …
“Please remember that she has a name, just as you and I do. Her name is Annie.”
Note: I still visit Annie, but she has never again sung all of “Oh Shenandoah.”
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