Morphine for the pain and Ativan, which
didn’t help at all, for the nausea and vomiting, kept
me well sedated for those seven weeks in the hospital. Because
of the drugs and perhaps the pain, I remember nothing from
the bone marrow transplant except the singing.
I would hear them before I was fully awake,
the high notes teasing me out of my stupor. I’d open
my eyes and see them clad in t-shirts pleading for peace in
Palestine or justice for Mumia, dusty jeans that were repaired
in the most worn places and thick rubber-soled sandals. Their
smell of sweat and suntan lotion was a welcome respite from
disinfectant. The songs they sang had lines like, “Love,
like the yellow daffodil that’s coming through the snow,”
and “More love, the heavens are blessing, the angels
are sighing oh Zion more love,” and even “We sit
down to have a chat, it’s F-word this and F-word that.
I can’t control how you young people talk to one another,
but I don’t want to hear you use that F-word with your
They were from my Quaker Meeting and had
volunteered to support me through the leukemia treatment by
providing visits, scheduling other visitors and being my advocates
when I wasn’t able to advocate for myself. Jane, one
of the people on my committee, says that my breathing got
easier, my heart rate slowed down and I became calm when they
would sing to me.
Jane was just over six feet tall, with
curly red hair like a waterfall of fire. Her laugh often shook
the walls and embarrassed those who didn’t know her
and even some who did. One day that fall, after the bone marrow
transplant, I was in Jane’s kitchen while she was cooking.
Herbs were simmering in an old cast iron skillet and the air
was infused with basil and garlic. I thought that I couldn’t
have dreamed up a better friend.
Then she invited me to Nightingales.
“They meet three weekends a year
to sing on family farms across Minnesota and Wisconsin”,
she explained. She turned her focus from the skillet to the
greens and her knife beat in time to “Alleluia, the
great storm is over, lift up your wings and fly,” before
she pled "You'll be well enough to go to the gathering
in Madison in April. Please come."
Jane was hard to say no to. But I insisted,
“I don’t sing.” I explained that it was
fifth grade when I learned the awful truth about myself. I
was lying on my mother’s bed, my chin in my hands and
my feet bouncing up and down up and down as she changed her
clothes. I saw her scowl in the mirror and knew that my news
was going to cheer her up.
“I made the choir, mommy,”
I exclaimed, grinning.
My heart sank when she turned to me and
said in a southern drawl, “You’ve got to be kidding.
You cain’t sing,” as she laughed. Then she added
as her frown deepened, “I won’t go see you perform
because I would be so ashamed to see you up there on stage.”
Afterwards, I was lying on my own bed and
added her new judgment of me to the list in my head, right
below, “Why can’t you be more like Debbie, more
charming and happy?” and “You cain’t do
anything right, can you?” and “You’re such
a pig, you eat anything that’s put in front of you,
She wasn’t at my bedside during the
transplant because I didn’t want her judgment. I needed
healing, not her criticisms. I am a lot like my mother and
I wonder if, when I was a child, my mother saw herself in
me. I wonder if I was a mirror of my mother’s shame
“I never sang after that,”
I told Jane.
She wrapped me in her arms in a way that
only mothers know how to do and whispered, “That doesn’t
matter with Nightingales. We love you just the way you are.”
Jane released me, returned to stirring
her sauce and continued, “Come with us tomorrow night
to sing to Jean. You remember how wonderful it was to be sung
to, don’t you?”
I did and wanted to give back some of what
I got, so I went. Jean, a member of our Quaker Meeting, had
been found unconscious on her kitchen floor three days after
she’d had a stroke. Her family was going to take her
off life support and we were going to sing to her.
My voice was barely a whisper among the
eight or so who gathered around Jean’s sterile bed.
I sang like I go through a red light at three in the morning—hoping
and praying that I don’t get caught. Jean’s family
hovered just outside her doorway, unsure of who this queer
group of people singing their beloved into death were. Our
singing was tentative at first but we built up to a crescendo
with “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but
now I see…” and “Precious Lord, take my
hand, lead me on, help me stand…” Jean’s
family slowly migrated to her bedside and began crying out
their grief. My tears and sobs were not only grief for Jean
but gratitude for how far I had already come with the help
of these people who could both chase death away and walk you
to its door.
Jane spent the next few months pestering
me to go to Nightingales because she could see that I was
touched when we sang to Jean. I relented the following spring
and went to my first Nightingales event.
I was intimidated by people who not only
could sing, but know about a million songs off the top of
their heads. There’s Janet who had a four inch three
ring binder filled with songs. And Judith who could just sing
any part she pleases without looking at a single note. There
is Tim, an eleven year old, who left his skateboard and friends
behind for the weekend to sing. I think that I could never
be good enough to be part of this group.
Until we sang Amazing Grace, that is. There
was a woman singing the highest harmony to that song and I
flinched when she slid off key. I looked around but no one
seemed to have noticed. I heard my mother’s voice in
my head saying, “How can they stand to sing with her?
She sounds awful!” I stilled my voice and mouthed the
words again, afraid of singing the wrong notes.
We crowded into the living room of this
cavernous Madison farmhouse. Flesh touched flesh as we squeezed
each person into this space and our closeness makes the room
seem tiny. I watched people in between songs sharing their
lives with each other, sharing new found music, or just being
quiet. We moved into song after song and then moved into silence
as if that is what we really came here for.
In the quiet, a book got pulled out, and
everyone settled in for this ritual. Hans Christian Anderson's
The Nightingale was passed around the circle and read. I watched
each reader intently. For some it was easy but others of us
donned glasses or brought the book a little closer to see
the words. Some read confidently and some heard whispers of
encouragement as their confidence faltered. I fingered the
tattered book cover that felt like well-worn jeans while I
When I passed it to the next person, I
realized that I’m like the people in this story who
became disenchanted with the Nightingale’s song when
a mechanical one was made that reproduced the bird’s
song more precisely than she herself can sing. I realized
too that I wanted a more mechanical, perfect mother.
Over several years I gained more confidence
and settled into singing with the Nightingales. I eventually
sang in a gospel choir.
I didn’t tell my mother that I sing
until one month before I perform with the choir. We were on
the on-ramp to I-95, headed south to I don’t know where.
"Um, I'm performing next month with
them, mom. I'm in the tenor section."
“You cain’t sing, can you?”
she asked, surprised. These five words were said and was a
child again. I was no longer blind to the mirror that my mother
was for me, however. At that moment, I was released from my
desire to sing perfectly because I was able to forgive her.
I knew then that I wouldn’t tell her that I’d
forgiven her because I realized that my forgiveness of her
wasn’t for her, it was for me. Holding on to my old
wounds was only hurting me.
I am in remission from leukemia as
I write this. When I look up the word “remission”
in the dictionary, I discover that one definition is “forgiveness
of sins or transgressions,” and comes from the French
word meaning “to let go”. The transplant wasn’t
easy and forgiveness wasn’t easy. But singing is, so
I sing as much as I can. It helps me let go of my pain and
find the grace that the most famous of hymns talks about.