Amy Wilson is a friend whom I met upon relocating to Kansas City in 2005. She is married to Joey Wilson, the Pastor of Student Ministries at Church of the Resurrection West. Amy works with Hospice of Kansas City, and ministers to those who are dying with the gift of her presence and her music. Amy is a music therapist. She has been a blessing to me, my family, countless students, and other adults in our congregation.
I asked Amy, "What would you want other Christian leaders/pastors/persons to know that you have learned from your vocation/ministry experiences?" What follows is her response. I hope you enjoy.
My ministry journey began long before my professional career. Growing up as the daughter of a physician and former oncology nurse, I developed a great desire to help hurting people. My parents demonstrated genuine faith in our home, their professions, and in the community. My mom bought me “Music as Medicine,” by Deforia Lane in middle school. After reading the book, I knew I would become a music therapist.
Many experiences with music and people and two college degrees led me to the end of my training, an internship with Dr. Lane in Cleveland, Ohio. There I had the amazing privilege to see my mentor in her element. As I worked alongside her, she gently molded my skills and gifts to help me discover how God would use me. We worked in almost every unit of a large hospital in Cleveland. This gave me a wide array of challenges. I believe God directed me to several patients suffering from cancer. I learned quickly that I was most comfortable serving people at the end of life. One morning we returned from a community program using music therapy to teach literacy skills to inner city preschoolers. I prepared diligently each week for these sessions and never felt successful. A nurse paged us to visit a 70 year-old woman actively dying from cancer. Her daughter was there and did not even know her mother had cancer until arriving that day. The woman loved the songs “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Deforia looked at me and asked, “Are you ready to go on your own?”
I entered the hospital room with a keyboard on a rolling cart. The patient was quite agitated and her daughter held her hands, crying softly. She looked up at me and said, “thank you for coming.” I felt peace flowing through my fingers as I played softly, singing phrases. The daughter cried more intensely as I began, then became calm. Few words were spoken, but so much feeling was communicated through song, tears, and touch. When I felt the time was sufficient, I left to write a note in the chart. It felt like 20 minutes had passed, but the clock told me it had been an hour and a half. I had many more visits like this one during my internship. Deforia wisely stretched me to a fuller understanding of my role for dying people.
My first few weeks as a hospice music therapist in Kansas City were more than eye opening. I naively thought that having served on mission trips to Mexico I understood need. Hospice workers enter people’s lives at perhaps the most stressful, anxious, grief-filled time they will ever endure. Their homes hide nothing, revealing raw emotion and humanity. Death comes to rich, poor, and all religions and cultures. I meet these families with something unique – a guitar on my back. I have found that many times the music I bring is the only connection I have with a patient. What could I possibly have in common with an 80-year old African American man who raised his family in downtown Kansas City, Kansas working on the railroad? Through gospel music, I discovered that we have a common faith in Jesus and a love for soul stirring songs.
Many days I am struck by the great diversity in my work. It is both intimidating and beautiful. The first time I met Midori (not her real name), I was touched by her gentle, quiet spirit. I tried connecting with her though several songs, but she did not speak on that day. I thought the Parkinson’s disease had progressed such that she could no longer speak. The next visit, I attempted again to engage in communication with Midori through music. Songs of the 1920’s like “Five Foot Two” eventually got her feet to tapping a little. She began to clap after each song. After about 20 minutes, Midori was talking to me. Her words came slowly and softly. For the next hour I watched a beautiful story unfold before me. Midori talked of her experiences during the war in a Japanese internment camp, meeting her husband, and moving to Kansas City. Over the next few months, our relationship continued through the music. I discovered that “In the Garden” was one of Midori’s favorite songs. It was the only song that she always sang with me, I think because it reminded her of her grandmother.
I recognize that I meet people during a precious, vulnerable time. As a Christian my hope is for every soul to share my faith, but the reality is that some have rejected God. One of the most despairing encounters I remember was a man in his 60s with cancer. He was a successful business man just entering retirement years. My “in” with him was popular music, especially the Beatles. The song lyrics I had chosen that day and God’s prompting led me to ask him what he hoped for. He looked at me with tired gray eyes and said, “I have nothing to hope for. I only have what is right now.” He told me that he had tried “all forms” of religion and philosophy and found nothing he believed. He truly had no hope for tomorrow or life after death. In situations like this, I must trust in God’s sovereignty. I pray that I can be his instrument in some way to His people.
Dying people and their families have unique stories. We should approach them in genuine humility. So many times, I drive up to a home and feel overwhelmed by the story I am entering. This is when God works through me the strongest. I may have heard from the nurse about a tragic illness in a young mother. As a stranger, I am called to pierce the silence of this home with music. I hold my hands out, palms facing up and simply offer my hands and voice. These times when I feel completely inadequate, God’s spirit uses my voice to bring His peace and comfort in ways I cannot explain.
It is truly a privilege to spend time with people in their last days and hours. Something that surprised me at first was how many patients tell me they love me. Initially I gingerly said, “I love you, too,” not comfortable with offering my love so openly to a stranger. Now I say those words with my whole heart. These wise individuals understand that the best we can offer one another is love.
I continue to learn every day how music can minister to people at the end of life. Sometimes my job is to bring joy and humor to a home through music. Sometimes the songs I sing allow tears held in tightly to flow freely. Sometimes familiar songs allow grandchildren to have a moment of normalcy with grandma. Sometimes I am blessed to sing the last words a person will hear on earth. Every time I believe music brings life to people living their last days.