boy playing flute
Music Is Hope

Facing Death with Faith and Love

C. Gourgey Ph.D.

I knew only that Muriel was 83 years old, from Trinidad, and dying from pancreatic cancer. She greeted me with a friendly smile. She told me she loved music, so I began singing her songs from the islands to make her feel at home.

One song was “Jamaica Farewell,” and it has this chorus:

I’m sad to say that I’m on my way,
Won’t be back for many a day,
My heart is down, my head is turning around,
Had to leave a little girl in Kingston town.

Well Muriel wouldn’t let me get away with that. She insisted I change “Kingston town” to “Trinidad town.” Then we would sing it together, and that made her feel right back in familiar surroundings.

But I soon discovered that music from her home town, though dear to her, was not what inspired her the most.

Muriel was brought up Catholic but became Baptist. She was one of those people whose faith is so strong that, even though she was on her deathbed, it was she who inspired, helped, and healed those around her. She knew she was dying, but always spoke about how good she felt to be right where she was, right in that wheelchair in that hospital. Sitting in that chair gave Muriel a chance to see her life more clearly, to review her life and allow its meaning to emerge and form an image. She drew so much strength from her prayer and contemplation that even though she was physically ill and those around her were healthy, it was she who gave them optimism, courage, and even energy. Not only her friends but also her hospice caregivers could feel it. The chaplain himself told me he enjoyed sitting in her presence and learning from her wise reflections.

So Miriam would tap the wheelchair with her fingers and say, “I am so grateful to be in this chair. And do you want to know why? Because right here in this chair is where God is.”

And God must have been there with her, because Muriel never complained of any pain, even to the very end. And this is quite unusual, because pain from pancreatic cancer can often be quite severe, especially in the advanced stages. Sometimes Muriel experienced vomiting, but even then she never complained; it was just one of those things one needs to take care of. I remember Muriel often simply saying “I have no pain,” making those words sound like a prayer of gratitude.

Not only did Muriel say she had no pain, she also said she had no fear. She was ready for death, whenever it would come. Her life was in order.

And so it quickly became clear that the music closest to Muriel’s heart, that inspired her the most, was Gospel music. Muriel was loved by many and always had many visitors, so we often turned that room into a Gospel choir, with people singing together and clapping off the beat. We sang many songs, but Muriel had a few favorites that we sang every visit.

One of those was “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” An old hymn Muriel must have known from childhood, it spoke to her current situation:

Jesus loves me, loves me still,
Though I’m very weak and ill.
From his shining throne on high,
Comes to watch me where I lie.

And then there was another one, which Muriel often broke into without prompting: “I thank you Jesus, I thank you Jesus, I thank you Jesus, I thank you Lord.” I did not know that hymn, and Muriel was unable to finish it. But I knew it was her favorite hymn of all - she would start singing it as soon as she saw me, with the hope I would pick it up. I would feel so disappointed at being unable to finish that hymn for her. I saw how much it meant to her: every day she challenged me with that hymn. So I knew I was in trouble if I didn’t learn it, and that made me determined.

We tried hard to find that hymn. Muriel’s daughter knew it but could not remember more than the first couple of lines. She asked one of the nurses if she was Baptist, hoping the nurse might possibly know the hymn. Muriel admonished her daughter for asking the nurse that question, saying we are all God’s children and that denominations are only human inventions.

One day some visitors from Muriel’s church came to call, and they knew that hymn and sang it from beginning to end. I made them wait for me to get some music paper, then wrote down the notes while they sang, and that night I learned the hymn from those notes. Still, I wasn’t sure I got it exactly right. So the next day I asked one of those people from the church: “This hymn that Muriel keeps singing, ’I thank you Jesus,’ is this a hymn that they sing in your church? Is it in your church hymnal?” “Yes,” she said, “It is.” So I got the name of the church and I called them.

I asked the receptionist which hymnal they used, and she said, The New National Baptist Hymnal. Well I own that hymnal, and I had already searched every hymnal in my house including that one. I even called its publisher to ask if they had a different edition with “I thank you Jesus” in it. They said no, they didn’t know that hymn. So where did it come from?

I called Muriel’s church again, and asked if that was the only hymn book they used. The receptionist said no, they do have another one. It is called the African American Heritage Hymnal. She checked to see if it contained that hymn - and indeed it did. I called the publisher immediately and ordered the book.

I could see right away that the African American Heritage Hymnal is different. I own many hymnals, and this new one contains many of the standards found in all of them. But in addition it has many more that I have seen nowhere else - and that are deeply inspiring. This book is a special treasure, part of Muriel’s legacy to me, and I am still learning songs from it that I now sing to other patients and also for my own spiritual healing.

I learned new songs from that hymnal and sang them for Muriel. But the one she liked best went like this:

I thank you, Jesus,
I thank you, Jesus,
I thank you, Jesus,
I thank you Lord.
Oh, you brought me, yes you brought me from a mighty,
A mighty long way, a mighty long way.

Well that made Muriel very happy, and me too now that I finally could sing it with her. While I was still waiting for the hymnal to arrive in the mail I would sing it from the notes I had made, but it was good enough. I made sure to sing that song every day from then on, first thing after saying hello.

Muriel often told me that she loved the music because it renewed her faith. All people, no matter how spiritually advanced, have moments when they need their faith refreshed. But Muriel had faith to spare. I wanted to know the secret of her faith, and of her fearlessness.

I asked her about her life, what it was like and how she came to such faith. It was difficult for her to express it herself, but her daughter was present and helped her out.

Muriel’s daughter Annette is a remarkable person in her own right. She is a minister and teacher at one of the city’s theological seminaries. Muriel showed me a plaque she kept by the sunlit window, given to Annette by the school in honor of her teaching and the deep appreciation and love that her students have for her and that she has for them. It made Muriel exceedingly proud.

Annette recounted to me some key details of Muriel’s life. It began with Muriel’s own mother, herself a woman of deep faith, who brought up Muriel to be mindful of others. Her greatest advice to Muriel was: “always stretch out a hand to help someone.” When Muriel was a child, they had a neighbor, Miss Jane, who was old and frail and who could not feed herself. So Muriel’s mother sent her to bring food to Miss Jane and to feed her.

Muriel carried this lesson of love throughout her entire life. She spent her whole life in service to others. At her church she organized meals for the homeless. She cooked Thanksgiving turkeys for the homeless people on the Bowery, and then brought the dinners to them. And when others came to this country from Trinidad and had no home or place to stay, Muriel would open her own home to them until they could find something for themselves. She was always looking for ways to help those who needed her.

Today we hear much about “the Secret,” a New Age spirituality of using your thoughts to get things for yourself. But Muriel knew the real Secret, which has nothing to do with that. The real Secret has to do not with getting but with giving. Muriel lived the words from scripture:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. (1 John 4:16)

Those words were written for Muriel.

And now Muriel felt blessed to be at the end of her life and able to reflect back on it, knowing that she lived it in service to God and to her fellow human beings, and feeling God with her as a very real presence. I have seen this before in other patients who were able to face death with faith and confidence. Very often, when I learned about their lives, I discovered they had been lives of service and of love.

And Muriel did not have it easy. She knew the hardships of being an immigrant, a person of modest means making her way in a new land. She was a single mom, working hard to raise her only daughter, to whom she transmitted the faith that she received from her mom. It is the greatest gift that a parent can give.

Muriel worked as a seamstress, and she was a good one. But she needed to earn more so she could bring her mother and daughter to the U.S. from Trinidad. So she found additional work.

In an office building across from New York City’s main Public Library, a cleaning lady, brand new to the job, started to panic. She had been assigned several floors, way more than she expected, and felt overwhelmed by the task of having to finish them all on time. Each one seemed to take so long, and it was getting very late.

She heard a knock on the door and felt terrified that it might be her supervisor coming to check her progress. The person at the door entered the room, and said: “Hello, my name is Muriel.” Muriel had been working some other floors in the building, to supplement her income. As soon as she understood the cleaning lady’s dilemma, she rolled up her sleeves and said: “Let’s get busy - we’ve got to get out of here!” She spent the rest of the night helping that lady clean those floors. For the rest of her life that cleaning lady considered Muriel her best friend.

That was Muriel’s life story as I learned it from her daughter Annette. After hearing it I could understand what Muriel meant when she said she had absolutely no regrets, and had “accomplished everything” she had set out to do in life.

The hope was to have Muriel transferred to a nearby nursing home once she became strong enough to leave our inpatient unit. However, about two weeks later I noticed a dramatic change. Muriel began to slow down rapidly, and spent much time fast asleep. She still had many visitors, church friends as well as family, and we charged the air around her with the spirit of her favorite Gospel songs.

The hymnal I ordered arrived in the mail just that morning, and before I came to work I thumbed through it and found a song I liked. I learned it that very morning, brought it to the hospice, and sang it for Muriel:

We are often tossed and driv’n on the restless sea of time,
Somber skies and howling tempest oft succeed a bright sunshine,
In the land of perfect day, when the mists have rolled away,
We will understand it better by and by.

By and by when the morning comes,
When the saints of God are gathered home,
We will tell the story how we’ve overcome,
For we’ll understand it better by and by.

As soon as I sang this song, new to me but familiar to Muriel, she raised her head and opened her eyes. I told the group, “She is hearing this!” They all responded “Yes, she is.”

The very next day, however, the mood in the room was somber. Muriel had declined markedly and now seemed completely unresponsive. I had a strange feeling being in the room that day, one I had not experienced before with Muriel but that I have felt with other patients as the end drew near. Often when death approaches, I can sense a spiritual presence surrounding the person. It is difficult to describe, except to say it is the most deeply peaceful feeling that I have ever known at any time. I believe that at this time in the person’s life God sends special angels to be present for a while and then accompany the person home. When I become aware of the moment of death approaching, it feels like I can sense the presence of those angels.

It makes me feel deeply peaceful but also sad. Peaceful, because I feel happy that God’s angels are surrounding the loved one and protecting her and caring for her: “For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). But also sad, because I feel the impending loss of that person. I think Annette sensed it too, because I detected a deep sadness in her that she had not expressed openly before.

So I chose softer, quieter songs, like this one by the composer Mark Miller, which seemed an exact description of what people felt in that room that day:

There’s a spirit of love in this place,
There’s a spirit of love in this place.
You can’t see it but it’s there,
Just as precious as the air;
There’s a spirit of love in this place.

There’s a presence of peace in this room,
There’s a presence of peace in this room.
In God’s tenderness is found
Peace that passes human bounds,
There’s a presence of peace in this room.

Muriel died early the next morning. Her final hours were some of the most peaceful I have witnessed in my two decades of hospice work. I never noticed in her any signs of distress, nor the agony that can be typical of end stage pancreatic cancer. It was said of Moses that he died by a “kiss from God,” and so it seemed with Muriel.

In my hospice work I have learned something very profound from Muriel and from others like her: When you live your life as Muriel did, dwelling in love, that love comes back to you and stays with you as a very real presence when you need it most. That has been true of the people I’ve known whose faith was most powerful. Faith is born in love.

Muriel was not just my patient but my friend and my teacher. No book, no sermon, no words can provide the lesson in faith that one is blessed to learn simply by being in the presence of one so close to God. Even in the experience of dying and death one can find a profound basis for hope and faith. If I sometimes have trouble finding that place of deep faith and calm in which Muriel lived, I can remember that I knew someone who lived there, that through her presence I was allowed a glimpse of it, and that God is waiting as with loving arms outstretched to welcome all the children home once their journey is complete. Thank you Muriel for this wonderful gift.

June 2008