For a gorgeous, non-classical, ambient 12-hour recording that’s amazing for sitting beside the dying, scroll to the bottom of this post…
I thought my friend Grace had died already. This past week I was away on a five-day personal retreat without internet, so I had to go with the old-fashioned news source: one’s instincts. In our last email exchange, three weeks earlier, she’d been frank. “I’m very weak. They (the hospice care team) told me I don’t have much longer.” A decade ago, she’d been diagnosed with stage 4 endometrial cancer and had been beating the odds, year after year. But the disease caught up with her finally, miracle resilience or not. Grace had made her peace with that. She was ready.
Upon my return from my retreat, as chaotic daily life swooped right back in, thoughts of her gnawed at my mind. I’d lost her; I felt it in my bones, my heart. But I needed closure. I needed to send one last email, aware that there likely would be no Grace to read it, but instead someone whose job it was to report the sad news to me.
I sent the email, innocuous enough in its “All of you are in my thoughts and prayers,” that gave its reader space to reply tactfully, when the time was right, informing me that Grace had passed away. I’ve never met Grace’s longtime partner, so I recognized I was likely reaching out to a stranger.
Later that day, seemingly unrelated, I got a curious text, a “good job, thanks,” and a “Call Guido” followed by a phone number with an unfamiliar area code. I instantly thought “spam.” Who among us hasn’t gotten a text or email with a “you should see this” message and an unfamiliar link or phone number? But an hour later, uncertainly rose in me. I Googled the area code of the unfamiliar number, and discovered it was the region Grace and her partner (how had I forgotten his name was Guido?) lived in. Which meant I had my answer. Someone was telling me to call Guido. A friend, a neighbor, having read the email and now thinking, “best to have Guido tell her the bad news over the phone and not in an email.”
The contents of my stomach did a little flip. I hemmed and hawed, evading the now-inevitable. Dread filled my heart, which began thumping in double-time when I picked up the phone to call. I wanted to run from the truth that the phone call implied—that Grace had died. But it was time for speculation to meet cold, hard fact. Finally I called the number. A woman answered. A neighbor, I decided. A family friend. I stumbled through an explanation, that I was calling this number for the first time, I wanted to speak to Guido. She told me he was out walking.
And then it hit me. GRACE!!! This was Grace I was talking to. She wasn’t dead. She was there. “Grace? Grace!” I began to babble. “This is Terez! Omigod, Grace! You’re alive!” My heart exploded with incredulous joy. I had my friend back, not simply the awareness she was alive, but on the phone with me, talking. It felt like nothing short of a miracle.
Grace is a fellow classical music-lover and aficionado (way more savvy than I about opera). She’s also my oldest writer-buddy friend, our relationship dating back to a class we took in 1996, in my fledgling days of calling myself a writer. She was the superior writer, her prose seasoned and nuanced. She had the perfect touch with essays, winning award after award for her work. She penned a gorgeous, compelling memoir, Invisible Woman—a Birth Mother’s Memoir, that anyone, mother and non-mother alike would enjoy. Over the past decade, we’ve attended dance performances together, Diablo Ballet in Walnut Creek, an annual ritual that her failing health and COVID finally put an end to. Our meal beforehand was a time to talk about life, literature, the arts, our writing lives, our thorny human lives. The food was always great, the conversations even more so.
On this, the miraculous “she’s alive!” day, I asked Grace over the phone if I could come visit. This elicited genuine laughter from her, which, in and of itself was yet another thing to marvel at. “No visitors,” she said. “I’m far too weak.” For my part, I was still slack-jawed with astonishment that we were talking, that she was still animated, even though her voice now sounded weaker. She told me that, although she was weak, tired, could do almost nothing, she’d had a quarter-pounder for lunch that day, and I laughed in delight. She asked how my family and I were doing, genuinely interested in the answer. It all felt like a miracle. Grace has always been a strong woman with a strong spirit. Although she herself was ready to go, something vital in her was refusing.
This isn’t a happy story where your friend rebounds and things return to normal. This is a graceful “acceptance of loss” story, finding joy in the silver lining—our moments of shared laughter, however brief. The euphoria of discovering that not only was she still alive, but we could have a conversation. This unexpected opportunity to reiterate to her how much her friendship has meant to me. The chance to say “I love you.” I say that to my family all the time. I’m not so good at saying it to my friends. And then one day they’re gone, and you’ve lost your chance. I think the world would be a better place if we all just said that out loud more often. What a miracle, that I’d been given the chance to say it, instead of silently wishing for the rest of my life that I had.
This blog is for Grace. It is the visit I can’t give her. The place I can return to, once she’s gone, that will forever remind me of yesterday afternoon, the miraculous opportunity to exchange words, thoughts, one last time. Beyond that, once she’s weakened further, I hope music can take over as a conduit for her, to all that is beautiful in life. And since we both connect with, and through, classical music, this is my parting gift to her. Ten of the most beautiful pieces of music that speak, when words are no longer available. They are, to me, all utterly transcendent, in every sense of the word. And they aren’t just for the dying. They are for anyone in the process of losing a loved one, dealing with the aftermath of loss, or simply for the sensitive people out there who feel the loss and pain the past year (and/or lifetime) has brought us. Pain hurts, at the risk of sounding absurdly simplistic. Thank God for classical music at times like this.
*Update: Grace passed away on August 20th. When I heard the news, I dropped what I was doing, came here, and immersed myself in Mahler’s “Adagietto” from his Symphony No. 5 and for nearly twelve minutes, found the perfect companion to how I felt inside. Beauty, gravity, splendor, sorrow, acceptance and grace. Definitely Grace.
And now here’s the Classical Girl’s Top 10 Playlist for Dying, in no particular order
- Gustav Mahler, “Andante Moderato” from Symphony No. 6
- Edward Elgar, Enigma Variations, “Nimrod”
- Arvo Pärt, “Fratres for Strings and Percussion.”
- Ralph Vaughn Williams, “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”
- Edvard Grieg, Peer Gynt, “Solveig’s Cradle Song”
- Mahler, “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5 (Warning: you will need Kleenex at hand)
- Georges Bizet, “Entr’acte” from Carmen
- Johann Sebastian Bach, Air on G String
- Ralph Vaughn Williams, “The Lark Ascending”
- Antonin Dvorák, “Romance in F-minor”
PS: remember above when I mentioned a good background, ambient, looping, “deep release” recording? Although it’s not classical, nor is it necessarily “inspirational” or “uplifting,” I find it to be Absolutely Perfect Music, for both the dying loved one and the healthy one by their side, on this powerful, transcendent journey. Those of us who sit by a dying person’s side might not have the same destination, but on the heels of losing my sister, Maureen (I blogged about it HERE and it’s charming and whimsical alongside being a somber recounting of a loved one’s death, so give it a read), I am so in awe of this music (not so much the busy image), and find both comfort and gravity in listening to it. There was music like this playing in my sister’s hospital room, in fact, during her final days. It’s amazing “journeying” music. Best of all, it’s a 12-hour recording without commercial breaks, and absolutely what a person, undergoing significant trauma and stress, needs.
Here you go. May your journey be peaceful, full of profundity and awe, as you make your way through this time. I’ve been there. I think we’ve all been there, or will be, some day. You are not alone.