“I will shelter you my friend.
I will shelter you.
With a love that has no end,
Know that I will shelter you.
I will sing for you my friend.
I will sing for you.
With a song that has no end,
Know that I will sing for you.”
— From the Davis Threshold Choir song book
It is, they say, a practice as old as time: Women, singing at the bedside of the sick and dying in order to bring some measure of comfort and peace to someone’s final days.
Theirs are gentle, maternal voices, singing simple songs, much like many of them did years ago to soothe a crying baby or a child who couldn’t sleep.
Now they form the Davis Threshold Choir, some two dozen women in all, and they sing to ease the discomfort and fear and anxiety of those on the threshold between life and death.
A day of singing
What: Join Threshold Choir founder and artistic director Kate Munger at a workshop for female voices sponsored by the Davis Threshold Choir
When: Saturday, July 28; registration at 9:30 a.m.; singing from 10 a.m. to noon; lunch from noon to 1 p.m.; more singing from 1 to 3 p.m. A salad lunch will be provided but guests are asked to bring their own napkins, water bottles and/or mugs
Where: Fair Oaks United Methodist Church, 9849 Fair Oaks Blvd.
Cost: Free, but donations are suggested
Info: Karen at (209) 296-7354 or www.thresholdchoir.org
Referred by Yolo Hospice, local hospitals and individuals, they go in groups of three or four to the bedside of the sick and dying throughout Davis, where they’ll sing for an hour or so at a time, once a week, and when the end draws near, they’ll go more often.
“We ‘sit vigil,’ said choir member Doreen Conte, “coming every day near the end if they want us to.”
Their singing is part lullaby, part gospel hymn, with songs sung in harmonies and rounds. Though they are not a religious group, not affiliated with any church, they tailor their songs to the patient’s religious background and music preferences, even their languages.
They’ve sung in Spanish, Zulu, Arabic. They know what they do makes a difference.
Choir member Susan Kirby recalls the hospice patient she sang to several times before the woman’s death. She was very restless and agitated near the end, Kirby said, but once the choir would begin singing, the woman would visibly relax and let go, sinking slowly back into her bed.
One patient told choir member Wendy Nyquist that listening to the choir “is the only time I don’t think about dying,” she said.
Often choir members are called in early, when a patient is still alert and able to communicate, and that allows time for the women to get to know the patient personally.
Those times, Nyquist said, are the best.
“It’s very special when we can form a relationship with the person,” she said.
But it makes the patient’s death all that much harder.
For Nyquist, whose life work has involved working with the elderly and mentally ill, and dealing frequently with death and dying, it’s something she’s had to become comfortable with.
For new choir members without that experience, there is an orientation beforehand to help them prepare for spending time at the bedside of the dying. And afterwards, there is always a debriefing of sorts to process the grief together.
They are a diverse group of women, ranging in age from 20s to 80s. There is young Marissa Bentivoglio, a public relations specialist who refers to the other women as “my moms.” And there is Davis poet laureate Allegra Silberstein, now in her 80s and singing to patients every week.
The Davis choir is one of nearly 100 threshold choirs that have sprung up around the world since the first one was started by Bay Area resident Kate Munger back in 2000.
The idea had come to her while caring for a close friend who was dying of HIV/AIDS in his home.
“I did housework all morning and was terrified when the time came to sit by his bedside,” she said. “I did what I always did when I was afraid: I sang the song that gave me courage. I sang it for 2 1/2 hours. It comforted me, which comforted him.”
From there she gathered a small group of women to create the first threshold choir. Soon after, chapters started in the East Bay and Marin County, and later spread north into Canada, across the country to New York City, and everywhere in between.
“Our goal is bring ease and comfort to those at the thresholds of living and dying,” Munger has said. “A calm and focused presence at the bedside — with gentle voices, simple songs and sincere kindness — can be soothing and reassuring to clients, family and caregivers alike.”
They sing as a form of gentle blessing, the women say, rather than as entertainment. They are honored when a client falls asleep.
“We say that’s like a standing ovation,” Conte said.
And though they see the benefit to the patients they sing to, the women speak of the benefits to themselves as well.
Nyquist first read about the Davis Threshold Choir in The Enterprise five years ago and decided to check it out.
“It just sounded like it was something I wanted to do,” she said.
“And the first time I came, that was it. I had been searching for a spiritual home and found it.”
That spiritual home features weekly gatherings to learn and practice new songs. They meet at the Unitarian Universalist Church and the Davis Community Church, where they sit in a circle and sing.
In the middle rests a reclining chair, where members, newcomers and visitors take a turn at relaxing while being sung to. Sitting in the chair, eyes closed, provides a glimpse into the soothing power of a dozen or more women’s voices raised in song, and it gives the choir someone to focus on while they practice.
The choir welcomes new members all the time, as well as referrals from anyone with a friend or family member in need of comfort. Their service is free.
To learn more, contact Conte at (530) 758-7671 or Carol Lynn at (530) 757-2948, or visit http://www.thresholdchoir.org/davis
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at [email protected] or (530) 747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy