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By Shannon JeffriesHoneyColony

Music roused me from my first post-surgical stupor in the ICU. A wisp of a woman with flowing locks of golden hair sat behind a mahogany harp, pulling on strings made of silver light. Her eyes were closed.

I waited for her to finish before I croaked, “Who are you?”

She jumped.

“I play for the dying.”

“I’m dying?” I asked, wondering if angels did that sort of thing all the time.

“No! Oh God! Your husband asked me to play for you. He said you might like the music.”


That’s how I made the surreal and crucial discovery that I could actually manage my pain with music. I started with light doses and no understanding. A transistor radio from my father’s garage tuned to the classical station rested on my belly. The television in the corner blasted music videos at a volume that brought frequent scoldings from the night nurses. My own voice served as a guide, though I’m sure that to the untrained ear my moans sounded like nothing but whimpering. To me, however, they became divine mile markers for a journey into sound that managed my pain and possibly saved the life of my child.

I was released to hospice at home. Good women in my life transformed my living room into a healing wonderland, complete with a hospital bed centered under a collage of images on the ceiling. White tigers, swirling colors, and words like “heal” and “breathe” were always in my line of sight. I was fed organic meals prepared and delivered by friends and family. A nine-inch wound across my stomach had been stapled shut, and the same sort of surgical staples lined my back from top to bottom.

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The pain was grueling. Every cell ached. My bones were on fire. I continued my struggle to avoid pain medication on behalf of my unborn baby. But pain finally trumped my maternal instincts, and I decided to take just one prescribed dose. The first pill I put in my mouth popped right back out and literally shot across the room. That was that. I never took another pill again.

That night was horrible. My whimpering became full-fledged moaning, and my husband begged me to reconsider the pain meds. Pitifully, I refused. It was my teenage son, a budding and talented flamenco guitar player, who showed up to help. He stood sleepy and barefoot at the end of the bed and began to play a slow, pretty piece he had written. My husband picked up his own guitar and joined in. Within minutes, relief set in. My moaning became a kind of soft humming, and I surrendered to merciful sleep.

The next day they continued playing by my bed. It was working. Each vibration hit the mark bone deep and worked to soothe my battered body. How could treatment last? My husband had to go back to work and my son to school. They could cover at least part of the night shift, but what about the day? Clearly we needed more musicians. We called everyone we knew.

The Pied Pipers Of Pain

They came from everywhere. Cello players from the church down the street. Violinists who spent their days playing curbside for change drifted up onto my porch. Flute players gathered in the corner of my room under the watchful eye of a confused hospice nurse. Singer-songwriters timidly shared their latest works. One glorious afternoon, my son and three of his pals hauled in a weathered old piano somebody had abandoned on the curb. We sang like our lives depended on it. Mine did. Music filled my nights and days. The old pain pills sat forsaken high on my closet shelf.

Baby Bell

She sits, strong legs dangling from the edge of her princess bed, banging gleefully on a glockenspiel. She was born on the second day of the New Year. She weighed in at a healthy nine pounds with a head full of jet black hair, delivered by C-section. We named her Bell. She was greeted like a rock star by all those in the know. An eternally happy baby with a hearty appetite, she instantly charmed everyone she met.

Together, Bell and I learned to walk. It was my third time and her first. She showed no sign of any side effects from the drugs, and her only seeming side effect from the surgery is her complete intolerance for loud mechanical noises. Jackhammers, blenders, and motorcycles terrify her, and whenever she hears them she covers her ears and buries her face in my side. I wonder sometimes what she heard in my womb. All the screwing and unscrewing of metal through her mother’s bones, the yanking of steel, the wrenching of titanium as she was developing in utero. Who knows?

I do know she loves music. She lives for it. My husband and I write and perform songs, sometimes with friends who were there during those long days, sometimes with my son who is grown up now. Bell sings right along with every song, beating on drums, pounding on her tiny piano with perfect timing.

We continue to use music to manage pain—both physical and emotional. I still don’t fully understand, but that doesn’t matter. I can walk, and my healthy daughter is my constant companion. The spirit of music leads, and we follow, gratefully, willingly, and knowingly.

Photo by margaret durow/Flickr.

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