For some dying patients, a visit with a hospice chaplain and his new piano offers the comfort of a lullaby sung by angels. 

Heavenly Piece

With every puff of her Basic Value cigarette Mary Ballard rejoices in the Lord.

She knows the next could be her last. She could be called home today, tomorrow, or sometime in the next millennium. Mary hopes she won't have to wait that long.

Mary, 79, has lung cancer and doctors tell her she doesn't have much time. But Mary considers something her doctors don't: the time she has is eternal.

Here, on earth, Mary knows she's got some living to do. She tends to it daily as she used to tend to her rose garden: from sunrise to sunset. And in between she rests sweetly, and smokes, from her hospital bed planted in the brightest spot in her yellowed living room. It's here that she's most comfortable, and it's here that she visits weekly with Bon Secours hospice volunteers. But recently something's changed for the better — and it's not Mary's health. Since mid-October, Mary has perked up for her visits with hospice chaplain Bill Daniels. The piano he now brings makes her gray eyes smile.

In a world as silent and fragile as the butterflies that adorn her quilt and curtains and float beneath doorway mobiles, it's music that flutters by Mary's heart and is captured.

Music that, Daniels and Bon Secours hospice believe, is a potent therapy for pain. In his four years as Bon Secours' chaplain, Daniels, also a choir director, has played the piano in the homes of many hospice patients — all told they have less than six months to live. Watching faces light up, seeing limbs relax, Daniels says there's no denying the powerful effect music has on the dying. An individual donation allowed Daniels to purchase the portable piano. Now, Daniels plays for many of the nearly 75 hospice patients, whenever they request it. What's more, just when Daniels purchased the piano, Elizabeth Berry, a harpist, called Daniels "out of the blue" to say she'd like to play for the Bon Secours hospice patients. Her harp teacher and mentor had recently died of cancer and she wanted to offer something "beautiful" to people in pain. Daniels happily agreed. And although Daniels and Berry haven't performed together yet, Daniels says it's on the books for the future.

Rhonda Mints has been Mary's caregiver since September when Mary came home from St. Mary's Hospital with a broken hip. Mary calls her "Angel." Everyone does. Angel opens the door for Daniels as he carries the newly donated Roland HP 130 full-sized digital piano up the wheelchair ramp and into the small warm living room. Elizabeth Anderson, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bon Secours intern, helps Daniels set up the piano just arm's reach from Mary's bed. "Yesterday was Mary's birthday," says Daniels, giving Mary a playful look that she teasingly dismisses. She had a party with cake and ice cream.

"Now Bill, you're going to play some Tchaikovsky for us?" she asks expectantly.

"I hadn't planned on it," confesses Daniels. "Mary, what's your favorite Christmas carol?"

"Silent Night."

"Now how come I knew you'd say that?" Daniel's trained voice is bigger than the house, balanced by the tone of the piano that grips Mary's attention. She mouths the words, singing in her head with the voice she once knew.

"I'd like visitors every day," Mary proclaims. "You get right lonesome."

Everything in the room, from the orange fake flowers on an end table to the oval-framed bird pictures, seems tucked in place - especially the walnut curio cabinet in the corner behind Mary's bed. On top a dozen cards line up with birds and flowers on the front and inside: "Get Well Soon" and "Thinking of You."

"Slee-eep in heavenly peace," sings Daniels.

"Beautiful," Mary exclaims clapping.

"We take our show on the road," says Daniels. Four years as Bon Secours' hospice chaplain — a job that deals with death daily — has taught the peppy Daniels to embrace life whenever and wherever possible. And for Daniels, who doubles as choir director at All Souls Presbyterian Church on Overbrook Road, Mary's living room is the perfect stage.

Next, he plays "O, Little Town of Bethlehem" and adjusts the piano's settings mid-song. "This has so many features - organ, harpsichord, vibraphone - we can jazz it up for you, Mary. You like jazz? I can't play it, but I'll show you what this can do," says Daniels, sitting back and letting the piano's programmed repertoire take over.

"No hands," Mary says smartly.

Propped up on two pillows Mary listens intently to the classical music cascading from Daniels' fingertips.

"I used to play the piano, but not anymore," she pauses.

"I'd like to hear Tchaikovsky's concerto."

"OK, Mary, just let me find that switch," says Daniels as he mimics pushing random buttons on the piano. But amid the jesting Mary and Daniels communicate on a deeper level, one that perhaps only music inspires. Together, spontaneously, the two hum the tune to the concerto that neither needs sheet music to follow.

"I got it on my 20th birthday," recalls Mary. Sheet music, that is, to the Tchaikovsky concerto. Mary's cousin, Charles Bliley arrives, and looking grateful for the company, stands behind Angel where there's still space in the room.

"Now I'm going to play my favorite," says Daniels. The blue hymnal opens automatically to the page. The piano in organ mode pipes "O, Come All Ye Faithful" through Mary's little West End home as if it's being played in a grand cathedral.

But when Daniels begins "O, Holy Night," Mary sits up a little straighter in her purple pajamas. The butterfly quilt now covers only her legs — one broken, the other foot hurting. No one would know to look at her now. Mary clenches the side rails of the hospital bed as if she's about to leap into Daniels' chair and finish the piece for him.

A glazed and steadfast look on Mary's face belies her bony, dependent body. Long seasons have flashed by her 79 years. She writes aloud bits of an autobiography. She was born and grew up in the 3100 block of Floyd Avenue — the West End, she insists. A devout Catholic, she attended St. Benedict's Church. She has no husband or children and all her brothers and sisters are dead. Mary graduated from Saint Gertrude High School in 1939 — the year before uniforms were introduced, she laughs. She never intended to move away from Richmond. She worked in an ice cream shop for four years, then Miller & Rhoads, DuPont and finally Sears, where she stayed for 34 years until she retired in 1982.

These details are important to Mary. They mark her life, as she thinks of it now, between songs, between visits.

"You know on our first visit we walked out in the yard," recalls Daniels, closing his hymnal.

"I used to be out there from sunrise to sunset," Mary tells

Latest in Miscellany


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Connect with Style Weekly

Copyright © 2021 Style Weekly
Richmond's alternative for news, arts, culture and opinion
All rights reserved
Powered by Foundation