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Singers at the Threshold of Dying

Across the nation and beyond – and now in Harrisonburg – local choirs have formed to sing at the bedsides of people in end-of-life care – patients who are at the “thresholds of life.” The singers are part of “threshold choirs,” as WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

It’s mid-afternoon, and three threshold singers are rehearsing in a corner of an empty dining room at a retirement home before heading upstairs to an apartment.

DONNA HEATWOLE [rehearsal]: But let’s get the same starting note…. Ready, go.

Over 200 communities around the world have choirs like this, according to the Threshold Choir organization. They sing at the bedsides of people facing the end of life, “at the thresholds of living and dying.” Their motto is “Kindness made audible.”

Local choirs are already in Stephens City and Charlottesville, but it wasn’t until recently that one formed in Harrisonburg, called the Blue Ridge Threshold Choir. It has 17 members, but because the rooms where they sing are often small, they usually go in groups of three to five, said organizer Donna Heatwole.

HEATWOLE: We enter the room quietly, and we all have stools that we sit on, so that we are at eye level with the patient. We don’t want to be in a position of power, and so we sit, gathered around the bedside of this person.

Their repertoire includes standard Threshold Choir selections and hymns, and they sing only when invited, often on short notice, and they never charge a fee. They’re available to providers of hospice and palliative care, and to individuals. They’ll sing this fall at First Choice Hospice’s “Celebration of Life” service of remembrance.

Their goal is to bring comfort; to do that they must have already come to grips with dying themselves.

HEATWOLE: One of our favorite songs, actually, is “Walking Each Other Home.” We are all just walking each other home. It’s good for us to remember that. We’re all going the same way…. It’s just a natural part of life, and I hope nothing to be afraid of.

The three singers here today – Mamie Mellinger, Mary Glick and Heatwole – sang for the same resident here at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community a week ago, and were invited to come back. His name is Preston Nowlin, and his wife for 58 years, Carolyn, meets us at the door. Members of their family are there, too.

[Doorbell, greetings]

HEATWOLE: May we come in?

NOWLIN: Please come in. 

HEATWOLE: He’s not doing so well? I’m sorry.

NOWLIN: Thank you. You know, a week ago he could say, “Is that all?”

HEATWOLE: Yes, he did say that.

NOWLIN: You’re dear to come. You know where….

HEATWOLE: It’s back down the hall.

Today, back in the bedroom, he appears to be no longer conscious. Carolyn leans over his bed.

NOWLIN: Pres, the threshold choir is here to sing for you again.

DONNA HEATWOLE: Good afternoon, Mr. Nowlin. Thank you for letting us come back to sing for you today.... This is very sacred and holy ground to us, and we are honored to be able to sing for you and to bless you on your journey.

[Singing: “Rest easy”]

CAROLYN NOWLIN: Well they’ve been an enormous blessing for our family.... As we all know, hearing remains after everything else is gone, and so my hope and prayer is that they have sung him into the kingdom and he knows that. It’s a wonderful ministry.

[Singing: “Jesus, remember me”]

HEATWOLE: It’s as much of a blessing to us as it as to them.

CLYMER KURTZ: Why is that?

HEATWOLE: Oh, it has changed my life. I think I’m a much kinder person, much more compassionate person than I used to be.

HEATWOLE: Blessings, Mr. Nowlin, to you and your family. And thank you for letting us come.

NOWLIN: Thank you so much.

“Everyone,” she says, “should be sung into the kingdom.”

[Singing: “Angel Band”]

Preston Nowlin died the next day.