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Audio Slideshow: Songs for a Sacred Place

Darlene Wheeler, of North Concord Vt., holds the hand of her huband Edward "Buster" Wheeler while the V.A. Hospice Chorus sings in their hospice suite in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 15, 2011. Buster Wheeler died about 12 hours later. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

Darlene Wheeler, of North Concord Vt., holds the hand of her huband Edward "Buster" Wheeler while the V.A. Hospice Chorus sings in their hospice suite in White River Junction, Vt., on Feb. 15, 2011. Buster Wheeler died about 12 hours later. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

A recent rehearsal of the Veterans Affairs Hospice Chorus Singers, director Mary Lewis Webb held up a small, lime green bowl. She removed the top, revealing an azure blue lining.

“Who wants to fill our bowl tonight?” Webb asked the singers, who were seated in a circle in the chapel of the White River Junction hospital, music folders on their laps.

Lin Wermager, a dark-haired alto wearing a red sweater, raised her hand.

“I’ll fill the bowl tonight with this amazing energy that is in this room,” Wermager said, and went on to describe the group’s most recent “bedside sing” in the hospital room of Edward “Buster” Wheeler, a veteran from North Concord, Vt.

“I was so moved,” said Wermager, cancer care coordinator at the VA. “The patient was calmed, the family was comforted. ... That truly is our mission.” Several singers wiped away tears as she spoke.

Last month, a small group of chorus members had sung several pieces at Wheeler’s bedside, including Angel Band, from one of the Wheeler’s favorite movies, O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Afterward, Wheeler’s wife, Darlene, told Webb that she had noticed her husband keeping time with his toes. He had appeared to settle with the music, she said, becoming more still and peaceful.

Edward Wheeler, who had stage four cancer, died the following morning following a weeklong hospice stay.

The sing was one of many the group has offered to terminally ill veterans since Webb, chaplain at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, created it two years ago.

Webb got the idea for a group that would sing solely for veterans after listening to a combined chorus of Vermont hospice singers at a conference. The a cappella group tries to provide comfort, relaxation, and support to dying veterans and their families, and Webb says it’s important to nurture the singers as well.

For this, she uses laughter, warmth -- and chocolate.

“I want them to know they are appreciated,” said Webb, who was sun-like on the cold, cloudy afternoon, wearing red lipstick, an orange linen blouse over a bright yellow top, and a necklace of colorful chunky beads.

After warming up, the group tackled a new piece, Charlie’s Song, which Islene Runningdeer, a music therapist in Vermont, wrote as a tribute to a hospice patient she had cared for. The patient had been a country music songwriter.

Webb introduced the song, which ends with the words, “I don’t want my songs to die with me. When I go please sing their sweet refrains. Let the words soar like birds, the poetry mark my words, don’t let my songs of love die with me.”

“That’s what we hope when we die,” Webb said, “that the good things we’ve done in our lifetime won’t die with us.”

Standing behind an electric keyboard, she played parts and shouted encouragement.

“Can you get the lead out?” the Virginia native asked, her Southern accent peeking through. “Close your eyes and see if you can hear the pitches a little better.”

Webb asked the singers to stand up and sing, and laid out a few prompts in advance. “Not too sluggish,” she said. “What are we singing about in that verse?”

“Love,” came the answer.

“So be ready for love,” she said, leaning heavily on the word, getting a laugh. “Please enjoy this. Let this song just nurture you.”

They gave it a try, and Webb, singing along with the sopranos, liked the sound.

“Beautifully done,” she said. “Golly!”

The 29-member chorus includes employees of the hospital, veterans and others who just love to sing. At their annual potluck celebration, two of the elder members, Lilla Willey and Alice Pierson, both of Thetford Center, were honored with the “Who I Want To Be When I Grow Up” award. The nonagenarian altos have sung with the chorus since it was created, and both were married to veterans.

Willey said she loves singing with the group, and the time spent with veterans and their families makes the rehearsing “worth it.”

“I don’t mean to sound smarmy, but you do feel pleased, as though it’s the least you can do. You just are so grateful for their service,” Willey said. “I just hope it makes them feel better.”

Like Pierson, Willey also sings with the Bach Study Group in Hanover. “We’re fortunate that our voices still hold together,” she said.

Last week, she reflected on the hospital’s willingness to have the chorus in patients’ rooms.

“(The nurses and doctors) don’t complain when we get in their way and we crowd in the little room,” she said. “I think we’re lucky to be able to do that. ... It is a joy, and I would say a privilege, to have the venue.”

Pierson, a former organist and choir director, said she likes the idea of singing to people who are ill or dying. “It’s just what I would like myself,” she said. “I love music and I feel music. It changes my feelings.”

Pierson said she enjoys rehearsing with Webb because “she is such a live wire.”

“She is full of joyous energy,” she said, “and sometimes we need to be exposed to that.”

The bedside sings are always moving. “Sometimes it’s hard not to let tears come to your eyes, but you can’t do that,” Pierson said. “You just concentrate on the singing.”

Bedside sings, which are tailored to the veteran and his or her family, may include secular or religious songs, depending on a patient’s beliefs. The chorus sings the hymn associated with the branch of the military in which the veteran served and tries to include lesser-known songs, Webb said, as familiar music often carries with it very personal connotations.

“You want some unfamiliar songs, so their spirit can rest, so their memories don’t get engaged,” she said. “The rhythm and the harmonies settle them in a way.”

After two years of leading the group, Webb still marvels at the experience of singing for veterans who are nearing death, and their families.

“When someone is at the portal and is about to leave us, it’s a sacred space,” she said. “The people around that bed are very precious to them, and here they let this little group of strangers in to provide music. That’s really holy. It’s powerful.”