This story was first published in The Big Issue (461, 20 June – 3 July 2014)
You can grow cynical about some old songs. Call them too sentimental. If you’ve heard them once you’ve heard them a thousand times. Ho-hum.
And then you’re in a visiting room of a palliative care hospital built in the 1960s. Following directions from a receptionist, you’ve found your way through a maze of corridors by keeping track of coloured lines. Yellow for the Multiple Sclerosis ward. Green for Motor Neurone Disease. Blue for Parkinson’s Disease. You keep an eye on the yellow line as you side-step trolleys and wheelchairs, patients and nurses, volunteers and other visitors.
You pull up a chair beside your mate Pat. He smiles brightly at this unexpected visit. His walking-frame is parked behind him. He’s having lunch, as are half-a-dozen other patients. A woman sits at the head of the long trestle table and plays guitar quietly. Some James Taylor. Some Carole King. Songs from the 60s and 70s.
“You can chat,” she says while strumming. “It’s just background music.”
“Hayley’s a music therapist,” says Pat. “And it’s more than background music. It makes these get-togethers very enjoyable.”
Opposite Pat a volunteer is feeding a man, maybe in his 30s, strapped into a wheelchair. Beside him a woman in a floral dress and a large bib, maybe in her 50s, manages to feed herself. She is also in a wheelchair, a large electric vehicle that she can tilt. At the far end of the table a volunteer feeds a long-limbed fair-haired woman, maybe in her 30s, whose body seems to be permanently at 45 degrees.
Hayley strums. She sings. Music lightens the air. Outside, rain is setting in.
The floral-dress woman asks for an Abba song. Hayley plays some ‘Dancing Queen’. A few people hum or sing along.
A man asks for ‘The Carnival Is Over’, by The Seekers, from the 1960s. “I’ll cry if you play ‘The Carnival Is Over’,” Pat says to Hayley. I’m looking for Pat’s trademark cheeky grin, but it’s not there.
“Really?” says Hayley.
“I might.” Pat, a fine journalist in his time, a man who knows the weight of words, then alludes to a past relationship. From before our time. We met 20 years ago when our paths crossed, first as journalists and later as neighbours.
Hayley starts to sing.
Say goodbye, my own true lover
As we sing a lover’s song
How it breaks my heart to leave you
Now the carnival is gone…
Pat doesn’t cry. But he doesn’t sing along either.
“I’m lucky,” he says, cutting into his meal of meat and vegies. “I can walk. I can talk. Some patients here don’t talk at all. But the music triggers something and they might sing along a little.” Maybe, I think later, the music is like those coloured lines along the hospital corridors, guiding you to a place.
Pat was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis five years ago, around the time of his 70th birthday. He started to find it difficult to read, let alone write. He found it hard to walk. His legs refused his brain’s instructions. A lifetime camping enthusiast, he could no longer drive to the corner shop, let alone the far corners of the country, where he would camp and fish and tell yarns with fellow travellers.
A patient asks for ‘Country Roads’, the John Denver song from the 1970s.
Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads…
Home for Pat is a unit a few suburbs from the hospital: in a large but modest retirement village attached to a hospice. We once lived a few blocks from each other in Melbourne’s inner-west. When the MS started taking its toll, Pat had to sell up and move to the other side of the city. The outer-eastern suburbs. Closer to sons and daughter. Grandchildren, too.
A playful black-and-white cat, Missy, keeps him company in his unit. Neighbours keep an eye out for each other. Nurses are nearby, at the press of a button. There’s a motorised scooter-wheelchair by the front door. Journalism mementoes on the walls. A Leunig cartoon. A framed photo of Pat being dragged by police from a picket line during a journalists’ strike in the 1980s.
What is ‘home’ for the other patients – those more incapacitated than Pat? I don’t know. Maybe home is right here in this hospital with its crowded corridors, worn floors, dedicated staff and volunteers.
I know some of Pat’s story, but none of the other patients. What were their careers, their professions? What are their passions? How long have they lived with their impairments? How often have they lunched with Hayley playing music in the background?
Pat stays a week or so at the hospital every three months. “It’s like a grease and oil change,” says the former motoring writer. “Lots of tests. Maybe a change in medication. Then monitoring of that medication. I find it fairly restful.”
Multiple sclerosis is a condition that affects the central nervous system. It can be hard both to diagnose and treat. There is no known cause or cure. The organisation MS Australia describes it as “a frustratingly unpredictable disease. Episodes can occur at varying times, affecting different areas of the central nervous system. There is no one symptom that indicates the presence of MS… It can be benign – in rare cases apparently disappearing altogether after one or two episodes. Or it can progress steadily over many years, bringing about a slow deterioration in an individual’s capabilities.” It is estimated that 23,000 Australians have MS.
Pat started his journalism career at The Horsham Times in country Victoria over 50 years ago. At The Age in Melbourne he was, at various times, the letters editor, the home and garden editor, a music reviewer and a union rep. He later started a camping magazine.
When asked by a student about some highlights of his working life he once said: “Sub-editing the front page of The Times in London when man walked on the moon in 1969 was pretty interesting. And then there was the night in 1975 when reports came through on the wire about the fall of Saigon.”
“Do you know any Leonard Cohen?” Pat asks Hayley. No, not ‘Hallelujah’, I think. I hadn’t picked Pat as a Leonard Cohen man. I thought, from his music columns, he was more into folk music. Jigs and reels and ballads. Campfire music. Bush music.
“ ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ is one of the greatest songs ever written,” Pat tells Hayley. That’s a big call, I think. One of the greatest Leonard Cohen songs, maybe. “You know, ‘Jane came by with a lock of your hair….’ ”
Hayley doesn’t know the song, but jots down its title for future reference.
I tell Pat that though I first heard the song on a 1980s album of Cohen songs by Jennifer Warnes, I still don’t know it very well.
“It’s about love and loss and addiction,” says Pat. “About a break-up and another man.” Later that day I look up the lyrics:
Yes, and Jane came by with a lock of your hair
She said that you gave it to her
That night that you planned to go clear
Did you ever go clear?…
“I’ll play some ‘Hallelujah’,” says Hayley.
“The best version is by k.d.lang,” pipes up a volunteer feeding a patient.
“Well, I’ll do my best,” says Hayley.
The meal’s just about over. The plastic plates and bowls and cups, the bibs, the cutlery are being collected. Wheelchairs and patients are being manoeuvred.
Pat and I talk about family and writing and music. I mention a café called Famous Blue Raincoat, not far from my place. “I’ve heard of it,” says Pat. “I’d like to take a lock of my hair there,” he adds mischievously.
I bid farewell, following the yellow lines along the corridors. Outside it’s still raining. At home I play the Jennifer Warnes album. As well as ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ (the title track), other songs include ‘Bird On a Wire’, and ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’.
I don’t believe that time can heal
This wound I’m speaking of
Ah, there ain’t no cure
There ain’t no cure
There ain’t no cure for love…
No, I think, as the song plays, as I almost sing along, there ain’t no cure for the floral dress woman, no cure for the man strapped to his wheelchair, no cure for the woman living at 45 degrees or for the man who asked for ‘The Carnival Is Over’. No cure for Pat and thousands of others.
But there are people like Hayley the music therapist, with her songs, and the volunteers and nurses with their dedication, and the courageous patients with their indomitable spirits.
Ward Music was part of edition 461 of The Big Issue (20 June to 3 July). Copies may still be available from Big Issue vendors for $6.
Many thanks to The Big Issue’s Alan Attwood for his expert editing and to designer Luke Donovan for his well-considered collage.