Jamal lay in a pile of blankets and wires attached to a nearby EKG machine. The sound of a piano pulsed through his bluetooth speaker on a rolling table. A song by Labrinth was playing. This would be Jamal’s last week alive. The chorus played, “It’s hard for me to say/I’m jealous of the way/ you’re happy without me”. Jamal’s musical taste had become heavier and more melancholy, but his sweet smile and buoyant personality were only getting lighter. I met him through a nurse on a cardiac ICU. “Could you play for my patient?” she asked. “And don’t tell him I told you this, but he can really sing. Try to get him to sing with you.” I play for dozens of patients every day in the hospital as a part of a collective of artists who facilitate bedside art experiences for patients. I was eager to meet someone who might be open to singing. Most of the people I meet are content to have me sing for them. The value of entertainment in a hospital corresponds with media culture. We live in an age of instant entertainment with an entire television genre dedicated to armchair experts who judge music quality from fifty feet away with the press of a button. That quality is based upon mass appeal, which translates to fame. Often when I finish playing a song request for a patient in the hospital, the sentiments offered back to me are questions like, “why aren’t you famous?” and “Have you ever thought of going on one of those singing competition shows?” These questions are my culture’s way of giving a compliment: through generic popular reference. The sentiment isn’t lost on me completely, but I’ve long felt that these shows dumb down the intricacies of human connection which makes the corresponding value of a music visit seem a little less connective for me.
When I first entered Jamal’s tiny ICU room after the nurse referral, his eyes were barely open and he waved his hand to welcome me in. He had been on the heart transplant list for a few months. Consequently, he had been admitted 2 weeks prior to our visit for continuing complications. His body was weak, but I noticed a spark in him when he saw my guitar. I introduced myself, told him about the Arts in Medicine program and asked him if there was a song he’d like to hear. He told me to play whatever I liked, so I played a song by the Beatles called Blackbird. He smiled and told me he liked my voice. I asked him if he would like to sing a song because I heard he could sing. He modestly turned the attention back toward me saying that he hadn’t sung in a few weeks and thought it might sound bad if he did. I asked him if maybe we could do a song together, something we both knew. He thought for a moment and asked “Do you know Slow Dancing In a Burning Room?” I happened to know the John Mayer song fairly well so I began strumming to see if the key of E was good for him. He hummed a few notes and nodded yes. A smile spread across his face, filling his eyes and while I sang the first verse, his eyes closed in anticipation of the chorus. The song metaphorically describes a romance on the brink of burnout. “My dear, we’re slow dancing in a burning room”. He leaned into the melodic line the first time with hesitance, trying to find his voice. This is one of the beautiful things about singing a popular song. It’s someone else’s song that belongs to everyone. Louder the second time through, he tilted his head to the side and back as if the notes he sang were physically moving around inside of him. He accented the line with a skillful string of extra notes. He had found an emotive voice and we built the song up into a feeling we could share. When I strummed the final chord, we had resolved more than a song. He really did have a lovely voice. We both sat for a moment in a short silence with our eyes closed. When I looked over at Jamal, we both giggled like kids with a secret. It would be the beginning of a year long friendship at broken by short stints when Jamal would try to live a semi-normal life at home.
I learned pieces of Jamal’s story over the course of that year, mostly through the lens of his artistic aspirations. He had been in musical theater productions, taken vocal lessons and had sung in church from the time he was young. When he was diagnosed in 2015, Jamal had been auditioning for shows like American Idol and the Voice. These are the same shows that seemed to generalize my passion in the tinted lense of a popular view and here was Jamal, simply trying to figure out a way to be able to sing for a living. This was his greatest passion. Slowly, my opinion of the human connection offered in popular culture was beginning to shift.
Part of my everyday routine was a check-in with Jamal as he floated from floor to floor depending on his condition. In the first few months of our visits, I’d try to figure out what to play so we could sing more songs together. I quickly wore out my repertoire, resulting in deep dives with Jamal on Youtube and Spotify. He turned me on to some great new music and our time together turned into miniature listening parties. We took turns playing music for each other and afterward, we talked about the emotions that the songs provoked. Jamal taught me how to listen with an open mind and heart. He could always find something beautiful in any style of music. Our sympathetic love of 90’s R&B was particularly strong and often transformed his hospital room into a karaoke session open to staff and other patients. I felt a deepening knowledge of this man through the art of song selection. If you’ve ever seen the movie High Fidelity, you’ll know the cultural vulnerability expressed through the medium of mixtapes is not one to be taken lightly. Not everyone is an artist with this particular brush, but nearly everyone has a playlist in the palm of their hand. I learned to pay attention when people open up their playlist for me. memories are barnacles on the hulls of our music and in this metaphor, maybe stories are the the sea.
“I wish you the best of/ All this world can give/ and I told you when you left me/ there’s nothing to forgive”. I found myself in an ICU room two doors down from where I first met him.
Jamal sang with the intensifying chorus as a synth organ accentuated the shifting gospel-style piano chords pulsing in tune with the beeping of the EKG. Though Jamal had received his heart transplant in 2016, buying him another year of life, he was fading a little more each day, mirroring the flowers on the window ledge of his room. His body was rejecting the long-awaited transplant. My time with him during that week was filled with music. The conversations that accompanied the music had depth and spanned a variety of ideas about life and culture. We used the music as a topical springboard to hurdle through situational tension and small talk; to get to the heart of matters, big or small. I wrote a song dedicated in part to the wonderful work of connection done in collaboration with Jamal when he received his new heart. The song later helped me to grieve the loss of my friend. It is both a metaphorical and quite literal homage to the human heart. His heart beat with an irregular rhythm that informed the rest of his body that life is short. What he did with that rhythm was some of the finest improvisational living I’ve ever seen, the kind that inspires songs. Rest In Peace, Jamal.
How long will I wait
Put me on a list for a twist of optimistic fate
Hold on to me tight
I’m letting go of a part of me that just ain’t working right
Saying goodbye to my heart
Put it on a tray and watch it roll away from me
Hello Morning light
Someone put a brand new heart of life inside of me
My love is alive
A weary body and tired mind can’t stop the love inside
I sing like a bird
But melody like memory sometimes ain’t got no words (so I hum it)
Oh, goodbye to my heart
All your nasty habits, all your fumbling fits and starts
goodbye,you old machine
Your patterns got me stuck in a haze on a gurney quarantined
Oh, I know the drill
You say goodbye to one heart and you let another fill you
But i still can recall
When life was pumping through that thing like a wabash cannonball
But old things pass away
New things shine but pale sometimes in the light of yesterday
But new hearts have a way
Of letting go of old broke hearts and the stupid games they play
Say goodbye to my heart
Walk away and its ok I will not fall apart
Goodbye faulty beat
Now something dead can live again where the old heart used to be
I walk down the street
Thinking about that little song
You sang along with me
Now i sing so low
With a heavy heart of sorrow for your heavy heart of gold
Oh yeah, you can cry
You can curse a god that’s living way up in a cloud
But how long will you wait?
There’s a heart for everyone who ever cried out loud
Saying goodbye to their hearts
Bleeding out a broken rhythm, living out of tune
So long, malady
I Won’t forget you, won’t regret you you’re always a part of me