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The Threshold Singers: ‘The beginning of something great’

Every Friday, the Threshold Singers of the Triangle visit Carol Woods Retirement Community in Chapel Hill to brighten residents’ rooms with music. The volunteers, most retirement-aged, arrive before 9:30 a.m. wearing sensible footwear with lyrics to hundreds of songs in their phones. Traditionally, the visits began in a second-floor room: Anne Wright’s. 

Wright cherished their visits, keeping her door open so she could see them arrive. The singers knew that the American, who grew up in Lebanon, wanted to hear patriotic songs about the United States. On a recent Friday, she welcomed the five volunteers as she sat perched in an armchair facing the door, a blanket draped over her legs.

Randy Tobias, 64, led the group with his guitar. The retired statistician double-checked that Wright wanted a visit before beginning with “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin.’” The music did magic for her spirits. After a few more songs, “God Bless America” was the grand finale. Wright sang along, beaming. 

From the mountains to the prairies

To the oceans white with foam

God bless America, my home sweet home

God bless America, my home sweet home

Wright’s lips formed a small “O” as she held the last note of the anthem. Her voice quavered over the final syllable. She had tears in her eyes. 

“Oh, that was perfect,” she told them.

“I like that you call yourselves ‘Threshold,’” she said, “because it’s the beginning of something great.” 

* * *

The local Threshold Singers chapter is one of about 200 in an international organization that honors people at the threshold between life and death “with compassion shared through song.” The local chapter also regularly visits Croasdaile Village, a retirement community in Durham. In addition to visiting senior communities, the volunteers sing to hospice patients. On Wednesdays, they visit Duke HomeCare and Hospice. These patients are referred to as “travelers” – people in the twilight of life, about to depart. 

Much of the Threshold repertoire is dreamlike and gentle, an opportunity for soothing voices to serenade people in the moments leading to their final breath. But the group can sing virtually any song a resident requests, from show tunes such as  “Do-Re-Mi” to country standards like “You Are My Sunshine.” 

The volunteers personalize their visits, selecting songs that celebrate past memories and experiences of the people they’re singing to. 

One of the main differences between singing to “travelers” in hospice and residents in senior communities is that residents often communicate song preferences. Many of them, like Wright, look forward to the Threshold Singers’ regular visits. Some want patriotic anthems. Some want hymns. Another resident on the floor had a napkin on her lap with a list of requests. She wanted protest songs.

We are gentle, angry people

And we are singing, singing for our lives

We are black and white together

And we are singing, singing for our lives

We are justice-loving people

And we are singing, singing for our lives

She was a former nun who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Chicago in the 1960s. Her room was decorated with a stuffed monkey wearing a mask and a pride flag sticking out of a vase. On the wall was a framed quote from King: “Until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Tobias’s guitar reverberated within the room, his warm, resonant voice anchoring the group. 

No musical experience is required to be a Threshold Singer, but the group does require a particular attitude, one of respect and sensitivity. With each room they visit, volunteers “share a culture of compassion and respect for individuals” through gentle melodies.   

* * *

Bob Gwyther had dementia.  For nine years he suffered from Lewy Body Dementia. For nine years his wife Lisa watched his mind slip away. 

He never remembered when the Threshold Singers would visit him at Carol Woods. But, they came every Tuesday and Friday for about a year. And during the week leading to his death on April 8, volunteers stopped by every day – singing and playing instruments and holding his hand. His wife, Lisa, teared up every time. 

Music was always a source of joy for Bob, a physician at the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Family Medicine before he retired. He played guitar and sang with various groups since the ‘80s. In his room, he kept his guitar with a list of songs he liked to sing taped to the side. 

Tobias found the list and shared it with other volunteers who made it a point to learn all of Bob’s songs. Many were folk songs from the ‘60s, touching on themes of social justice and freedom. “What we found is that even though… he had trouble speaking generally, he remembered every word to the 1960s songs he sang,” says Lisa. The music reunited him with the loveliest times of his life.

The Threshold Singers returned Bob’s voice to him. Although the illness made his voice lower, Lisa got to hear her husband sing again.

“I think that music is memory for people who’ve lost most memories,” says Lisa. “It connects them and their families to a time in their lives when things were beautiful and better.” 

Bob died on Easter weekend, and his family held a small burial service right afterwards for about a dozen people. Tobias and Norm Loewenthal, another Threshold member, were there, singing Bob’s songs. 

Randy Tobias and Norm Loewenthal didn’t know Bob Gwyther before they began singing to him. Yet they felt honored to sing for him, Lisa says. And Lisa remains deeply grateful for the volunteers who serenaded her husband past the threshold of death. 

“I made a lifelong connection to Randy and Norm,” says Lisa. “The fact that they were there almost the whole time he was in the final stages of his illness was absolutely remarkable.” They remained bedside as volunteers, as people without any prior connection to Bob.

* * *

Fridays were Anne Wright’s favorite day of the week, and they usually began with the Threshold Singers. Music was an important part of Wright’s life. She sang in choirs for more than 40 years and always joined in with the Threshold Singers when they visited her. She never failed to mention how much she loved the lyrics “from sea to shining sea” said Loewenthal. 

On Friday, Nov. 3, the volunteers were about to start their usual rounds, prepared – once again – to sing a patriotic anthem to Wright. 

They made their way to her room in the corner of the second floor. She loved that space because when the door was open, she could catch glimpses of everything going on outside. “She was very inviting and welcoming,” said Loewenthal. But on this Friday her door was closed. One of the nursing staff advised them that it wasn’t a good time to visit. 

Three days later, she died.

It was only right that her memorial service was held on a Friday. The Threshold Singers were there, too.

* * *

Each time the volunteers sing, they encounter the fullness of life and the reality of death. They do this bedside – sometimes at someone’s home in the Durham and Chapel Hill area, sometimes in hospice facilities. It’s a delicate space where the inevitability of death becomes inescapable. Their own emotions must be left at the door. 

Norm Loewenthal,  Jane Moore, and Jill Kuhlberg visit residents as they gather in a Carol Woods common space for donuts and coffee. Photo by Gabrielle Lazor – The 9th Street Journal

Loewenthal, 78, has been a Threshold singer for more than seven years. Before he retired, he was the director of the Friday Center for Continuing Education at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. 

He anchors himself by being mindful of the environment he is about to enter. “I just try to be conscious of what I’m doing… the fact that I’m going to be seeing someone who was very ill or dying, and that there are likely to be other people in the room.” 

The singers are careful in choosing songs and make sure they don’t rush through the repertoire. They sing songs such as “Rest Easy,” “Walking Each Other Home,” and “So Many Angels.” There is a softness to the group’s performances, voices blurring together in hushed lullabies. 

The Carol Woods spiritual care coordinator, Jill Kuhlberg, has been a Threshold Singer since this summer. The first time she sang with the group, she was moved to tears. It’s an overwhelming sensation that can unveil experiences of grief the singers weren’t aware they had, she said. “You’re remembering whoever else looked like that… there’s something that it’s stirring up,” Kuhlberg says. For her, the idea that there is a group “that just wants to sing you to sleep” is powerful. “I feel like I’m a very privileged person that I can be with people at this moment in their life.”

* * *

Several Threshold volunteers attended Wright’s memorial service, including Tobias and Loewenthal. It was an intimate gathering for those closest to her.

Her husband, Bill, chose the two hymns that the singers performed: “Morning Has Broken” and “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” selected for these lyrics:

In simple trust like theirs who heard,

Beside the Syrian sea,

The gracious calling of the Lord,

Let us, like them, without a word

Rise up and follow Thee

They sang of “the Syrian sea” to honor the American who grew up in Lebanon – something Wright would often remind the singers. 

Photo at top: Norm Loewenthal, Jane Moore, and Rebecca Brent singing at the bedside of a Carol Woods resident during their Friday morning visit. Photo by Gabrielle Lazor – The 9th Street Journal.

Gabrielle Lazor
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