In addition to my son, Adrian, there were seven children in his ward at The Hospital for Sick Children in London. They ranged from Adrian's 4 years of age, through Carolyn, Elizabeth, Joseph, Hermie, Miriam, and Sally to 12-year-old Freddie.
All of the young patients were victims of leukemic diseases and didn't have long to live. All, that is, except one-beautiful, green-eyed, golden-haired Elizabeth, who was 10 years old. After completing a common regimen of therapy with the other children, she would go home to live a healthy life.
Yet the other children felt a genuine and profound sympathy for the little girl, as I learned when I paid my daily visits to my son and talked-not only with him but with the others. Companions in distress, the children shared everything-even their parents.
Elizabeth, who had undergone complicated surgery in the region behind her ears, was going deaf. The process was quite advanced, and it would be only a matter of months before her hearing loss was complete-and irreversible. That Elizabeth was an ardent music lover, who possessed a clear and delightful singing voice and showed promise as a pianist, made the prospect of her inevitable deafness all the more tragic.
But she never complained. Occasionally, though, when she thought no one was looking, silent tears would form in her eyes and slowly roll down her cheeks.
Elizabeth loved music more than anything else, and she enjoyed listening as much as she enjoyed performing. Frequently, after I had helped my son prepare for bed, she would beckon me into the playroom, which was quiet after the day's activities. Seating herself in a big, leather armchair, and making room for me to sit beside her, she would take my hand and say, "Sing for me."
Certainly no Pavarotti, but capable of carrying a tune, I could not deny her request. Facing her so she could see my lips, and enunciating as clearly as I could, I would sing a couple of songs for these special "command performances." She would listen intently and with obvious enjoyment, then thank me gravely with a quick kiss on the forehead.
The other children, as I have said, were disturbed by the little girl's plight and decided to do something to cheer her up. Under Freddie's leadership they came to a decision, which they took to staff nurse Hilda Kirby.
"Kirby," as she was known to parents and children alike, was a tall, angular young woman whose formidable manner had been known to strike terror in the casual observer. The children, however, were not deceived by her brusque efficiency. They knew that Kirby was their friend.
Initially, Kirby was taken aback by their announcement. "You want to give a concert for Elizabeth's eleventh birthday?" she exclaimed. "And it's in three weeks' time? You're mad."
Upon seeing their crestfallen faces, she added, "You're all mad. But I'll help you."
Kirby lost no time in keeping her promise. She hurried to the telephone in the nurses' sitting room and dialed the number of a conservatory of music, not a great distance away in north London. "Kindly give a message to Sister Mary Joseph," she instructed the receptionist. "Tell her to expect a visit this evening from Hilda Kirby on important business."
As soon as she was off duty, Kirby took a cab to the conservatory to see her friend, Sister Mary Joseph, who was a voice and choir teacher.
After a brief greeting, the nun came right to the point. "Kirby," she asked, "what harebrained scheme do you intend to involve me in now?"
"Mary J," replied Kirby, "is it possible to transform a small group of children, none of whom has had any musical training, into a passable choir, capable of giving a concert in three weeks?"
"It is possible," replied Sister Mary Joseph. "Not very probable, but possible."
"Bless you, Mary J," exclaimed the nurse. "I knew you would."
"Just a minute, Kirby," said the bewildered nun. "Tell me more. Maybe I am unworthy of your blessing."
Twenty minutes later the two parted on the steps of the conservatory. "Bless you, Mary J," repeated Kirby. "We'll see you on Wednesday at 3:00."
"Called what?" demanded Freddie incredulously as Kirby confronted him and the other children while Elizabeth was undergoing her daily therapy. "Is she a man or a woman, then? How can she be called 'Mary Joseph?' "
"She's a nun, Freddie. She teaches at one of the best music schools in London. It'd cost you two guineas an hour to take lessons from her. And she's going to train you-for free."
"Blimey!" interjected Hermie, who knew the value of a shilling because his mother kept a stall in London's Sunday-morning market in Petticoat Lane. Brushing aside Freddie's objections, Hermie said, "We'll take it."
So it was settled. Under Sister Mary Joseph's able direction, the children practiced each day while Elizabeth was undergoing therapy. There was only one major problem: how to include 9-year-old Joseph in the concert. Clearly, Joseph could not be left out, but following surgery, he could no longer use his vocal cords.
"Joseph," the nun told him after she had noticed him watching wistfully as the others were assigned their singing parts, "I believe our Lord wants you to help me in a very special way at the concert. You have the same name as I have, and He wants you to work quite closely with me. You will sit beside me and turn the music pages as I play the piano."
For a brief moment Joseph's eyes shone. Then, close to tears, he scribbled frantically on his notepad, "But Sister, I can't read music."
Sister Mary Joseph smiled down at the anxious little boy. "Don't worry, Joseph," she assured him. "You will. Our Lord and I will work on it."
Incredibly, within the three-week deadline, the Lord, Sister Mary Joseph, and Kirby transformed six dying children, none of whom had any noticeable musical talent, into an acceptable choir, and a little boy who could neither sing nor speak into a confident page-turner.
Equally remarkable, the secret was well kept. Elizabeth's surprise as she was led into the hospital chapel on the afternoon of her birthday and seated on a "throne" (a wheelchair) was genuine. Her pretty face flushed with excitement, and she leaned forward to listen.
Although the audience-10 parents and three nurses-sat only a few feet from the platform, we had some difficulty in seeing the faces of the choristers clearly. But we didn't have any trouble hearing them as they worked through a somewhat incongruous repertoire that ranged from "Jesus Loves Me" to "Danny Boy"-all favorites of Elizabeth's.
"Remember to sing loud," Sister Mary Joseph had admonished the choristers just before the program began. "You know she can hear very little, so give it all you've got." And they did.
The concert was a great success. Elizabeth said it was the best birthday she had ever had. The choir almost burst with pride. Joseph beamed. The rest of us, I'm afraid, shed more tears.
Anyone who is close to desperately ill or dying children realizes that it is not the hopelessness of their situation, nor even their physical suffering, that is so devastating. It is their indomitability, their courage in the face of overwhelming odds, that breaks your heart.
I have no printed program to show for the most memorable of all the concerts I have attended. No rave reviews were written. Nevertheless, I have never heard, nor do I expect to hear, more beautiful music. If I close my eyes, I can still hear every note.
Those six young voices have been stilled now these many years. All seven members of the choir-the six young choristers and the silent page-turner-are sleeping. But I guarantee that Elizabeth, now married and the mother of her own golden-haired, green-eyed daughter, can still hear, in the ear of her memory, those six young voices that were among the last sounds she ever heard.
Arthur A. Milward was a copy editor and college professor before retiring in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. This story is reprinted with permission from the July 1979 Reader's Digest. Copyright (C) 1979 by The Reader's Digest Assn., Inc.
Read another true story by Arthur Milward in the next issue of Women of Spirit.