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One Last Song Before You Go

The Threshold Choir takes requests, but there's a catch—you have to be dying.

The Women of the Threshold Choir:
Charmaine Emery
(1 of 10)

Margo Leslie
(2 of 10)

Yukari Vincent
(3 of 10)

Maxine Heiliger
(4 of 10)

Colleen Johnston
(5 of 10)

Betsy Bannerman
(6 of 10)

Emma Haft
(7 of 10)

Liz Walton
(8 of 10)

Caryatis Cardea
(9 of 10)

Darleen Kelly
(10 of 10)

When the Threshold Choir performs, it is for an audience of one. The signs of reciprocity are slight: a relaxed brow, an unclenched fist, a focused gaze, evened breath. But the goal isn’t applause—the music is merely meant to comfort the gravely ill, whether at a hospital, hospice center, or private home. “We want to make death a less terrifying prospect,” says Caryatis Cardea, a member of the East Bay chapter of Threshold, one of seven in the Bay Area. “This is a way of bringing a moment of calm and acceptance.”

The choirs are a “largely gray-haired group,” she says, most of whom arrive through word of mouth. Few have prior singing experience. “You’re learning songs and getting a handle on your own mortality,” says San Francisco singer Charmaine Emery. Typically, the same small band of women makes weekly visits to a terminally ill patient until the end. Though the choirs rely on a songbook of more than 400 a cappella tunes, they also accept requests: One woman wanted to hear “Age of Aquarius” (“It can be kind of a rambunctious song, so I sang it very quietly,” says Emery); another man asked for “Happy Trails.” “Sometimes they want to hear the songs of their youth,” says Cardea. “First love, first apartment, first job—the music that was the soundtrack of their lives.”

 

Originally published in the August 2013 issue of San Francisco

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