Group fulfills musical last wishes

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by Emily Baucum, News 4 San Antonio, Wednesday, March 22nd 2017

VIDEO || AUSTIN, TX – Music can lift your spirit and ease your pain – so much so, a local nonprofit now holds private concerts for terminally ill patients.

The nonprofit Swan Songs is expanding from Austin into San Antonio, thanks to a generous grant from the WellMed Charitable Foundation.

From the very first note, some songs take you back to a time and place you knew then would stay with you. “‘My Girl’ is Gene and I’s song,” says Marcella Keller as two musicians play the song on the back patio of her home in Sunset Valley, just south of Austin.

A lady never reveals her age: “48 and holding,” Keller says with a twinkle in her eye.

But her home is filled with souvenirs of a life well lived: her children, a career and of course – music.

“It just brings up your spirit,” Keller says. “Makes me forget other negative things.”

Her smile hides it well, but every once in a while you catch a glimpse of her discomfort.

“I’ve got Parkinson’s,” she says.

She’s under the close watch of hospice worker Jaime Nichols.

“Anyone that’s considered suitable for hospice is typically given a diagnosis of six or less months to live,” Nichols says. He knows every memento holds a memory.

“She and her husband Gene, music is really important to them,” Nichols says. “They just would not get off the dance floor back when she was able to dance.”

As a lifelong musician, he relates to the emotional connection.

“There was a hymn,” Nichols remembers. “It said: ‘All things shall perish from under the sky. Music alone shall live, never to die.'”

The honky-tonk concert was his idea, all coordinated through Swan Songs. The concerts are free and the music are family favorites. “If they want country music – old country, new country – if they want mariachi, we’ll find the musicians,” Karen McElhatten with Swan Songs says.

Keller is clearly enjoying herself as she taps her feet and sings along to songs like “La Bamba” and “Mustang Sally.” Not every recipient is as lucid. Yet music always finds a way.

“One lady in particular was listening to cello music that was being played,” McElhatten recalls. “Her own mother had played cello for her as a child. She started moving her feet under the blankets, and she had been completely nonresponsive for days. And passed away about 12 hours later. But the music reached her.”

The concerts are life’s final gift. It’s a responsibility the musicians feel in their hearts.

“When you first start doing them and you realize what’s going on, it can be really emotional,” says guitarist and singer Danny Britt.

“It’s uplifting but it is intense,” adds guitarist and singer Marvin Dykhuis.

“I think I’ve learned that music overcomes everything else,” Britt says.

And for families like Marcella’s, for one moment, sadness fades into a chorus of pure joy.

“Just the company, the music – everything,” she says with a bright smile. “These people here that came today are like my very best friends.”

No one knows how much time we have left or when our song will end.

“What have I learned about life? Make it as happy as you can,” Marcella says.

Life, after all, is worth living – up until the very last note.