I am thinking about the Alabama Heartsong Retreat  in a few weeks and remembering people who have attended in the past, like “Andy.”

Andy was a handsome Italian man in his 20’s in 1998.  He was a loving father, a devoted son, a caring brother, and a committed life partner.  I remember his health had deteriorated quite a bit and he came to the clinic in a wheelchair.  He was always an optimist and he still cared about whomever he met.  He never sat silently by anyone in the waiting room and before they knew it, he had coached them to keep on living life to its fullest.

Andy looked at me at the clinic that day and said “I’m going to Heartsong in a couple of weeks.” I didn’t see how it would be physically possible for him.  But I told him if he wanted to go, we would help him.  His mother later said he couldn’t go to Heartsong unless Carol Linn, one of our clinic nurses, went with him to give him the daily infusions he needed.  So Carol said she would go if Andy wanted to be there.

When Andy arrived at Heartsong, it was incredible to see participants take the time to help him with various activities. At mealtimes different people carried his tray or pushed his wheelchair.  Everyone wanted to sit by him.  During workshop activities, many were inspired by his willingness to try to participate though his frail body made it difficult.  He had to nap in his room during some sessions so that he would have the strength to come to the large group gatherings.  When Andy spoke in large group, everyone listened.

Kelly Ross-Davis, our Director of Education at the clinic wrote about that experience:

Andy received his care at our clinic.   No, I think Andy taught our clinic about care. While I didn’t often work directly with Andy, I heard the stories of his remarkable courage and uplifting spirit despite the incredible pain in much of his body.

I was privileged to experience Andy’s amazing heart up close.  In our small group, we were tracing the outline of our bodies on a large white paper in an exercise as we defined ourselves from our head to our feet.  Carol and some dear friends patiently and lovingly assisted him as he got out of his wheelchair and laid on his back as we traced his body.  While other participants laughed and relaxed as they worked on their projects, Andy was intently focused on his.  I wondered if it was his way of finding some closure – saying goodbye to his physical body and embracing his eternal soul.

Harry Wingfield, another Heartsong Retreat participant that year, said that when it came time for the “nature walk,” Andy couldn’t go outside, so he stayed behind with him.  Harry added,

We talked about a lot of things related to living with this illness.  But Andy looked up at me and said that he thought he was ready to let go (die), but there were so many people to take care of in his own family, he didn’t know what to do.  He was so tired, but he also didn’t want to let them down.  I suggested to him that maybe it was time to take care of himself and that it would be ok for him to talk to them about it, and to let go if that is what he wanted to do.

One night when Carol was giving Andy his treatment in his room he said he wanted to call his son at home.  This was before cell phones were common and so Carol pushed his wheelchair into the hallway where the one wall phone was located. Carol said,

I sat with him as he called home and asked his partner if his son was already asleep.  I could tell he said yes by the disappointment on his face.  He was already asleep and he would miss talking with him.  And then, Andy asked him if he would put the phone by his son’s face and let him just listen to him breathe for a short time.  After a couple of minutes he hung up and said to me ‘Carol, that is the most beautiful sound in the world to listen to your own son breathe peacefully in his sleep.’  I knew then he was one of the best dads I had ever known.

At the end of the retreat, Andy said to me as he was leaving, “I am at peace now, Malcolm.  I finally have peace.”  His face was beaming.  He really was at peace and he had shared it with all of us.

Just six weeks later, Andy died a couple of days after Easter.

Andy is one of the reasons I go to the Heartsong Retreat every year. And Carol, and Kelly, and Harry also give me hope to return to Heartsong.

You just never know who might give you peace and hope this year.

(More information about how you can help sponsor a retreat participant.)