Nothing could silence the song in coffee companion’s heart

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, February 23, 2017

Pauline Tan-MacNeill had been voiceless for months in final stages of Multiple Systems Atrophy. Photo by Warren Harbeck enhanced with Adobe Clip Art

They wheeled her into the chapel at Cochrane’s Bethany Care Centre, but not even the staff were prepared for what was about to happen.

It was early 2011. Pauline Tan-MacNeill was a resident at Bethany Care during the latter stages of her fight with Multiple Systems Atrophy, a degenerative brain disease for which there is no known cause or cure.

She was well regarded in our community. For a dozen or so years she had been a nurse with the Stoney Health Services at Morley. Mary Anna and I had come to know her especially well through the small-group Bible study she often hosted over brunch in her home with her husband Doug and daughter Kim.

In fact, it was at the onset of her illness three years earlier that the five couples in the study – affectionately referred to as the “BS Brunch Bunch” for “Bible Study Brunch Bunch” – made a memorable summer retreat to southeastern Alberta with former Cochrane pastor Fred Monk.

I took the photo of her accompanying this column along the road to Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park. Nearby was an Alberta Fish & Wildlife sign that really made the foothills gal smile: “Snakes are at risk! Watch for snakes on road next 15 km. Please slow down and save our snakes.”

Sadly, that was the last major social event we had with Pauline. Her debilitating illness soon robbed her of muscle coordination. Even eating became increasingly difficult. Two years later her condition had so deteriorated that she was admitted into Bethany Care, where their staff gave her the finest of care till her death on May 20, 2011.

During her last six months she lost the use of her voice. Even when communicating with Doug, who was by her side every day, she had to type her messages on a keyboard – with great difficulty.

This was where Mary Anna and I re-entered the scene. Several months into Pauline’s voicelessness, Doug asked us to come to Bethany and sing duets of some of her favourite hymns for her. “Of course!” we said.

Staff wheeled her into the century-old All Saints Chapel. There were only seven or eight of us there. Doug had given us a list of hymns he knew she’d love to hear.

We sang several familiar numbers. Pauline nodded appreciatively, but silently.

Then we sang her all-time favourite. (And here, readers, supply the words to your own favourite inspirational song.)

We sang the first verse. Pauline was visibly pleased. Two words into the refrain, she stunned us all.

Ignoring her paralyzed vocal cords, she opened her mouth and sang along with us clearly enough for all in the chapel to hear.

Not even Multiple Systems Atrophy could silence the song in her heart.

She never spoke again after that moment of rejoicing. But the memory she left with us has echoed in our own hearts ever since.


© 2017 Warren Harbeck

Return to Coffee With Warren home page