How music — including metal — provided me a therapeutic release

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by Helen Baldwin |

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Given the hair-raising books and movies I favored growing up, you’d think I’d have uttered a scream at some point.

Genuine screams, however, were reserved for roller coasters until my husband, Randy, became a football coach. Then I morphed into a maniac. Granted, I considered my high-decibel screams warranted because of shoddy officiating, poor sportsmanship, dirty plays, trick plays, and unexpected victories. Obnoxiously, I screamed — for years.

I apologize to those who were sitting around me. I hope your hearing is still intact.

Surprise pregnancy was just the beginning

In late 1996, Randy and I grappled with the news of having a newborn in our 40s. A scream might have been justified, but we refrained. Jeffrey arrived two weeks early, on May 18. Mercifully, he was a sweet, easy baby.

Fast forward to July 13, 1997. At Randy’s request, my doctor brother, Paul, examined Jeffrey to evaluate his abdominal breathing. He found a dull-sounding lung and no reflexes. Generally able to reassure with his calming demeanor, Paul’s expression suggested that Jeffrey had come with a surprise of his own, and it was a big one.

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Late that night, in anticipation of the routine checkup scheduled for the next morning, I jotted down some unusual pregnancy memories, including asking the doctor if babies who moved in utero might not move after birth. My heart began pounding. When I noted our dog’s accidental death that week, my heart raced. Had that been a rehearsal of sorts?

As the puzzle came together, I couldn’t have screamed if I’d tried. I was doing well to gasp for breath.

The surprise gets a name

The consultation with the pediatric neurologist took place the following evening at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Physicians in training had filed in and out of the room for hours, gently checking Jeffrey and repeating queries. I prayed one of them would identify the problem and a solution.

I pondered a few diagnoses familiar from my teaching days at Brockman School in Columbia, South Carolina. We could handle a wheelchair! I wasn’t sure how we’d modify the old two-story farmhouse, but we’d manage!

My optimistic self never dreamed there wouldn’t be a solution.

That night the neurologist handed us the diagnosis of SMA and plunged the proverbial knife even deeper with the prognosis of death long before kindergarten.

I didn’t scream then, either. Not that I couldn’t have.

I was too busy mopping up buckets of tears.

My mother and music

My late mother, an accomplished pianist, blessed our family with her phenomenal knack for improvisation and impressive memory, recreating portions of recitals from decades past. She and I played two-piano music as often as possible until her vision took a nosedive.

In the early ’90s, while we lived in Lenoir, North Carolina, Mom and I held private music classes for young children and took adapted versions to countywide day cares as part of Smart Start. The favorite activities, for the kids and us, were when I read them stories and led them in exercises while Mom provided accompaniment on a small keyboard.

Mom had experienced such severe stage fright when performing in her earlier years, so much that she played her senior recital under hypnosis. Despite her nervousness in our new endeavors, combined with my tendency to improvise, she discovered another strength: making stuff up in a crunch.

She put that talent to work with a collection of original songs for Jeffrey after his diagnosis. He loved them.

The therapeutic power of music worked on me, too.

Unforeseen release from metal (and more!) music

A post on my Facebook timeline in April led me to Dan Vasc, a heavy metal singer from Brazil. His rendition of “Amazing Grace,” linked in the post, was mesmerizing; his powerful voice, extraordinary range and control, confidence, passionate delivery, and creative twists had Randy and I looping the video.

As a teen, I gravitated toward softer music. Surprisingly, I found plenty in Dan’s collection of covers: “Scarborough Fair,” for starters. Tears streaming down Dan’s face at the end of “Son of Pain” left me drained, but wanting more. Ditto for “An American Trilogy,” an emotional tribute to his beloved dad, whose death had come just the week before. And I found “Nessun Dorma.” Oh, my. Tears that had been in limbo since my mother’s death over a year ago began spilling out.

And lo and behold, there was Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” a rare “wild” favorite of mine! The metal madness in the video seemed curiously therapeutic.

I think I figured it out.

Barring my insane cheering at football games, I’ve rarely actually screamed, not even when it would’ve been totally appropriate (a tarantula on my mirror? our baby dying?). I’ve squealed, hollered, and cried out loudly, but I’ve never let loose emotionally with the mother of all screams.

In his videos, Dan Vasc is doing just that, and what a vicarious release it’s provided to this new fan.

Need a release of your own? Try a metal singer from Brazil. And feel free to sing along, even with the metal. It’s therapeutic!

Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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