The Very Best Christmas Gift


One girl sings her song with me while she’s having spinal taps done. Other children use their songs [written and performed for each one individually] to relax without sedatives. It enhances their confidence and self-esteem. No matter how sick these children are, despite lost hair and emaciated bodies, they feel infinitely special and precious when they hear their song. —Angela Drake, who works with children at S. Barnabas Medical Center, Livingston, New Jersey

Paul Conrad, editorial cartoonist with the Los Angeles Times syndicate, is one of the most mercilessly effective political critics in the country. His cartoons take no prisoners. Quoted recently in Editor & Publisher, he said:

“I wake up angry every morning and start reading. Then I’m furious.”

I wake up that way too. Years ago, Tom Wicker, then with The New York Times, was paying tribute to one of my mentors, I.F. (Izzy) Stone. “What keeps Izzy going,” Wicker said, “is that he’s never lost his sense of rage.”

Nearly all my columns are written in anger mounting to rage—about everything from cases of police brutality to Clinton’s serial rapes of the constitution. This column, however, is different. Not only because it’s the Christmas season—which I, an atheist, and despite Ebenezer Giuliani, nonetheless enjoy—but because this story should be told often.

In 1996, John Beltzer, a singer and songwriter, had an idea about how to make very sick children, some of whom may be terminally ill, feel better.

As Dr. Joanne V. Loewy, director of music therapy at New York’s Beth Israel Medical Center, explains it:

“When health care staff go home, and families have other children to attend to, a young patient can feel frightened and terribly alone. What a perfect time to flip on a cassette with a warm melody catered to the interests and needs of [that particular] child.”

That was John Beltzer’s idea. Since then, in collaboration with more than 100 hospitals, private health care institutions, and individual families, his nonprofit organization Songs of Love has sent 1350 individualized cassettes to children who are so sick they cannot be cared for at home.

I first heard about Songs of Love from my daughter, Miranda, a composer-singer-pianist-teacher, who has written and sung three of those songs and been involved in others.

Mandy tells me about the first song she did. It was for a four-year-old afflicted with cancer. The child was going through a painful bone marrow transplant procedure. All the way through the treatment, her mother told Mandy, the child was listening to her song on headphones—smiling and singing along.

All the composers and singers are volunteers, and they receive descriptions of each child—age, interests, schools, and hobbies, along with information about his or her parents, brothers and sisters, and pets.

Among the more than 240 singer-composers are Angela Workman, featured as one of Ray Charles’s Raelettes; former Tower of Power vocalist Tom Bowes; Michael Bolton; Ronnie Spector; cast members of the Broadway show Titanic; and Ann Curless from Exposé.

John Beltzer emphasizes that “the songs do not deal with the child’s illness. They honor the child.”

Five-year-old Ramona, as I’ll call her, wants to be a doctor. She loves to swing on swing sets, ride her Mickey Mobile, and work on her ABC computer. She is especially fond of teddy bears. From the song for Ramona:

Playing in the garden of the hospital/she’s gonna take the doctor’s job someday/making her rounds on her Mickey Mobile./Her ABC computer says that everything is A-OK/Ramona treats her patients to her beautiful smile/she puts a free TV in every room/taking care of the sick teddy bears.

Sixteen-year-old Katie (not her real name) is a varsity soccer player. She is tuned into Broadway shows and is an honors student at Freeport High. Her close companion is her teddy bear, Ikabod. This is the song for her:

Katie, your future shines like your long brown hair . . . /Ikabod, he’s by your side, he watches your every move./And everyone at Freeport High is so proud of you . . . /But more important than all that is you just being you.

John Beltzer collects the information about the children for whom the songs will be composed and sung and coordinates the volunteers who write and perform these songs. He does all this from a studio apartment in Queens. And he is now looking for office space.

“We meet every single request,” Beltzer tells me. And anyone who wants to help him do that can contact: John Beltzer, Songs of Love, P.O. Box 750809, Forest Hills, New York 11357. Phone: 718-997-8482. Contributions are also welcome.

Debbie DeWitt, a certified child life specialist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, tells this story:

“Delroy is one of our chronic patients that has received a kidney transplant. He received the song before he was undergoing all of the changes and preparation for the transplant, and the song became his primary coping mechanism.

“He had the song playing all day while he was awake, and he had to take the music everywhere with him. He is four, and he has memorized all the words to his song. He is a fun-loving child, but as with any hospital experience, especially as extensive as this was, it is hard for the child, and the song was his strength.

“He sang it for the nurses and doctors, anyone who would listen. He sang it loud enough so that even those who did not care to hear, did, and a smile came to their faces. His love for his song was so great, we had to make a tape with his song repeated over and over on it, so staff and family did not have to keep rewinding.”

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