An Unkind Gift in a Musical Package
A friend of mine, Dr. Ellen Ranney, published a book about her experience of surviving breast cancer. Her book, Unkind Gifts: An Insider’s Journey to Recovery from Trauma and Loss, left a profound impression on me.
I am not a cancer survivor. But on July 19, 2009, I became a survivor to second-hand trauma after losing one of my best friends, Teresa Butz, to a horrific act of sexual violence. Teresa and her partner, Jennifer Hopper—who later was recognized as The Bravest Woman In Seattle—were brutally attacked in the home they shared in South Park, Seattle. Isaiah Kalebu, a disturbed, violent, mentally ill homeless young man, crept into an open window in their home and repeatedly raped and stabbed both women for over 90 minutes. Jennifer narrowly escaped after being stabbed numerous times. Teresa, who suffered a deep gash in her chest, collapsed in the street in front of her home, and died naked in the arms of a stranger.
That afternoon, my parents showed up at my house in St. Louis with the miserable burden of notifying me about this tragedy. This, in turn, made me the bearer of this news to another dear friend, Jean Purcell, who had just spent a long weekend with Teresa in Chicago days before. My heart was metaphorically torn open that day. No words, no actions, could comfort the loss I was experiencing. I was in denial. The last conversation I had with Teresa was three weeks before on June 25, when she called me to cry over Michael Jackson’s death. She loved Michael, and being that we were friends since kindergarten, Off the Wall and Thriller made up the musical wallpaper of our teenage years.
The next week was brutal. Jean came into St. Louis so that we could grieve together. We cried, and we reminisced. We drank Teresa’s favorite beer, Bud Light, in vast quantities on my porch while listening to our favorite songs. Photos of the three of us were strewn across my coffee table. Jean and I would stare at them with intensity in the hope that we could forever etch our young, smiling faces into our temporal lobes. To never forget, to always remember the friendship that we’d shared for 34 years.
On the morning of Teresa’s funeral, the sun was shining and the heat, stifling. My husband drove us to the mortuary in silence, in anticipation of the final goodbyes we would be saying to our friend. To break the uneasiness, he slid a favorite CD into the console. Within a few moments, Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” gently started to play.
“When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me. Speaking words of wisdom, let it be.”
Recently McCartney shared his inspiration for writing this song during James Corden’s popular Carpool Karaoke in Liverpool. He wrote the song after his deceased mother appeared in a dream to him. She was reassuring him that everything would be OK, despite his worries. It was his mother’s positivity that got him to realize that everything would be OK.
While listening to this powerful song in the car, we began to realize that we were going to be OK, too.
That healing would be possible.
The power of music started to change everything. To backtrack a bit, Teresa grew up in a musically gifted household. She was one of 11 siblings, and to this day, the Butz family lives and breathes song. Elaine Butz, their mother, encouraged her children to use instruments and their voices by participating in theater, choir, and band. Teresa’s brother, Norbert Leo Butz, has won two Tony Awards as Best Actor in a Musical for his roles in Catch Me If You Can and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels on Broadway. Many of her siblings play in bands or sing in choirs to this day.
A few weeks after the funeral, Jean and I flew to Seattle to attend the memorial service prepared by Jennifer Hopper, who courageously held this event on the day that she and Teresa were to be wed. Instead of celebrating their future together, we gathered to share in the sudden loss of her love. Once again, music was the salve that soothed the sting of death. Jennifer had studied voice at the Boston Conservatory, and she poured her emotions into an array of songs that celebrated their all-too-brief love story. Music was helping us cope, and ultimately, heal.
Jean and I left Seattle with a mission: to share the power of music we experienced in an effort to support survivors of sexual assault. With nothing but our broken hearts and a half-baked idea, we set out to produce a benefit album that would capture the essence of our loss through music. The Angel Band Project was what we named this endeavor, and proceeds from our first album, Take You With Me, helped fund the nation’s first creative-writing workshop for survivors of sexual assault through The Voices and Faces Project.
Today, our nonprofit sponsors music therapy workshops for survivors of sexual and intimate partner violence at no cost to those who have been affected by this trauma. We work in crisis counseling agencies, women’s shelters, and safe houses to help survivors find their voices and connect with others in an effort to heal the emotional wounds they have experienced. Hundreds of survivors have benefitted from our eight-week workshops in the cities of St. Louis, Seattle, and New York. As funds become available, we plan to expand across the U.S. with this groundbreaking form of therapy.
So, thank you to friend and psychotherapist Ellen Ranney for demonstrating that sometimes, gifts come in unattractive packages. And thanks to Paul McCartney for your profound songwriting. Would I give anything to have Teresa back with us, laughing like a hyena and shakin’ her tail feather to MJ? Of course. But the gift she has given to us all is that music, indeed, helps us collectively heal. And it simply lets us “be.”
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