As we celebrate the birth of the Room 217 Foundation, I want to honour my friend Michele, a lady who loved music and loved Room 217 music. Sometime in the new year, we will upload a video Michele left as a lasting legacy about Room 217 music and how it accompanied her through her end of life journey.
My first recollection of Michele Jones was watching her play the part of Marilla in Anne of Green Gables; produced and performed by the Scugog Choral Society in Port Perry, the town where we live. I wasn’t sure whether Michele had been typecast - was she by nature an austere, cranky lady Or, was she a terrific actor Over the next 16 years, I learned about the real Michele - she was a deeply caring woman, highly skilled at vision casting and implementation, passionate about the arts, especially music, a woman with strong values and ideals and an amazing actor with an uncanny sense of timing.
Michele and I worked side by side in several productions over the years: she produced and I was musical director. We developed a way of working out the most impossible of ideas. It was through that creative process where our relationship germinated and grew into something that I will always treasure. Our last stage production together was in January 2009 at the Port Perry Centre for the Performing Arts.
It was with a tremendous degree of shock and sadness last March when our community learned that Michele had terminal cancer and was given twelve weeks to live. At first, like in any tragic loss, shock, denial and anger reared their visceral faces. But it was Michele’s own sense of acceptance that led the way for her family and community at large to accept what was going on. In fact, she wanted the Beatles’ song Let It Be to be sung at her memorial service. Amidst tears, laughter and genuine struggle to sing those words authentically, we did it, all 300 of us.
Michele asked me to come to her home on several occasions during those short months to play music. We had a good time sharing the songs she had grown up with, danced to, and sung in musical theatre. In our afternoons together I learned how Michele’s dad, Cedric, an avid music lover, made sure there was lots of music in her childhood home. She sang me one of his "silly songs" - all sixteen verses. Close to You was what she sang to her girls, Sharon and Liz, when they were little. Many of the 60’s songs had associations with Michele and Gord in their early years together—and I heard about them. The ukulele was Michele’s instrument of choice and she played me some of her favourites and Grandma’s special song for Charlotte, her granddaughter. Then there were musical theatre songs - she knew them all. Behind every song there was a vivid story from Michele.
In those sacred moments with Michele, there were several things that I will always remember. One day, Michele was lying under a blanket on the couch and I was playing gently and softly on her treasured heirloom piano. I played "Room 217 style". The slower pace helped her relax and it wasn’t long before she dozed off. Some forty minutes later I began to play My Funny Valentine. The tune enlivened her - she sat up straight, began to sing and by the fourth phrase was standing and singing at the top of her lungs. All at once, I was filled with a horrid contradiction: I was sure singing couldn’t be good for her because her lungs were filled with fluid and she was expending a lot of energy. Yet I was equally sure it was the best thing for her because she was wrapped deeply in an experience that transcended the disease and let her keep living in the music she loved.
Another day, I learned there were even more distinct ways that musical memories nourished Michele. Michele had been a dancer and taught ballet. Whenever she listened to the Room 217 Classic Comfort album, an hour of classical piano music, it made her "dance". Of course this was now a dance performed in her memories and imagination, but she lit up when she spoke of it. I believe the music stirred in her a sense of dignity and optimism when some of the procedures and episodes of her illness mitigated against it.
Music chronicled Michele’s life. Michele invited me to do the music at her memorial service. She planned the songs with care. It’s true that I had never played Five Foot Two and There’s a Hole in the Bottom of the Sea at a celebration of life service before, but the opening twenty minutes of music were a snapshot of a woman who loved and lived a lifetime of music and that wasn’t about to end.