A Love Song for Dorothy
Love at first sight seized Chris and Dorothy Potter six decades ago, and their long love story continues despite dementia, strokes, and quarantine. Singing builds a bridge through dark times, and sustains a weary caregiver.
“My wife is now in a care home with dementia and a medium stroke,” says Chris Potter, a 15-year member of the Nanaimo Tidesmen Chorus on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. “In December, we sang there. After I fed her (I did that twice a day), I took her down to the warm-up room and we sang a few songs. Then we sang ’Heart of My Heart’ to her. I’m holding her hand, my bottom lip quivering, trying to sing past the lump in my throat. Twenty-five guys with tears in their eyes singing a love song to my love of more than sixty years. That’s what kind of people are in barbershop.”
While Chris may have said that about his fellow Tidesmen, it probably more accurately describes his own life. His love story with Dorothy illustrates how singing refreshes a weary soul carrying a heavy load without complaint.
Love at first sight
I started falling in love with Dorothy when I first saw her in a dance hall in Rochdale, Lancashire, England on the 1st of August 1959. I had gone up there from the south of England for my friend’s wedding. They had no money for a reception, so we went dancing. I danced with a couple of girls, then saw HER across the room. I plucked up my 20-year-old courage and asked her if she would like to dance with me. She smiled and said yes. I was officially toast. She was 17½ at that time.
Next day we went to see Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Two songs in there are sort of appropriate to what happened to us later, ’cos I proposed that evening. She didn’t say yes—she wasn’t daft! It took 8 weekends of driving from the south to the north of England and back to persuade her I would love her for the rest of her days. The one song was “Some Enchanted Evening, and the other “Happy Talk’. In the mid-’90s we sailed the 47-foot schooner I spent 6 years rebuilding, that Dorothy named ’Happy Talk’ when we re-launched her, from Vancouver Island to Australia. We spent 3 years away, island-hopping across the South Pacific. Wonderful memories.
Here’s a picture from our wedding. She was just 19, me 21. You can see why I was like a moth to a flame when I saw her. She has been the sweetest, kindest, cheekiest, and most loving person I have ever met. Sixty years of joy and laughter later, I am still madly in love with her and miss her terribly.
Dorothy’s care home has, quite correctly, been locked down since early March. At first, no visitors. In July, outside visits were allowed, separated by a transparent barrier, once a week. More recently, they’ve started allowing some visits inside.
Many happy years… until everything changed
Dorothy has always loved music, and always loved our chorus, which I joined in 2005. She used to play the piano very well. The only singing we did together was at home or in the car. She had no interest in choral singing for herself, even though she had a sweet voice, but she never missed a Tidesmen practice, show, or contest. The guys loved having her at practice as it gave them someone to perform for. She just LOVED it, smiling all the while. What woman wouldn’t love being sung to by a bunch of guys who really liked her. (All those hugs she received probably helped!)
Unfortunately, that all stopped in the Spring of 2016. We had just finished our Spring Show at the Sid Williams Theatre in Courtenay on Vancouver Island. For once, Dorothy was the only significant other attending. Some of the props had come from my boat, so after the show, I put them all into my car and then went to the foyer. She was gone. I know she had been there, because at least one of the chorus had given her a hug. All the chorus fanned out searching the theatre and surrounding area.
I drove round for a few minutes and then returned to the parking lot. I called the RCMP. By now about 30 minutes had passed. Then the dispatcher said the three most wonderful words – “we have her.” I had an immediate meltdown on our choreo director’s shoulder, then drove a mile south to Starbucks and found her sitting, holding the Officer’s hand. Luckily, the staff had not ignored her when she walked in crying, sat down, and didn’t order anything. They called the RCMP.
That night I wrote a long letter of thanks to the head office of Starbucks praising the staff action that well may have averted a tragedy. I obtained a wearable radio tracker for her after that. These are run in coordination with a local Search And Rescue group.
Caregiving takes its toll
Shortly after Dorothy took off from the theatre in Courtenay, I had to leave the chorus. She could no longer be left alone for more than 4 or 5 minutes. I could do things at home as long as she could either see or hear me. The house alarm had to be upgraded to make a lot more noise if the doors were opened.
Chorus practice was out. Our chorus tried to accommodate us so Dorothy could continue to come to our rehearsals. They shifted rehearsal rooms around so we basses could be in the main room more, where Dorothy could watch and be watched. This helped, but it eventually became unmanageable. I’m so grateful for the love and support of the entire chapter in trying to keep things normal for us through those hard times.
As for me, the lack of singing had a profound effect on my mental and physical condition. Further small strokes robbed Dorothy of her speech, and control for a few bodily functions. After that I didn’t leave the house unless a staff member from the local health authority was there to give respite. Physically, I was getting a hammering. I had to do a lot of lifting of my 115-pound sweetheart. At 80 years old this was not good, even though I was still quite strong.
The local health authority started sending in help in the morning to help get her up and washed, and again in the evening to help put her to bed. By their work rules they were not allowed to do any lifting, but they taught me how to do it safely.
In late June 2019 she had a medium level stroke. A hospital bed was put in the front room for her. That’s when I started singing her to sleep when she was by herself. She really liked it. At least I think she did, ’cos she never blew raspberries at me.
Healing himself, so he could heal her
By the middle of 2017, I was a mess: overweight by 40 lbs, drinking too much, getting nothing done in the house or garden, an overly emotional mess.
One night at about 3:00 am, I woke up and realized I was in real trouble. I got up, went into the back bedroom, stuck my face into a pillow and had a good weep. Then I made four promises to myself:
- Stop feeling sorry for myself.
- Stop eating and drinking too much
- Get off my butt and get some work done
- By December 24th 2018 get my weight below 200 lbs
- Much better, not so emotional, although I still have the odd sad day.
- Smaller portions and WAY less booze
- House (mostly) spotless, yard work progressing. I would take Dorothy outside, sit her in a chair in the sun, put the music player on, and work away singing along where possible.
- 198.3 lbs by the target date. It later went down to 191.5, but crept back to 198 lbs where it hovers now. I lost 4 inches off my waist and am wearing trousers from15 years ago that I had mothballed.
Once Dorothy went into the care home in October 2019 things improved in some ways, worsened in others. Being able to visit Dorothy twice a day really helped, as did rejoining the Tidesmen in the second week of October. I spent 4 to 5 hours a day learning, or relearning, 15 songs (9 new to me) before the first concert on December 3. This helped push back the hovering depression I had.
Christmas was hard. The concerts were good, and I was able to hold it together for all but one. The hardest performance was the gathering for the local hospice. It happened at a church in Nanaimo. The mixed chorus in our chapter, Rising Tide, was asked to sing two songs. The second was the closer, “Irish Blessing.” When we sing this one we always put our arms around each other. All was well until about halfway through, when I realized that most of the congregation was weeping. I was fine until about halfway through my supper (a really nice broiled prime rib steak), then, completely out of the blue, I had a major meltdown. Darn near ruined my steak when I had to reheat everything.
COVID hits hard... but music boosts happiness
Before COVID came and shut everything down, I went in twice a day to feed Dorothy—8:00 am for breakfast, 5:00 pm for supper. I would stay for an hour or so each time, talking and doing physio with her. After supper I would sing to her. Because she was in bed no one would be disturbed by it. She always loved it, smiling and moving her feet to the beat. She unfortunately lost the power of speech in 2017, although she could still blow raspberries at me when I teased her.
I became ill in early January with a nasty lung infection and had to stay away from visiting her for two weeks, then COVID hit Canada and the place was shut to ALL visitors. Later, I have been able to visit Dorothy once a week for an outside visit, no physical contact. The visits have now moved inside, still with a barrier between us. I have upped my visits to 4 times a week because others are not using them.
Meanwhile, having musical projects to work on have really helped my “Happiness Quotient.” The chorus continues to have regular Zoom meetings on Monday evenings. Our mixed chorus, Rising Tide, have Zoom meetings every other Sunday. As a learning project, Rising Tide is working on a virtual choir performance of “Irish Blessing.” We have six very talented lady singers in the group who keep us guys on our musical toes. We have also started on the planning for a Virtual Choral Christmas Greeting. The song has not been selected yet. I’m pulling for “O Holy Night.” The thought of the ladies’ glorious voices soaring out, with us guys trying to support them, gives me goosebumps, especially the “fall on your knees” bit.
Seeing Dorothy’s smile in my memory always warms my heart. I miss her so much.
A Love Song
The love song I wrote started out in 2016 as freeform poetry, not a song at all. It harked back to when I worked away, only getting home on weekends. The only songs I had written previously were rude limericks for rugby game afterglows. This one started writing itself one morning at about 0200 hrs. It would not let me sleep. When I read the song to Dorothy, she usually cries. Heck, I wrote it and I still choke up. Anyway, if anyone who reads your blog feels the urge to write some music, even just the melody, for this lyric I would be overjoyed, as I have, as yet, absolutely no composing musical urge/talent whatsoever.
A LOVE SONG FOR DOROTHY
Words: Chris Potter copyright © 2016
You filled my lonely arms thru all my dreams,
Your smile a beacon, shin-ing in the night.
Tho’ we were apart, your love still found me,
Two hearts, one love forever, Oh, so right.
My empty arms and sad, so lonely heart
Would darken all my soul, except for this
Your sweet, laughing eyes are always with me,
I’m warmed by the memory of your kiss.
I loved the night, for in each dream was you
Soft bathed in star-light and warm, gentle smiles.
Tho’ still in my dream, in your arms I lie
Warm lips on mine bring heaven to my heart.
My lonely days are done, for now I’m home.
Your hands in mine have brought me to the light.
Unshadowed now, my soul sings warm’d by love
And in your loving arms at last I lie.
The joy that fills my soul has come from you,
For in your loving arms at last I lie.
Take-aways for Singing Communities
— Nate Ogg, Chapter Success Manager
Directors and coaches are fond of saying that “our music can change lives.” Well, sometimes those lives are our own.
When we recruit members, we are not just inviting in the singer, but rather their family. As volunteer leaders, we should honor the sacrifice of time that the singer is making to be with us and away from their families, and to make every effort to offer activities (rehearsals, concerts, and more) that are inclusive of their participation …
Just like with membership, where we may not check in with a new singer and “maintain the relationship” after they’ve joined, we sometimes forget that after a crisis or injury, the real work continues. Oftentimes, life changing events can cause one of our brother or sisters in song to miss out on events, rehearsals, or the camaraderie that comes with our hobby, but that is when they need us the most. Reach out. Share a song, a phone call, or a letter.
This story references a variety of “performances” but maybe not the ones we would normally be preparing for. It could be singing for guests at a rehearsal, presenting “Heart Of My Heart” at a nursing home, or as the pandemic has shown us, standing outside a hospital or nursing home window to sing a song to make someone smile. Many times performers see these as ancillary moments that don’t matter. They matter. They matter greatly to those hearing us, and they can be the healing salve that we ourselves need. We may have moved past our own traumas or life changes, but we can empathize and be there for our friends and community members who are hurting or missing, and at the same time heal those old hurts in our own memories. Sometimes the most impactful performances are not the contest stage or annual show, but the hospital room, funeral, wedding, or the street-corner. Treat every rehearsal as a guest night and every song as your most important performance, because it might be.
Brian Lynch is Public Relations Manager for the Barbershop Harmony Society.