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Harp strings stir memories for a dying Pasco man and his ukelele

Gulfside Regional Hospice chaplain Rabbi Aaron Lever, left, visits with cancer patient James Young, center, his wife, Ann Young, and their dog at the couple’s New Port Richey home. During the visit, Lever’s harp playing inspired James Young to pick up his ukelele.

Photos by DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Gulfside Regional Hospice chaplain Rabbi Aaron Lever, left, visits with cancer patient James Young, center, his wife, Ann Young, and their dog at the couple’s New Port Richey home. During the visit, Lever’s harp playing inspired James Young to pick up his ukelele.

NEW PORT RICHEY — James Young was dwarfed in an oversized maroon recliner in his living room, waiting out the last few weeks of his life.

Young has always been thin, though now he's painfully so. His clothes were loose. Young said his father, also a thin man, promised Young he would grow fatter as he grew older.

"He lied," Young said.

Two years ago, doctors found a tumor in Young's lung. For two weeks in 2011, the cancer was gone. Then he and his wife, Ann, were told the cancer had spread to his brain and throughout his body. Doctors gave Young until the end of this summer to live.

Rabbi Aaron Lever of Gulfside Regional Hospice arrived Tuesday morning to counsel Young. Lever settled on the sofa next to Young's chair and unpacked his briefcase-sized black case, pulling out a Reverie Harp, a small, 22-string instrument he plays to soothe the dying. Lever rested the wooden, egg-shaped instrument on his lap and plucked the strings, one or two at a time, making up tunes. He reads music well, but doesn't need it for the harp.

Young scooted to the edge of his chair and leaned forward, his hands clasped in his lap. The house quieted as Lever played.

Lever took two pencils from his bag. He tapped the erasers in circles, the left slowly, the right quickly, against the strings, creating a song that was light, bubbly. It was impossible to hear the wheezing gray oxygen machine behind Young's chair.

Lever finished the song and offered the harp to Young, asking if he wanted to play. Young didn't. He wanted to listen.

After the rabbi finished another song, Young's family convinced him to try the harp. He balanced it on his knees and plucked a few strings.

Young didn't play long, but holding the harp made him want to tell stories. He talked about the string band he and his brothers and father formed when they lived in Philadelphia.

Young asked Ann to retrieve his ukulele, packed away in the back of the house. She looked surprised. It was stored in a back room, forgotten in a closet somewhere. She came back a few moments later. The black case had white, dusty smudges. She set it on his lap.

The Youngs' daughter bought him the ukulele for Christmas 15 years ago. She'd heard Young's stories about his father's string band in Philadelphia. Young had played songs he'd once sung with his brothers and sisters for his own children, such as Has Anyone Seen My Gal?

His daughter died the same year Young was diagnosed. Cancer, and when she was just 40 years old. He hadn't touched the ukulele in seven years.

"I'll play something for you," he said to the rabbi.

He spent a few minutes unpacking the ukulele, peeling the tight case off the small wooden instrument. He couldn't find his pick. Lever fished in his bag, found a pale teal pick and handed it to him. He tried out a few chords. Slowly, he began to sing. His voice was deep, cracked.

"Five foot two, eyes of blue," he rasped, stopped, dragging in a breath.

It was the first line from Has Anybody Seen My Girl? The song is a piece of Young's childhood. He remembered his father strumming the ukulele and his mother pressing the keys of her accordion. Young and his siblings used to sing along, trying to make up harmonies.

He waited a few moments. Sitting at the edge of the recliner, with his arms spread to hold the ukulele, he seemed larger. He began again. "But oh, what those five feet could do," he half sang, half mumbled.

Young had to stop. He ran out of breath.

"Can't get it. Sorry," he explained quietly.

"That's alright," Lever replied. "You tuned it and played it a little. That's enough."

Young pressed the ukulele back into the black case, shoving the fat end in first. He tried to set it on a folding tray table next to his chair, using one hand. His arm trembled.

His sister retrieved a scrapbook she'd made for him eight years ago. Young wanted to show it to the rabbi. Young's sister had written across the front cover with a permanent marker: "This is Your Life."

Young slowly turned the pages, weakly pulling them. He had photos his father had taken during World War II, high school portraits of his children, pictures of him and Ann outside Cinderella's castle at Walt Disney World, at twilight, when the castle turns purple.

Lever leaned forward, angling to get a good look. He nodded and smiled at Young's descriptions, listening quietly.

Ann sat on the arm of his chair, leaning in close.

He reached out and rested a hand on her thigh. "I wish I could have more good old days with this gal."

She smiled. "Well, you'll just have to build my house in heaven."

Mary Kenney can be reached at mkenney@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6247.

Harp strings stir memories for a dying Pasco man and his ukelele 07/21/12 [Last modified: Saturday, July 21, 2012 12:20pm]

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