One cancer survivor finds health and healing in the gift of music.
I discovered the joy of music at the age of 8. Like most kids, I listened to songs on the radio and television, but on one very special day in 1957 at Walt Disney Elementary School in Anaheim, California, when my fourth-grade teacher taught us a simple song, I heard something that would change the course of my life. It was called counterpoint, or the art of combining two or more harmonizing melodies in a musical composition. It was like having two songs intertwined, and it was magic to my ears, creating a breadth and expansiveness to music that set my imagination on fire.
When I got home that day, I wrote my first song.
But I didn’t write music with the intention of becoming notable for my creations. Music for me was an intimate form of self-expression. Today, when I listen to any old tune of mine, I remember exactly how I felt the moment the notes and words materialized. Looking back, I see that music and lyrics are the diary of my life, chronicling every aspect of growing up over the past seven decades.
Today, at 70 years of age and as a six-year survivor of breast cancer with 200 original tunes in my songwriting repertoire, my love of music has never played louder. I now use my music to connect with children facing tough medical, physical or emotional challenges.
The opportunity to compose and donate music to these children through the Songs of Love Foundation, a nonprofit organization, gives my musical passion a new purpose.
I learned early on that music could affect our drives, our actions and our emotions. I wrote songs to support Cesar Chavez, an American civil rights activist, in 1966, and a song to protest nuclear power stations in 1970. I wrote songs about things I enjoyed: science, magic and natural history. There was a song for my wedding and a song for my wife’s memorial service when she died of ovarian cancer. Later, there were songs for my new life and my new wife. I composed songs for two Broadway-style musicals, one about male breast cancer. And, of course, there were songs about my own cancer experience.
But mostly, there were songs for children. My long career as an environmental educator and stage magician put me face to face with young people in several thousand elementary school assemblies before I retired from performing a few years back. And every year that I went on tour, I wrote new songs for the shows. It seems that children and cancer have been significant themes in my life.
After I got my diagnosis of breast cancer, and even before the stitches were removed from my mastectomy, the first thing I did was compose a tune. It made me smile and became the lead song in my breast cancer musical. “What Good Is a Breast?” is a lighthearted and mildly acerbic look at the practical, biological need for breasts in men. I’ve found humor to be a great companion in my life with cancer.
One day, a wonderful singer and friend of my wife told me that she composed and donated music for children facing medical, physical or emotional challenges through Songs of Love. I had a feeling that my songwriting ambitions were about to find a new purpose.
Songwriters who contribute to this organization create free, personalized, original songs that are recorded and packaged in a special book and delivered to the child, teen or young adult up to age 21 and their family. There is never a charge, and the child’s identity and condition are kept confidential unless the family chooses to share their story.
I was immediately inspired to write music and lyrics for one child each month. I contacted the company and began the important and crucial process of auditioning — not just my musical work but also my intention, dedication and motivation for working with these often very sick children. Prospective contributors are screened carefully, and rightfully so, to ensure that each child is treated with the utmost respect. Details of their diseases are never mentioned in their songs, so songwriters receive personal information that the child can relate to favorite TV shows, family names, pets, interests, hobbies and preferred musical genres. Then we set to work creating something that fits their age group and individual interests.
I’ve had the pleasure of writing nearly a dozen songs so far, and I keep a photo of each recipient next to my keyboard to remind me of how precious every moment is for them. And for me.
I work specifically with children ages 1 to 12. As a 70-year- old guy with breast cancer, I’m well aware that my life thus far has been a long and fortunate voyage. But as I look at the smiling faces of these kids, some of whom have devastating illnesses, and think up words and music for them, my cancer experience seems very insignificant. So, with this ache in my breast but this song in my heart, I find a key, then a note, then a chord and finally a tune that ultimately gets sent out into a world that seems so unfair at times, right into the open arms of a child in need of healing.
The most challenging part of the work for me involves incorporating the personal information,
which often refers to characters from movies or children’s television shows I’ve never seen and requires me to do some online investigative work. Names of brothers and sisters, friends, pets, favorite foods and family members are often included in the details. There are, of course, references that will make little sense to anyone beyond the child and their immediate family, but that’s what makes the song so special for the child. After all, this is their song.
One of my favorite creations was for a young boy by the name of Amir Marvelous Jackson. I fell in love with his name before I even read his bio, and by the time my song was recorded, this little boy had wrapped himself around my heart and instilled in me a deep appreciation for our human spirit and determination to survive in a world that isn’t always easy. His parents graciously allowed me to tell you about him.
Amir is 3 years old. He was born with spina bifida, a type of defect that occurs when the neural tube fails to develop or close properly. He also had hydrocephalus, a buildup of fluid in the ventricles deep within the brain. Both are very serious medical conditions.
When I wrote his song, he already had a Facebook page of his own with 300 likes and lots of photos and videos. His mother, Veronica, has documented his young life by publicly sharing his story and raising awareness about his disorder. It’s a remarkable and loving tribute to a boy whose smile outshines any human affliction and whose laughter is music to our ears. You can hear my song about Amir here.
In writing tunes for Amir and others, I discovered something important about myself and about the cancer experience. The moment we turn our attention away from the distress of our own misfortune, we can find an opportunity to connect with those whose lives inspire hope, expanding beyond the confinement of our disease. Music has a way of tearing down the fence that divides those who are well from those who are infirm.
What touched me so deeply throughout this medical and musical experience was the joy and love his parents feel for having the gift of Amir in their lives, just as he is. He’s a superstar, and the Songs of Love Foundation has confirmed that by giving him a song that is his musical signature alone. Young Amir didn’t disappear from my world after his song was finished. I think of him often, especially when I receive a new assignment for another child in need.
That’s the power of music. Scientists tell us that the sound waves we create eventually dissipate and fade away because they can’t exist in the emptiness of space. But a song of love, like the music in our hearts, plays on forever.
Khevin Barnes is a stage magician, musician and regular contributor to the Voices section of CURE® and curetoday.com. Since 1997, he has operated his own nonprofit company, The Dr. Wilderness Show, which donates magic programs to children with cancer.