Weekly Feature



2018-09-12 / Front Page

A song to remember

by ETHAN POWERS
Editor


These Clarence choir members perform for Clarence resident Robert Carmichael, a longtime singer with the Friends of Harmony, at his home in Clarence. From left are Madison Marsaia, Morgan Mincer, Sydney David, Alex Renzoni, Trevor Howell, Bryan Renzoni and Carmichael. 
Photo by Jim SmerecakPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com These Clarence choir members perform for Clarence resident Robert Carmichael, a longtime singer with the Friends of Harmony, at his home in Clarence. From left are Madison Marsaia, Morgan Mincer, Sydney David, Alex Renzoni, Trevor Howell, Bryan Renzoni and Carmichael. Photo by Jim SmerecakPurchase color photos at www.BeeNews.com For 83-year-old Robert Carmichael, some days are better than others.

There are days in which he is the spirited performer who came to the United States from Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the 1960s with an unmistakable accent and an animated personality that seemed unquenchable.

On other days, Carmichael battles to retain that dynamic identity as he fights frontotemporal dementia, a cell degeneration disorder that affects regions of the brain responsible for memory, motor function and coordination.

Under hospice care at home and often confined to either a bed or a wheelchair, Carmichael is able to live vicariously through music — an indelible part of his life that remains an impervious place of solace even through his illness.


Robert Carmichael Robert Carmichael While the disorder frequently hinders his ability to communicate, music has endured as a durable thread that connects Carmichael to the outside world.

On a sunny day last week, Carmichael is seated in his wheelchair on the deck outside his Clarence home, wearing a navy blue T-shirt and khaki pants, as his wife, Maureen McCarthy, gently attends to him.

A group of six teenagers stand around him as they prepare to sing “Over the Rainbow.” Carmichael is quiet as he looks out toward the street, yet as the group begins, their voices synchronizing in melodious harmony, he immediately turns his attention to them with a smile. He begins tapping his feet and mouthing each lyric, losing himself in the tune.

“Someday I’ll wish upon a star and wake up where the clouds are far behind me. Where troubles melt like lemon drops,” the teens sing softly as Carmichael hangs on each note. “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why, oh why, can’t I?”

Carmichael’s passion for music began as a young boy in Belfast when he involved himself as much as possible in school theatrical productions, and his enthusiasm for singing never waned. It also set him upon a fated path that would one day lead him to singing with a group of Clarence High School students on his deck, reminding him as much of his humanity as his love of music.

Upon retirement, Carmichael volunteered through the years, which included transferring therapy patients at Brothers of Mercy and as a volunteer for Meals on Wheels. McCarthy fondly remembers the countless times he serenaded Brothers of Mercy patients in between gigs with the Friends of Harmony, a male a cappella group that performs throughout Western New York.

“He always had such a beautiful tenor voice,” Mc- Carthy said. “Around St. Patrick’s Day especially, people loved to hear him sing all of the Irish songs.”

Carmichael’s illness may have once threatened to keep that tenor bottled. That was until McCarthy met Clarence High senior Trevor Howell and hired him and Sydney Davia, a freshman at Erie Community College and a fellow choir singer, for some yard work.

Commenting on Howell’s height, McCarthy asked if he played basketball for the school. Howell responded that he didn’t have the time with other commitments, one of which being a member of the school’s choir. Recognizing the opportunity, she asked if Howell and Davia would sing to Carmichael in his bedroom.

The two teens were unsure of what to expect or how attentive Carmichael would be, knowing that with his condition, he is susceptible to long periods of sleep.

“When we started singing, he knew every word,” said Howell, noting that Carmichael was fixated on their voices for their two songs. “Sydney and I went back to trimming bushes, and I just told her, ‘Let’s get a group together and go sing to Robert.’”

Howell sent out a group text to some friends who are also chorus singers at Clarence. Within a few hours, he had unwittingly formed a new a cappella group consisting of Davia, Morgan Craft, also a freshman at ECC, Clarence seniors Madison Marsala and Morgan Mincer, juniors Alex and Bryan Renzoni, and sophomore Alexa Wery, in addition to himself.

The group soon visited Carmichael and gathered around his bed. As they began to sing, they witnessed Carmichael’s metamorphosis.

“Seeing his entire face light up was really something,” said Davia. “I did chorus in high school, but doing this and singing for Robert is really like nothing else I’ve done.”

“You could see Robert’s mouth moving, mouthing the words as he’s looking at all of the kids,” added McCarthy. “It was beautiful. I still play the video for Robert frequently.”

McCarthy was so taken aback with the altruism shown by a group of millennial strangers, she offered to sign community service sheets for their class requirement as a sign of her gratitude. The group refused.

Last week, six of the students returned for a second visit, and each time they sing, they can barely contain the overwhelming joy of helping a man rediscover a part of himself that may have otherwise been lost.

“It definitely has an impact on each and every one of us. It’s an amazing connection between he and us,” said Alex Renzoni. “Even though our ages are so far apart, we all share this hobby and passion for music.”

The group has just finished their penultimate song. As they reorganize before their finale, Carmichael’s grin subtly fades as the music stops. McCarthy places her hand on his shoulder and bends to a knee.

“They’re going to sing your favorite,” she whispers to him.

As the group begins its haunting rendition of “Danny Boy,” Carmichael’s eyes widen, his smile instantly returns and his drowsiness dissipates.

“And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me, and all my dreams will warm and sweeter be,” they sing. “If you’ll not fail to tell me that you love me, I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.”

“When we’re singing for him, he’ll just look at us,” said Mincer. “Every time I look at him during those moments, you cannot help but smile.”

Howell nods in agreement before turning to look toward Carmichael.

“Watching someone become a completely different person is unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve been singing from a young age, but to see the power that music has on people is inspiring.”

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