In a place where people go to die, four women have come to sing.
On a hot day in July, natural light floods Carol Beck's room at Dobson Home, the Chandler branch of Hospice of the Valley. A few personal touches remind the occupant of home: framed family photos, flowers, a "Thinking of You" card. A calendar filled with family members' photos is tacked to the wall nearest the bed, marked with the days different relatives intend to visit. The TV is off.
Carol Beck has adenocarcinoma, the most common form of lung cancer.
The women introduce themselves to Beck and her niece, the strangers they've come to comfort.
Beck is chatty, her bright red toes propped on a pillow. She guesses she's been here about seven weeks. Her niece and goddaughter, Amanda Klimczak, is visiting from New Jersey, where Beck once lived.
The choir forms a half-circle around the bed, and its leader, Kellie Walker, asks for requests.
There's no Sinatra on the set list. Instead, they begin with "Honey in the Rock," a traditional African-American spiritual. The harmonies resonate through the stillness of the home.
"Very pretty," Beck says after the song ends.
Both Beck and her niece get emotional during the second song, "Edelweiss," from The Sound of Music. The older woman's blue-gray eyes glaze over, tears welling up behind her glasses. A distant look crosses her face. She is lying in a bed at a hospice facility in Arizona, but, really, she is somewhere else.
"Beautiful. Thank you. That brought back memories of when I was a kid," says Beck. "My mom was a singer, as well. My dad was our main singer and they always sang . . . Thank you very much for that. And Mandy thanks you, too. She can't talk right now because she's crying," Beck adds with a laugh and a nod toward her speechless niece.
"Yeah, music can go right to your heart," says Walker.
"Well, that's where it's supposed to go. If people try to tell you anything different than that, they're wrong. They're totally wrong," says Beck. "You can listen to any genre of music, but it's always the same — it takes you right where you need to go if your heart is open toward it."
Talk turns to Beck's funeral arrangements — including hairstyle — and her young grandson's desire to care for her. "He thinks his job when he comes here is to feed me ice," says Beck. "Because, 'Granny has an owie in her belly, and when Granny's owie hurts, I eat ice.'"
Later, Walker says they rarely have someone that responsive — and talkative — when they visit. So when the choir sings again for Carol Beck, they include upbeat hymns and selections from musicals.
When Walker announces "Amazing Grace" as the second-to-last song, Amanda Klimczak quietly slips out of the room.
The music is comforting — but it can be tough, too. No one knows that better than Kellie Walker. She started Voices Lifted after singing to her sister and her father on their deathbeds years ago. Then a year ago, her husband Russell was diagnosed with stomach cancer.
"I thought, Oh, God, this is a little too close to home," Walker says.
So little by little, Walker is handing over management and even singing duties to her fellow choir members.
Voices Lifted is far from a traditional church choir. Although it was formed two years ago through the Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, the group is not exclusive to members of the church. Rather, the all-female group is open to the entire community, with one of the only exceptions being that girls under the age of 10 are not admitted.
After all, the choir's audience isn't the kind of crowd a young child would normally be accustomed to performing for.
Kellie Walker, 53, is soft-spoken and petite, her brown hair in a pixie cut. She takes a seat one July afternoon at a coffee shop in Tempe, exhausted after having just returned from a weekend music conference in North Carolina, and quickly consumes her fruit parfait.
A music therapist by training, she began her career in a medical psychiatric unit but since switched gears to become music director of the Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Chandler, where she's held the position for 20 years. Once she joined the church, she had the opportunity to sing at the bedsides of people from the congregation.
But not before she experienced her own share of loss.
Walker describes the scene at her sister's deathbed as if it happened yesterday. But July marked the three-year anniversary of her family's loss of Katie Walker to breast cancer.
Walker arrived at her sister's side in Bellingham, Washington, with her daughter, Jolie, and husband, Russell, in tow. She can recall as many as 11 family members filing in and out of the room, trying to comfort her ailing sister while maintaining a sense of normalcy.