The Way This Cowboy Plays Music for the Dying Will Move You to Tears

Bret Hartman for Reader's Digest
Bret Hartman for Reader's Digest

When Freddie Fuller arrived to perform in the hospital room in Temple, Texas, Pam Golightly worried it was already too late. Her stepfather, Dennis Strobel, was dying.

At 88, Strobel had just been moved to the palliative care unit. After spending five days by his side, 
Golightly could tell that something had changed in the Korean War 
veteran. He had become agitated, and a nurse had told her Strobel’s time was near.

“You’re probably wasting your time,” Golightly told Fuller.

But Fuller, wearing a cowboy hat and toting a Taylor acoustic guitar, shared with her what medical professionals had told him time and time again over the years: Hearing may be the last sense to go.

“Let me go in and play,” Fuller said. “It’s as much for you as it is for him.”

Fuller, 68 and a full-time musician, is known professionally as the Singing Cowboy. With two albums, the country and folk musician has performed all over the United States, 
as well as overseas for American troops. He also delights schoolkids with a one-man show called “History of the Texas Cowboy 1850–1900.”

Growing up in Salado, Texas, Fuller heard gospel music all the time from his mother. She even sang as she hung clothes on the line. And she encouraged her young son’s musical talent.

When she was dying of cancer, in 1987, he put their love of song to its greatest use. He would crawl into her hospital bed with his guitar and sing her favorites: “Amazing Grace,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and “I’ll Fly Away.” His mother seemed to relax, a peaceful look crossing her face.

“That moment allowed her and I to connect like we used to when I was singing as a kid,” Fuller recalls. It emphasized to him the power of music. Consciously or subconsciously, people allow it to go to deep, sacred parts of their hearts and souls, Fuller believes.

So when he heard about a nonprofit organization called Swan Songs, he gave them a call. Since 2005, Swan Songs has arranged more than 800 free musical last wishes—bedside performers from bagpipers to mariachi bands—at hospitals, hospices, and private homes in and around Austin, Texas. Fuller signed up on the spot.

Since then, he has performed dozens of musical vigils. Sometimes they’re almost festive, with terminally ill people surrounded by family, 
including one patient who sang along and danced gingerly with her walker. Other times, they’re quieter, as Fuller’s experience with his mom was. And sometimes they feel a bit like a miracle.

That was the case with Golightly’s stepfather. He enjoyed country music, and Swan Songs sent Fuller. When Fuller arrived at the hospital that day last February, Strobel seemed ready to say goodbye. Golightly and her sister, Paula Guerra, watched their stepdad’s every breath, each holding one of his hands. Fuller played some Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Jackson Browne songs. After 45 minutes, Golightly asked for just one more song. Fuller chose “Love, Me,” a country ballad by Collin Raye. “I played the last song, sang the last note, and hit the last guitar chord, and he took his last breath,” Fuller says.

“She, her sister, and I looked at one another, saying: ‘Oh my gosh, we just experienced one of the most magical moments in our lives.’”

“It was a gift for us all,” Golightly says of Fuller’s singing. “At a really sad time, it was beautiful.”

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