Heartbeat Music: Parents Remember Their Son Through His Song Of Life

Jun 16, 2017

Nate Kramer was a tall, quiet college swimmer when he was diagnosed with leukemia. His dad, Vince, says it was the beginning of four difficult years.

Nate battled through chemotherapy, a fungal infection of the sinuses, 30 operations, bone marrow transplants, a lung infection and the removal of his spleen. Vince says his son kept rallying back.

During these ups and downs, although his health was precarious, Nate started working with a music therapist from Cincinnati Children's Hospital named Brian Schreck.

"Brian would come over to the house," says Nate's mom, De Ann. "They would play music, they would record music. Brian was really teaching him to play his guitar."

Brian says Nate loved to play riffs by The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix — but for the most part, Nate's parents didn't really know what Nate and Brian were recording.

As the years passed, Nate and Brian grew close. "I think Nate could talk to Brian about things that he didn't want to talk to us about because it would hurt us," De Ann says.

One day, Nate asked Brian about a project Brian had been working on. As part of his work as a music therapist, Brian had been recording the heartbeats of babies and children near the end of their lives, then layering the rhythmic pulses over melodies.

Brian asked Nate if he would like to record one, and Nate agreed. But Nate's father wasn't too keen on the idea of the heartbeat project.

"It was like, 'OK, is that the only heartbeat I'm going to have left of him?' " Vince says. "Um, no thank you."

To Vince, it felt like giving up, and he wasn't ready for that — even a couple weeks later when Nate, then 26, was back in the hospital.

"He was doing very poorly, and I just actually asked ... 'Nate, do you still want to fight?' " Vince says. "And he said to me, 'Wanna fight.' That was the last words he said to me."

Nate couldn't talk after that. Five days later, his mom was up early with him.

"It was just the two of us, and I was laying basically on his chest and listening to him," De Ann says.

"[I] could still hear his heartbeat then; that afternoon he had passed."

After Nate died, Brian gave Vince and De Ann a couple CDs from Nate, but Nate's death was still too raw for them to press play. They sold their house with its painful memories, packed up their belongings and moved.

Just over a year later, Vince was at home. It happened to be Father's Day.

"I was rearranging my office, and I came across CDs that had a very unique — some sort of custom cover," Vince says.

When he plugged it into the computer, the first thing he heard was, "Happy Father's Day, old man. Love ya."

"It was Nate's voice," Vince says. "And I was like, 'What?' So then I listened to the next song, which was the heartbeat song."

Nate had made a CD for his mom, too.

"Hearing the heartbeat for me is very bittersweet because of the morning of the day that he passed," De Ann says. "But I would never give it up. How strong it sounds."

Vince says the CD will probably never leave his CD player. He has made about half a dozen spare copies of the CD.

"Nate had a very powerful, smooth, slow, rhythmic heartbeat," Vince says. "It's Nate. It's life. I cannot explain why it just sort of calms me down."

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Sometimes we get a story that doesn't need much of an introduction. This one is about an unexpected gift. Here's reporter Erika Lantz.

ERIKA LANTZ, BYLINE: Nate Kramer was a tall, quiet college swimmer when he was diagnosed with leukemia. His dad, Vince, says it was the beginning of four difficult years.

VINCE KRAMER: Chemotherapy, fungal infection of his sinuses, 30 operations, bone marrow transplants, some sort of an infection of the lung. But he rallied again - decided to remove his spleen, and he rallied from that.

LANTZ: During these ups and downs, although his health was precarious, Nate started working with a music therapist from Cincinnati Children's Hospital named Brian Schreck.

BRIAN SCHRECK: Just make it up.

LANTZ: Here's Nate's mom, De Ann.

DE ANN KRAMER: Brian would come over to the house.

SCHRECK: Let's see.

D. KRAMER: They would play music. They would record music. Brian was really teaching him to play his guitar.

SCHRECK: The Rolling Stones or Jimi Hendrix or different riffs that he loved to play.

LANTZ: That's Brian Schreck, the music therapist.

SCHRECK: (Singing) You make my heart sing.

LANTZ: For the most part, Nate's parents didn't really know what Nate and Brian were recording.

D. KRAMER: When Brian came over, I generally used that time to say, hey, I'm going out for a walk. I wanted to give them that private time.

LANTZ: As the years passed, Nate and Brian grew close.

D. KRAMER: I think Nate could talk to Brian about things that he didn't want to talk to us about because it would hurt us.

LANTZ: One day, Nate asked Brian about a project Brian had been working on. As part of his job as a music therapist, Brian had started recording the heartbeats of babies and children near the end of life. Then he would layer their heartbeats with melodies. Brian asked Nate.

SCHRECK: Would you like to do one? And he said sure.

LANTZ: But Nate's dad, Vince, wasn't keen on the idea of a heartbeat project.

V. KRAMER: And it's, like, OK, is that the only heartbeat I'm going to have left of him? No, thank you.

LANTZ: To Vince, it felt like giving up, and he wasn't ready for that even a couple weeks later when Nate, then 26, was back in the hospital.

V. KRAMER: He was doing very poorly. I just actually asked Nate, Nate, do you still want to fight? And he said to me, want to fight. That was the last words he said to me.

LANTZ: Nate couldn't talk after that. Five days later, his mom was up early with him.

D. KRAMER: It was just the two of us, and I was laying basically on his chest and listening to him, could still hear his heartbeat then. That afternoon, he had passed.

LANTZ: After Nate died, Brian gave Vince and De Ann a couple CDs from Nate, but Nate's death was still too raw for them to press play. They sold their house with its painful memories, packed up their belongings and moved. Just over a year later, Vince was at home. It happened to be Father's Day.

V. KRAMER: And I was rearranging my office, and I came across CDs that had a very unique - some sort of a, you know, custom cover. I don't even know what this is, so I - when I plugged it into my computer, the first thing I hear was...

NATE KRAMER: Happy Father's Day, Old Man - love you.

V. KRAMER: It was Nate's voice, and I was like, what? So then I listened to the next song, which was the heartbeat song.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARTBEAT, MUSIC)

LANTZ: Nate had made one for his mom, too.

N. KRAMER: Hey, Momma. I just wanted to say happy birthday and wanted you to know how much it means that, you know, you're here. I love you.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARTBEAT, MUSIC)

D. KRAMER: Hearing the heartbeat for me is very bittersweet because of the morning of the day that he passed. But I would never give it up - how strong it sounds.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARTBEAT, MUSIC)

V. KRAMER: I just continue to listen to it. It will probably never leave my CD player. I have made about half a dozen spare CDs. I just don't want anything to happen to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARTBEAT, MUSIC)

V. KRAMER: Nate had a very powerful, smooth, slow rhythmic heartbeat. It's Nate. It's life. I cannot explain why. It just sort of calms me down.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARTBEAT, MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: Erika Lantz produced this story WBUR's Kind World series.

(SOUNDBITE OF HEARTBEAT, MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.