Michael Gruson, a successful attorney, got the worst possible news from his doctor in March 2005: His persistent headache was more serious than anything an aspirin could cure. It was the symptom of a malignant brain tumor.
A partner at Shearman & Sterling and the head of an eight-member household, Gruson, 69, was accustomed to success and responsibility. Now, with stage-four brain cancer, he was at life’s mercy.
“Our world went upside down with no advance warning or preparation,” said Hiroko Gruson, Michael’s wife of 45 years. “I realized that somebody had to be constantly available.”
Michael was suddenly dependent on doctors, treatments and Hiroko, who became his domestic caregiver. Both husband and wife soon realized something much simpler would also help them through this difficult time: music.
Hiroko was a caregiver to her husband until his death in December 2005. She recorded his progress in a journal, prepared special meals for him, negotiated with insurance companies and coordinated with his colleagues about mail, travel plans and other logistics. When Michael was in pain, she massaged him and read books to him. To prepare for emergencies, Hiroko would also accompany Michael on business trips that he was able to tackle while not bedridden.
Equally significant was the emotional comfort that Hiroko provided, surpassing any professional help that Michael could have received.
“We would lie down and quietly listen to the music every night,” she said. “I was too afraid to ask or say something to him. We would just start to cry.”
Music helped Hiroko get through the painful experience of watching her husband die. The soothing melodies couldn’t cure her husband, she knew, but they consoled him during the final days of his life.
“Music pushed me forward when I just wanted to give up,” she said.
Music, particularly the calming Mozart and Thomas de Hartmann songs they would listen to, silenced their fears during the painful evening hours that they had to stay awake between doses of oral chemotherapy.
“In a way, it was a relief—music was a kind of common milieu,” she said. “We could connect without verbalizing the topics that I didn’t want to touch upon.”
The couple had witnessed the healing power of music in the formerly divided Berlin, where Michael and Hiroko lived during the first few years of their marriage. Seeing foreigners and Germans bond over a glass of beer at a free jazz or opera performance in the 1960s convinced Hiroko that music transcended social and political strata.
Acting upon her husband’s dying wish, Hiroko founded the Gruson Fund for Brain Tumor Research & Care in 2006, a nonprofit organization committed to brain tumor research. The organization has raised money through classical music concerts held at venues such as the Church of the Epiphany, on York Avenue near East 74th Street, and the Abigail Adams Smith Museum Auditorium, on East 61st Street between First and York avenues. A benefit gala took place at The Kosciuszko Foundation, on East 65th Street.
Hiroko hopes to extend the group’s services and sponsor music performances for an ever-larger number of struggling patients and their caregivers around New York City. Having sung to her husband and his terminally ill roommates at the Weill Cornell Medical Center, she says that music, “just might provide patients and caregivers with the courage to keep on fighting and carrying out caretaking tasks.”
Due to lack of sleep and proper nutrition, Hiroko fell ill several months after Michael’s death.
“I was too worn out to feel that I was exhausted,” she said.
Family caregivers claim to experience chronic illness at more than twice the rate of non-caregivers, according to the National Family Caregivers Association. Whenever she feels down, Hiroko quietly hums Man Arai’s popular Japanese folk song “A Thousand Winds.” Its sanguine lyrics and cheerful melodies reassure her that Michael is alive in spirit.
For more information about the Gruson Fund for Brain Tumor Research & Care, visit www.grusonfund.org/news.html.
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