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Editor's note: This article accompanies the feature story, "A Fragmented System," from Richmond magazine's October issue, about deficiencies in health care for the elderly. On Oct. 11, Richmond magazine will partner with the VCU Department of Psychiatry and Community Idea Stations/WCVE for a community conversation on this topic at 6 p.m., at 23 Sesame St. Bob Wendell is scheduled to join the panel of speakers along with his daughter, Debby Vandewalle, and professionals involved in geriatric care.
Bob Wendell has been playing music all his life. But about two years ago, at age 90, he had to give up playing the standing bass, after 17 years in the Richmond Philharmonic Orchestra.
Stretching out his hand, he says, "I found my hand not being strong enough and my stretch not being enough, so I took up harmonica."
Wendell also began to write music for his new instrument of choice. Six of his pieces have already been recorded, among them "Jerusalem Sunset," a song that begins slowly and thoughtfully, then builds into an energetic tune filled with cheerful, staccato notes.
His daughter, Debby Vandewalle, says that playing the harmonica was part of the healing process when Wendell was hospitalized last fall after a surgery to remove cancer from both his stomach and his colon.
"He played his harmonica in his hospital room," she says. "People would gather around and listen to him."
The hospitalization and months afterward were difficult for Wendell, who had a feeding tube inserted in his stomach. The surgery had exacerbated his previous problems with swallowing because of nerve damage from a series of strokes. He thought he would never swallow food again. Wendell, president of the residents association at The Towers assisted living community since his move there in 2003, says he could not imagine a life in which he could not interact with people over meals.
But after returning to The Towers, and even before he regained the ability to eat by mouth, he began to find purpose again, much of it through music.
Wendell began writing lyrics for orchestral arrangements, based on the biblical book of Job, titled "Job's Lament." The pieces are being written with his close friend Ed Keating, who is also a local composer and a trombonist.
So for Wendell, the music goes on.
"Every time I start to run out of something," he says, "God says, ‘Here it is.' "