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Kayla Kantor: Music Therapist, Pediatric ICU & Palliative Care



It’s hard to type through tears, shaky fingers, and with a face like that emoji who can’t decide whether he’s happy or sad but knows, with its cock-eyed smile and uneven eyebrows, that life, and its symphony of stages, is lived not by notes, but chords. Sad and relieved, worried and grateful, love, trauma, and heartbreak.

Brené Brown says, “Everyone has a story that’ll bring you to tears, and many, have a story that’ll bring you to your knees.” I think for most of Kayla’s story, I held back. Afraid of losing my footing, of ‘bringing down the mood,' of writing in a way that lost the reader, became heavy, or had me canceled for, "talking of things I know nothing about."

There are two people in my life I trust to read a piece before it’s published, and one of them never holds back. The feedback is pointed, honest, and pushes me in ways that make me want to attack. I feel cornered, worthless, and the pain of failure colors my world a misty gray. I'm damp, defeated, caught in-between what is, and what is yet to be. My daughter sees the shift. She looks at me like I’ve disappeared, like I've retreated from the world we share, and I guess I have, somewhere behind the veil of protection and pride.

This is the part where you question why I torture myself with literary 'first looks.' The answer to that question is - trust. Truth is not a face well masked, and as personally as I can take a suggested critique, I always emerge with a story more real than the one I’d safely written. As Brené Brown (also) says, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”

For most of Kayla’s story - the hearing, telling, retelling, and writing - I’ve been seated, poised, almost arranged in my posture, caught somewhere between empathy and dissolve, tears and knees, motherhood and loss, withdrawal and arrival, not wanting to give myself over to the weight of her world. And maybe oddly, lovingly, (definitely nervously), not wanting to remind her of it.

It took me about 30 years to decide I wanted kids, and quite frankly the terrible-twos (and its crescendo of cries) almost scared away the potential for a sibling entirely. But those are easy reasons not to have kids, those are first-world-mom problems, reasons reserved for only-children who worry we’ll never find another hour to write, trim our cuticles, or stroll Whole Foods casually scanning nutrition labels without arriving at check-out with a tampered box of Rx Bars and cluster of empty apple-sauce pouches. Those were my reasons. Kayla’s were better, suspended in a reality reserved for nurses, doctors, and harmonic mediums whose experience with motherhood extends beyond grocery-store meltdowns, bitten nails, and the subtle yearnings for a quiet afternoon - typing. Beyond snacks, water bottles, and diaper bags bulging with pee-soaked pants and plastic dinos - and into hospitals, with their monitors beeping and curtains swooshing. Into rooms, single and shared, families crying and praying, specialists and interns coming and going, and into a question. A question Kayla Kantor, former Music Therapist at Primary Children’s Hospital in the Pediatric ICU, Palliative Care, and Nuero Trauma Units quietly considered long before the birth of her son. A question tossed and wrestled with until the answer emerged, as answers do, from the question itself. A question that asked - If I've seen the worst pain that loving a child can bring, do I still want to be a mom?


 

Kayla Kantor is ironically “woo woo,” a term she joyfully claims behind tinted tortoise shell sunglasses before listing the roster of Osteopaths, Acupuncturists, and Theta Healers she routinely calls upon to guide her spiritual and physical health. I’m surprised, since she isn’t dripping in rings, robes, or rabbits feet. She’s a civilian, a mom, dressed in running shorts and an early spring tank. But what grabs me, (and clings to my neck like a toddler in the deep end) is her confidence to proudly and publicly confess her search for the unseen. Happy and eager to outsource her mediumship to any one of her hand-picked convoy of commissioned clairvoyants, among whom she finds a fascination and familiarity. Or perhaps (and maybe I'm jumping ahead here), to reconnect with a source and career she's left behind. “I just went to Sedona and did a sound bath healing with a woman, some sort of spiritual healer,” Kayla tells me, a tenor of LA valley in her Georgian roots, “And you know my son, Ethan, was born with 12 fingers and 12 toes which I've heard from many people is indicative of strong psychic abilities. Anyway, she was like, ‘Can I tell you what I saw about your son?’ And she literally, in different words, said the exact same thing that my Theta Healer has said about Ethan. About his old soul and about how he really wants to protect us. And, that made me sad because he should know we want to protect him. That's our job.”

The afternoon I called Kayla to schedule our first interview, she made a familiar comment, a subtle statement about her enough-ness phrased in the form of a question every mom asks, “Are you sure you want to do this? I’m actually sort of in this weird ‘in-between’ right now.” I laughed, but only because all mom’s seem to be afflicted with the same self-deprecating subtext when leaving their careers to focus on raising a family. I told Kayla her “in-between" was what I loved most about her. Maybe because I wanted to sound profound, prophetic even, as if after ten minutes of superficial banter I could have guessed all she would reveal. But there was something about her self-


admission that felt perceptive.

Our first meeting went something like, “Hi I'm Casey, nice to meet you! (sorry I’m late). What’s Music Therapy?” Until our talk, staged peacefully beside a greenhouse coffee shop set to a soundtrack of trickling water between fronds and cacti, I’d categorized it next to art therapy and creative writing as one of those majors that disappoints your parents, racks up debt, and eventually comes in handy as a stay at home mommy blogger. I also later understood the blessing of my curiosity as I Googled “palliative care” from the comfort of a velvety barstool beside a healthy three-year-old.

“The hospice and palliative care experiences were really challenging, really emotionally challenging, and at the same time unbelievably fulfilling. Don’t get me wrong, I would typically cry every time, but back then it only could puncture so far, I didn't have the experience of being a parent," Kayla remembers,"People would say, ‘I don't know how you do this work, it's so hard,’ and I just didn't feel that way. To me, I would say I can't work in a nursing home, that felt too personal because I would think of my grandparents, but I didn't feel that way with the kids, even though logically it's much more traumatic because no one's life should be cut short. But now that I've become a mom, I can't even imagine, it's such a different feeling. And I think about it a lot, about how these families allowed me in at the worst time in their lives. How did they do that? I'm not sure I would want anyone else there. And to be there for someone at the very end of their life, as some sort of support, is pretty indescribable, and very difficult, you know, I've…I’ve literally watched children take their last breath in front of me as I play music and there's no mistaking, it's very traumatic. But witnessing that was one of the reasons I decided to have my own child, because I knew I would never experience the love that I saw in that room unless I had my own. I could see it, I could try to explain it, but I would never actually understand what it felt like. And witnessing that was, to me, a miracle. Over and over again.”

Kayla's seven-year career working in the pediatric ICU was a test of traversing life in it's thinnest form, from rebuilding essential functioning, like speech and movement, to writing the soundtrack for a child's passing, to beckoning coma patients back from the beyond. “I would start with children who weren't conscious, even on life support in the ICU,” Kayla began, her sunglasses dancing to the beat of her memory, off, on, off, on. “Often my goal would be to increase or decrease their heart rate using what’s called Musical Entrainment, where you entrain to what's already happening and then manipulate what you're playing to affect physiological change in the patient. So, that might be slowing my cadence of the song I’m playing to try and slow down their heart rate, or increasing my cadence if we want their heart rate to speed up. If they lived, I followed them to the Neuro Trauma Unit where I worked alongside physical therapists and speech therapists to help them regain their functioning through music.”

Regain functioning. Increase heart rate. Life support. I took a couple sips of my tea. Up, down, up, down. It was too hot to drink, but the effort was more ceremonial anyway. If they lived? I wondered how many jobs with a guitar included this asterisk. Definitely heavy metal, maybe punk rock, but never would I have said Music Therapy. “There’s a video on my website of a patient who wasn’t supposed to live,” Kayla continues, “She had a really traumatic fall off a cliff and we worked for months on rehabilitation. Actually, the day she woke up from her coma was when I was playing music.”


Earlier this year I wrote an article published both on my website and nationally in Molly My Mag titled, Are There Cars in Heaven? It was one of the first pieces of my writing that garnered any kind of public response, and one of the first essays in which I am embarrassingly truthful about my failures in motherhood, the affects of my daughter’s tantrums, and my efforts to parent through mom-guilt. My daughter’s a Pisces, which accurately reflects the depths of her sensory experience on Earth, much of which (like the ocean) remains uncharted. Her tears, even as an infant, were enough to send my wife and I scrolling Spotify for a song, a sound, a voice, a noise, anything that would calm her. For months we listened to My Heart Will Go On six, eight, ten times a day, surpassing my record in ‘98, back when the song conjured a steamy Jack Dawson instead of sleep deprivation and the fumbling of new-motherhood. “Music is one of the only things your entire brain processes, instead of one side or the other," Kayla instructs, giving language to my unscientific (yet applicable) assessment of infants and sound,"So, say you have a brain injury and your speech center is impacted. You can learn how to speak again through singing because your brain will make new neural pathways through music.”


We recently said goodbye to our 15 year old dog, which is only to say, my daughter is experiencing death for the first time. It's been about two weeks since he’s been gone, but she’s asked everyday where he is, realizing slowly, and sadly, that ‘living amongst the stars’ is not the same as a trip to the boarder. We thought we’d prepared her, we thought we’d conveyed all the right messaging, had the last walk, given him the treats, rubbed his head, and said good-bye. But when her bottom lip quivered and her blue eyes deepen'd I understood, there's no preparation for loss, no groundwork for "forever," no avoiding the opposing force of what makes living so special. “It’s really scary to have a kid,” Kayla admits, “And yet, just knowing the only way I’d ever experience what I could visually see and try to logically explain in those horrible moments at the hospital when a child was passing and parents were crying is…you'll just never have that unless you have a kid. It doesn't matter how much you love your husband, or your mom, or your sister, [or your dog], you'll just never know unless you know. And I was like, ‘I need to know. I need to have that experience myself. It really is quite something, and it makes me more and more in awe of families who go through difficult times because Ethan's had a few colds and it's heartbreaking. He coughs and I'm like, ‘Oh my God, what do I do for you?’ Seeing him in any sort of pain is horrible. I mean it's a fucking cough, he's fine. And at the same time, working at the hospital gave me great perspective. Like, the only thing that's upsetting to me about his extra digits is the thought of him eventually needing surgery and having any sort of pain, otherwise I’m like, ‘I love it, you’re so special, this is nothing.’ I know what something could be. And I think for other people little things don't feel so little because they haven't seen what can really happen. Don't get me wrong, everything is subjective and any little thing is still really hard as a parent or a family to go through, but I've seen firsthand what life-altering trauma is and I know when something isn't. And, I think that’s given me a really good perspective on motherhood.”

It’s been just a few months since Kayla officially left her position with the hospital, entering what she calls the "in-between," giving herself over to life as a new mom, having answered that existential parenting question - is it worth it? “I’m a Board Certified Music Therapist, and that was really my whole adult life until I had Ethan. But now I'm in this zone of being a mom, taking on the role of Program Director with Hive Family Collective, and I also have my song-writing business, Make Me a Melody. One of my passions at the hospital was doing what we call Legacy Songs, which is when a child's going to die, I would sit and (very informally) interview their parents or family. I'd then create an original song, with an original melody, using only their words. So I created Make Me a Melody as a way to bring that idea to anyone. It doesn't have to be the worst moment of your life, it can be writing an original song just to celebrate the birth of your child, Mother's Day, special events, whatever it is. Through Make Me a Melody I also do music classes, which I love. I mean God, I love kids. I've always loved kids, and especially now, as mom, I realize music can be fun for parents and kids without any sort of trauma associated with it. And, that's a really nice emotional break for me. So, going forward I kind of see these three pieces, motherhood being now the center of it, and I think it's very much going to be figuring it out as I go. Everything changes so quickly at this stage and I feel really lucky I get to be home with my son, but you know, do I have an identity crisis? I wouldn't go that far, but for a long time I would define myself by being a Music Therapist and my career at the hospital and now it's like, how do I define myself? And I guess I would say, really, it's being a mother, yeah… and it's so amazing and so hard, but that’s for sure my primary focus. And at what stage will that definition start to change? I'm not sure. Maybe once he's in school and I have more time, but I don't really know. It's interesting how you kind of recreate yourself throughout life and what you feel more pulled towards at different times. Right now I feel really good about my decision in being pulled towards being a mom.”


 

As I combed our three conversations in writing this piece I realized telling Kayla's story was less about the pain or heaviness I would inflict on readers, and more about feeling unfit to comment on the subject of losing a child, afraid of over dramatizing, downplaying, and everything in-between. But the more I worte, read, rewrote, reread the more I understood what Kayla was telling me, about love, motherhood, and identity. That it's ok to use what was once heavy and traumatic, and make it about joy, about living. That it was ok, beautiful even, despite the incredible and obvious pain of loosing a child, to look for love in a room filled with loss.

"To Look for the helpers," as Mr. Roger's says, "You will always find people who are helping."


 

Hello! I’m Kayla Kantor, a Board-Certified Music Therapist and founder of Make Me a Melody. Based in Park City, Utah, my goal is to help families connect through music. I developed a passion for working with children and families in my work as a music therapist at Primary Children’s Hospital in SLC, UT.


It is from these gut-wrenching, yet beautiful experiences that I was inspired to create Make Me a Melody and bring this connection to families to celebrate other milestones. Every family deserves to connect to each other more deeply through music and that is my mission through Make Me a Melody.


Baby & Me music class is a group class designed to enrich your baby’s development through music. This class will help you connect with your baby while also practicing important developmental skills such as: Language Development, Meaningful Play and Bonding, and Social Emotional Skills


The Hive Family Collective is a network for parents to connect, learn and share in the joys and challenges of raising children. We help to support all families on their journey from pregnancy to parenthood. At Hive we look to support, educate and connect families because we believe if you nourish the mother, the family can grow. Our programming and groups are meant to help parents feel more confident and less alone in their parenting journey.

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