One of the best things to happen in my life was beginning violin lessons at 6 years old. At 12, the local symphony invited me to join. Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet” was on the music stand and I had never heard it or played it. In the beginning the music was building tension and then the Allegro began. Right that very minute I decided to become a musician.

On turning 18, I joined the Music Union and my first professional job was a Nat King Cole show during the State Fair. Thus began my career.

When my mom was 87, she came to Charleston to live with us. It was life altering and we had a wonderful time. She had a wheel chair and we went from our house all over downtown Charleston.

She graduated college in 1923 and had been a fantastic English teacher. One of her students had been the first African American boy to be president of Boy’s Nation.

I began to turn down show jobs that kept me out late at night. Playing in different Churches and Synagogues along with teaching was working. Sometimes mother would go along and sit near me as I played. It made her happy, it made me happy. I accepted a job to play a Ray Charles concert in Myrtle Beach later in the month. I knew Mother liked the Ray Charles version of “Georgia on my Mind.”

Then, it happened! One morning, shortly after her 91st birthday, mother slumped over her cereal. She had a massive stroke. Her will was in place and so was her end of life directive. She never became senile and did not want to be kept alive if her brain was not working. The hospital did a CT scan and her doctor told me there was no longer any brain activity. It was decided to discontinue life support as was her wish.


I was with her every day but she never responded to me. Her brain had left and she was about to leave. Then, I realized the Ray Charles concert was that weekend! I was devastated and didn’t know what to do. I came home from the hospital, weeping. My husband put his arms around me with concern and question.

“I don’t know what to do,” I cried. “Mother could die any minute. I have a contract to play the Ray Charles concert this weekend. I can’t leave her this way! She would never forgive me. I would never forgive myself!”

Still holding my shoulders, my husband looked at me and said, “Sweetheart, I know just what your mother would say. ‘What do you mean you aren’t going to honor that contract after I paid for all those violin lessons! Kay, you get up there and do what you have promised to do!’ “

Ray Charles was fabulous! All his arrangements were carefully guarded so we rehearsed only once. Just before the end of the concert, around 9:30 p.m., he began to play “Georgia on my Mind.” The audience went crazy. Suddenly I had this overwhelming wonderful feeling of peace and happiness wave over me. Didn’t get home until after 1 a.m. and then slept like a log.

The next morning the phone rang around 6 o’clock. It was the hospital.

“Mrs. Wheeler, We tried to reach you yesterday evening but there was no answer. Your mother passed away last night at 9:30.”

As I put the phone down, I whispered, “Forgive me for not being with you.” I paused a moment and then added, ”And thank you Mother for coming to the concert, I know you enjoyed it.”

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