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Arts For Life Gives an Ailing 12-Year-Old an Avenue to Thank Her Mother in Song

Brooklyn Reese
Eakin Howard
Brooklyn Reese

Brooklyn Reese is 12 years old and, when she’s healthy, she’s sort of a second mother to her younger sister and brother.

“Before I got sick, I had a lot of responsibility, because Izzy, she had trouble with math and homework, so when we got home from school, I’d help her with her homework,” she said. “And I’d take care of Jackson and give him a sippy and make him a peanut butter sandwich.”

But a little more than two years ago, red spots appeared on Brooklyn’s legs, below her knees, then painful sores and blood blisters in her mouth would pop and sap her appetite.

“My mouth hurt so bad, all my bones hurt,” she said. “It made spaghetti taste like iron.”

Doctors diagnosed Brooklyn with aplastic anemia, which happens when the body stops producing red blood cells. Bone marrow from Brooklyn’s brother and a cocktail of drugs have boosted her onto a faster track to recovery than doctors at Mission Hospital had predicted. For Brooklyn’s spirit, there’s Arts For Life.

The Asheville nonprofit brings the arts into hospitals and clinics and to their young patients battling serious illnesses. A musical component is called the Heartbeat Sessions. Musicians turn the recorded heartbeats of patients into the rhythm for music.

Most kids choose a favorite song of theirs for the musicians to perform. Brooklyn wrote her own song, and she also sings it.

“It’s called ‘I Love You, Mom,’ and it’s about all the hard times we went through,” she said. “It’s about our journey through all of this, and I wanted to make her feel better.”

Arts For Life recorded Brooklyn singing her lyrics into a phone, and that recording went to Melissa Hyman, a cellist, vocalist and one of the co-founders of the Heartbeat Sessions.

“When I heard it, it was actually very easy for me to put chords to it,” Hyman said. “We talked about dynamics, to have it soft at some points and loud at others to give it more drama. It was pretty easy to envision an arrangement I thought she would love.”

All of this was happening beneath the radar of Brooklyn’s mother, Megan Penley.

“They told me they were doing an art project, but I had no idea it was a song until after it was already recorded,” Penley said.

Credit Eakin Howard
Brooklyn Reese (center) performs the song she wrote for her mother, at the Mothlight in Asheville.

Hyman put musicians together to record Heartbeat Sessions songs at Echo Mountain Studios, then Arts for Life launched the album a couple weeks ago with performances at The Mothlight, in Asheville. It was the first time Brooklyn had performed the song she wrote, with a full band, in front of her mother.

“She’s always been one to paint, draw, color, singing, but you never think anyone’s going to write and record a song for you,” Penley said. “I cried through the entire song.”

“For some of these kids, it’s something their family will have to hold onto after they’re gone and still be able to hear their heartbeat and be with them,” Hyman said. “For the kids who do get better and do well, it’s a way to look back on this really tough time in their lives in this positive way and have a positive memento from this really complicated time.”

Brooklyn hasn’t attended regular school for three years and her platelet count is still low, but doctors have told her family Brooklyn is on track to return to a healthy, normal life.

“It’s a little overwhelming because it’s been so long,” she said. “I get tired sometimes, but not all the time. Other times I’m a fireball of energy running around in the yard.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.
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