Things were not good for Pete Sencevicky of Bluffton the day music reached deep into his soul.
It had to get there through a mind and body that were 10 days from death.
After a stroke, he couldn’t talk, read, write, swallow food or process two instructions given simultaneously.
But he knew he did not want a feeding tube in his nose, or IVs or catheters, and he ripped them all out in his hospital room at the MUSC Medical Center in Charleston.
That’s when one of his life’s most touching moments happened.
Dr. Shelly D. Ozark asked Pete’s wife, Gretta, to bring Pete’s old upright string bass to the hospital.
On May 3, Gretta took the bass Pete played since his childhood in a New Jersey Russian-Polish ghetto — the bass he learned to play by ear and used to create Hilton Head Island’s Dixieland Jazz Society 25 years ago.
Gretta also took musicians Dale Nordby and Joe Bates — the ones Pete had been playing with for years each Friday at the Preston Health Center and Memory Matters, where their music somehow reached into the souls of elderly, bent bodies and minds stolen by dementia.
MUSC nurses met them and called Dr. Ozark. Pete was restrained in bed, wearing big gloves, and unhappy. The doctor set him free. His friends started singing and playing their guitars. They saw Pete’s feet keeping rhythm. They stood him up, and for about half an hour they played music together.
Gretta and the nurses did some crying. Gretta shot some video, which she shared with me.
Dale and Joe laughed, and teased one another as usual. They asked Pete how he was going to get the old upright that once stuck out of his Volkswagen Beetle into heaven.
All they remember playing was “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
“It’s not what we played, but that we played,” Dale said. “It will be part of my heart forever. Even though he could not communicate verbally, his fingers were still communicating through his music.”
“Music hits a note way down deep,” Joe said.
Gretta called it his last gig.
Pete had long ago signed papers dictating that his end on earth was not to be prolonged. After the stroke, he was diagnosed with bone cancer. There would be no feeding tubes. He came back to Hilton Head and died Friday morning at the Fraser Health Center. His funeral on Tuesday at First Presbyterian Church was to be filled with music, and stories of a touching life.
Pete was born 84 years ago to Russian immigrants in a room off the kitchen. It was near the coal stove, the only heat in a two-story home his father built in South River, N.J., with a basement where they raised 100 chicks a year and slaughtered hogs.
“Work hard” was the mantra of his upbringing. His first job came at age 10, sweeping the handkerchief factory. He helped out late in his father’s life when he took the side job of church custodian, which also meant he dug all the graves.
Pete’s upbringing of using everything, fixing everything, and repurposing everything never left him. He often talked about hearing the peddler calling, “Rags for sale ... rags for sale ...” He had a garage full of gadgets, and loved to repair stuff and go to swap meets.
“He never got to be what he always wanted to be ... a junk man,” Dale said.
Pete earned two master’s degrees and spent 35 years in New Jersey schools, most of it in the classroom, a little of it as a principal. He would teach again at Dale Elementary School in northern Beaufort County after retiring to Hilton Head Island. His specialty was special-needs children.
He was a sensitive soul who wrote poetry, and loved the music he learned to play by ear.
He liked to tell that one day his boyhood buddies didn’t show up at the corner to play, and he learned they’d taken up music. Pete followed them to the school’s band room, and the band director pointed to an old upright bass in the corner, showed him a couple of chords and said the rest was up to him. And, by the way, he’d have to play the tuba in the marching band.
Once he was introduced to Dixieland jazz, that quick tempo remained with him, even through his last, unexpected gig in the hospital room.
“He finished his song,” Gretta said. “I really feel that’s the story.”