My father was near to death, and our family flew in from around the country to be near him. Each of us was given some private time.

When it came to be my turn, I entered his hospital room along with my guitar.

The guitar had been a significant element in our relationship from my teen years. He had been highly supportive of my playing from when I first began, at age 13, recognizing my enthusiasm for the instrument. His encouragement ensured a high level of instruction was engaged, culminating in years of lessons with one of the best guitar teachers in the city.

While his support for me on the instrument never wavered, his belief in my singing was not quite so overwhelming. He was confident I could excel with my guitar artistry and be professionally secure. However, he was highly critical of my voice, and felt singing wasn’t my best asset. While this was hard for me, I didn’t let his opinion stop me from singing. I carried on regardless, recording many albums of the songs I wrote.

On top of his disdain for my singing, he also felt my songwriting suffered from an over-emphasis on spirituality. With each new album that I brought to him for his review, he would listen, then shake his head- “No, this is not the music I believe you are capable of.” The same ritual- him listening and giving a ‘thumbs down’- was repeated every couple of years for decades, during which time my music never rose to his standards.

And then came the day when I sat before him at his deathbed.

I brought my guitar out from its case and began playing. While I played, a song was born which told the story of his early years as if I was narrating the mystery which his childhood represented to me.

My dad was born in Peking (Beijing) China, in 1920, to medical doctor / missionary parents (my grandparents), and lived there for his first seven years.

So where was the mystery?

Despite living in the imperial capital of China at the time of the Last Emperor, my father couldn’t remember anything of his childhood, and this forever remained a question for the children. What was it like? What did he experience? And while his intellect was highly developed, there seemed to be an impenetrable wall built around his heart.

That day in the hospital a song emerged, weaving my lifelong wondering about his childhood together with a heartfelt invitation for him to emerge from behind this wall.

The finished song which developed from this spontaneous expression is entitled Forbidden City of the Heart. I sang it at his memorial service and later recorded it on the album JourneySongs. (listen to the song by the link below.)

When the song was over, I put down my guitar.

Only once before in my lifetime had I seen him cry- on a cold November night in Washington, DC, standing curbside on Wisconsin Avenue along with hundreds of other silent onlookers while the body of John F. Kennedy was driven solemnly past on its way to Bethesda Naval Medical Center.

Now, in his hospital room, with tears glistening in his eyes, my dad looked at me and said words which I never forgot. “Michael, now I know why you have been singing all your life. You are loving people through your voice”.

For him to feel this, and say it, was a revelation. “You’re right, Dad. I couldn’t keep myself from singing.”

In that moment I realized that singing had always been my way of loving myself, of loving my voice, and when I sang, others could feel this love as well.

I also recognized how singing for my father during this ‘border’ state of consciousness seemed to help ease his fear and anxiety, allowing him to relax into a deeper sense of trusting and openness.

I felt so grateful for this opportunity with him, for sharing this peaceful musical moment of connection. It then occurred to me: what if a spontaneous song could be helpful in the dying process for others as well?

I couldn’t shake this question, and it formed a central focus of the next phase of my life journey.

Forbidden City of the Heart

A Great Wall of China surrounded you from the very start
What memories entwined and so confounded you
That you made a Forbidden City of your heart?

Born outside of Peking
Three score and thirteen years ago
All your life were seeking
Something more than even you seemed to know

I wanted to know you as a little boy
When dragons flew patterns through your skies
Bright colored paper lanterns lit you up with joy,
Firecrackers danced before your eyes

A Great Wall of China surrounded you from the very start
What secrets unwind as I find a clue to the jade gated
Forbidden City of your heart?

How could I even know you though at times I tried
To breach the wall that hid your heart from view?
A barricade of twisted dreams had wrapped you deep inside
Did you ever hear a call to tunnel through?

It's hard to say what makes us
exactly what we turn out to be
One thing is certain
I know you wished that I would one day be free
To climb without a care across these red ramparts
And fly beyond this dynasty
Of feeling apart as we are in the

Forbidden City of the heart
Forbidden City of the heart
Pack your bags, we're leaving this place tonight
Hitch up the horses,
Gonna make it to the mountains by moonlight

We are leaving now this Forbidden City of the heart.

(Words & Music by Michael Stillwater)