Computer turns grieving mother's poetry into songs that touch, heal the heart


Wanda Lou Dawson's only brother, Larry Lee Tolliver, was killed in Vietnam in 1967 at age 24. She said her mother still has not recovered from his death.

Ms. Dawson's only son, Darren L. Rector, also 24, died in a one-car crash Jan. 22 in Churchville and the 49-year-old Forest Hill resident said she is determined not to let the same thing happen to her, not to turn her grief inward.

Instead, Ms. Dawson has turned to music, with the help of a computer expert who is also a musician. She is recording as inspirational songs with a country beat poems she has written about her son and her belief that they will meet again, in heaven.

"My mother has never gotten over my brother's death," Ms. Dawson said. "She was very outgoing before. She raised three children practically by herself, but since my brother died, she hasn't functioned like a normal person. I don't want it to happen to me. I don't want to just sit and grieve."

When Ms. Dawson would awaken in the middle of the night sobbing after Darren's death, she turned to poetry to assuage her grief. She jotted down verses as they came to her, mostly about Darren and her anticipation of a reunion with him.

Now, with the help of David Beverley, a computerized-music expert, Ms. Dawson is turning her words into songs with a country-western beat that she hopes will comfort other people.

One of four songs she has dedicated to Darren begins, "I will see him soon; God took him away to heaven one day, but, I will see him soon."

"I feel like it's a job that's been given to me, to share with others," said Ms. Dawson, who was reared in a strict Baptist family. "I don't see myself as a singer or entertainer; that's fantasy. But I'm willing to pursue this as far as I can. I didn't lose something for no reason; there's always a reason."

Ms. Dawson said that although she couldn't have foreseen it, everything that has happened to her in recent months is part of a "divine plan," including her interview last November with Mr. Beverley for a manager's job at one of the commercial business centers she managed.

"He was actually qualified, but I knew he wouldn't have been happy sitting behind a desk," she said. "I've been in sales and meeting people all my life, and I knew it wouldn't work."

During the interview, Mr. Beverley, 31, told her about his work as a musician and computer expert helping people turn their work into a finished professional product. She told him about her two earlier stabs at lyric-writing -- "It's All Over" in 1971 and "Man-made Machine" a decade later. "I never did anything with them, though," she said.

Mr. Beverley gave her a demo tape and a brochure about his business. "I listened to it and put it away in a drawer," Ms. Dawson said, "and if this hadn't happened to Darren, Dave's tape would probably still be lying in the back room."

Before her son died, Ms. Dawson already had decided to quit her job of nearly 12 years managing commercial properties for a Baltimore County couple and move to Florida, where she had purchased a home.

Then Darren was killed and the late-night poetry writing began. She remembered the demo tape and called Mr. Beverley. In February, Ms. Dawson began working with him to convert eight of her poems to songs and record them for release on compact disc and cassette. The album tentatively is titled "Wanda Lou -- All Over."

He said the title came from the album being a "hodgepodge" of Ms. Dawson's music and emotions, ranging from the birth of her children -- Darren and two daughters -- to a failed marriage and her son's death.

Adele Nudel, a social worker who lectures nationally on grief counseling and the director of Widowed Persons Services at Sinai Hospital, said Ms. Dawson has taken "an especially creative way to work through her grief.

"Whatever works for people is helping them," Ms. Nudel said. "I think that however people choose to help themselves reflects their personality. The more open people are about expressing the full range of their feelings the faster they'll heal."

"Grief is like a rock on your heart," said Jo Franklin, who leads one of the Sinai bereavement groups, "it gets smaller and you end up with a pebble, but that's always there."

Ms. Franklin, 54, whose physician husband died of cancer after 23 years of marriage, also praised Ms. Dawson's efforts to work through her grief. "That's incredible. Catharsis is very individual. She's going to turn it around and rebuild her life," she said.

David Beverley has helped Ms. Dawson in that process.

"I do a lot of work with inexperienced people but with Wanda . . . it's not a vanity thing but a sharing," Mr. Beverley said. "Her poems turn easily into songs. She wrote this as poetry but I pick out a melody that fits, she does a practice vocal, which she takes home to work with, and then we record it."

In his new Abingdon townhouse, Mr. Beverley has taken over the basement and is able to spread his recording equipment out. He compares his work to word processing -- using music instead of words. He feeds music into his computer as digital information that he can alter and enhance to produce the final work.

Computer technology allows the work to be done electronically virtually anywhere, living room or basement, at a fraction of the cost of a big soundproofed recording studio. Creative opportunity is unlimited.

Equipment quality -- not its location -- counts, Mr. Beverley said. With the touch of a few keys and the press of a button or two, he can set up a recording studio in which his equipment adds backup music, enhances vocals and instrumentals, and filters out extraneous noise.

Although Mr. Beverley specializes in new talent looking for a start in the music business, Ms. Dawson's case is different, he said.

"This is not about someone trying to become a star. For her, it's part of the healing process," he says. "It's in dedication to her son, to share her feelings, maybe with someone else who has had this happen. There are a lot of people out there who are hurting."

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