Stanley Woolner is a St. Paul physician whose hands have helped heal many. But to heal himself after his daughter, Katherine, was murdered, his hands didn't turn to medicine. But to music.
Katherine was just 11 months old in 1998 when Woolner's estranged wife at the time, who lived in the Netherlands, smothered her. Woolner was in Minnesota when his daughter died. He had tried for months to persuade Dutch authorities to take Katherine from her mother, telling police the mother was angry and violent.
No one listened to Katherine's father.
Now, they can listen to Katherine.
This story may seem strange, but maybe not so much if you have lost a child: Through the miracles of music and the human heart, Katherine's spirit spoke through her dad and brought him the gift of a lyrical piano composition that causes audiences to weep and, more important, causes them to want to help her father in an international effort to keep more babies from dying.
It is an extraordinary tale.
Woolner, 48, married again in 2002, and has two children with his new wife, Sophea: Nadia, 4, and Abraham, 1. But the family will always include another girl, who would be 10 now, and whose birthday, Oct. 29, is celebrated by her family.
"I was devastated when I lost Katherine," Woolner says. "She was amazing. It was like she knew me when she met me. And when she was born, I arrived at the person I always wanted to be, without knowing what I wanted. She changed me. For the first time, I saw the world beyond myself."
Katherine liked to sleep on her father's chest, holding on with little hands, kicking his stomach with tiny feet. Those remembered movements are echoed in Woolner's composition, two-beat motifs that punctuate the music and come from the life of a girl whose father still hears her voice.
Katherine was almost a year old when her mother smothered her, calling Woolner's clinic from Amsterdam and screaming, "Tell Dr. Woolner his daughter is dead," into the telephone. She was convicted of murder and sentenced to four years in prison, but was released after 32 months.
Woolner had waged a frantic campaign to get authorities to remove Katherine, telling Dutch police that the mother often threatened to kill the baby, to throw her out a window or down the stairs. But the fears of an American doctor who was separated from his wife and was in the United States didn't get much attention. Katherine was briefly taken away from her mother but was returned after the mother lied about completing anger counseling.
On Oct. 14, 1998, the baby who had clutched Woolner's chest and called him "Da-da" as she fell asleep, was dead. Woolner broke down in sobs at her funeral in Amsterdam and resolved to preserve her memory.
I don't know how a grieving parent can communicate with a lost child. But when Stan Woolner sat at a piano a couple of weeks after Katherine's death to work out his feelings, he didn't have to work long.
Woolner has played the piano since he was a boy in Rochester, Minn., and studied composition at Stanford. He has composed a number of piano pieces and won some awards. But when he touched the keyboard this time, something strange, and true, happened: A 13-minute piece poured out of his soul, and through his fingers -- an evocative piece that begins and ends joyfully but takes a somber turn in the middle.
Woolner calls it: "Katherine on My Chest/With You at Your Grave." He didn't compose it himself.
He had help from a little girl.
"The music just came through me," he says matter-of-factly. "I didn't have much to do with it. It came from Katherine. She was communicating through me."
Woolner, a family physician at the Arcade Clinic on the East Side of St. Paul, didn't tell anyone for five years where the music came from. But when he finally played it for musical friends such as Edie Hill and Paul Siskind, they liked it, without knowing its story. Buoyed by their appraisals, Woolner began to share his "Katherine" with a larger audience, recording it on a self-published CD last year.
The piece was performed last spring by the Schubert Club in St. Paul, and at a summer festival in Nova Scotia. On Friday, it will be performed at the University of Minnesota, but for more than just its musical merits. This time, it also will be played in the hope of saving children from domestic abuse.
The piece will be performed tomorrow night at Grace University Lutheran Church by the University's Health Sciences Orchestra (more information is below) as part of an effort to raise funds for Childhealth Advocacy International, an aid group based in Britain that promotes child health care in poor countries.
Woolner takes comfort in knowing his daughter's music, and her message, are being heard.
"Katherine's spirit lives on, as she should have been allowed to do," Woolner says. "Someone stole what was most precious to me. I want something positive to come of it. But there's no such thing as 'closure.' It's something you never get over, and carry with you forever.
"I'm not a religious man, but when you find yourself at the grave of your own child, you become pretty spiritual.
"I have to do this. I have to do this for her. And for me."
Nick Coleman • firstname.lastname@example.org