Two years ago, Bernie Dalton was a healthy 45-year-old.
He spent his mornings surfing Santa Cruz waves, his days cleaning pools, and his nights dreaming about music with his daughter Nicole.
Bernie had always wanted to make his own album, so he enrolled both of them in lessons with Essence Goldman, a professional voice teacher an hour’s drive north in San Francisco.
But two months into his singing lessons, something strange happened. Bernie mysteriously lost his voice. And it never came back.
Bernie was diagnosed with bulbar-onset amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—an aggressive form of ALS that first affects the voice and throat before quickly progressing down the body. At first, he lost his voice and ability to swallow. Then, he lost the use of his hands. And now, less than two years later, Bernie is completely immobile and can only communicate with his eyes.
But Bernie hasn’t given up. He has a mission: to make an album for his 16-year-old girl—a gift to remind her of his love after he’s gone.
Soon after his diagnosis, Bernie began sending pages of handwritten lyrics to his voice teacher, Essence, and asked her to help him put music to the songs he heard in his head—to make something lasting for Nicole.
“Bernie and I had become friends,” says Essence. “I could really relate to his love for his daughter. It reminded me a lot of my father.”
Essence had lost her own father to pancreatic cancer 10 years before, and she knew how much this album would mean to Nicole. She was onboard.
With her connections in the music community, Essence gathered a close-knit group of musicians and producers who volunteered to work on Bernie’s album for free. But there was one final problem: the studio.
Renting a recording studio can cost thousands of dollars. Essence knew that she needed to find a creative way to rally the community together and make Bernie’s dream a reality. So she started a GoFundMe.
In five months, Bernie’s Song raised over $17,000—enough to record and complete Bernie’s album for his daughter.
With the help of his new music friends and over 100 donors, Bernie has steadily been recording his first and final album over the past few months. All the while, his health is rapidly deteriorating. Time is short.
Recently, Bernie made the hour-long trip from his nursing home to join Nicole, Essence, and the team in San Francisco to finish his album.
Bernie is now almost completely immobile and requires around-the-clock care and assistance. As a result, he rarely leaves his nursing home room. It’s also difficult for his friends and family to get to him. Too often, Bernie spends his days alone, lying immobile in his room for hours on end.
So for Bernie, this journey to visit his friends and Nicole was a gift in itself. And to witness his little girl sing backup on the album he wrote for her was an indescribable joy.
After laying down the final tracks for “Losing You”—a song Bernie wrote about what it means to lose the people you love, and for them to lose you—Essence, Nicole, and the team gathered around Bernie to listen.
By the end of the song, there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. They had come together to make something extraordinary—a light in the darkness that is Bernie’s devastating disease.
“I would think most people would get a terminal diagnosis and be completely weighed down by the sadness,” says Essence, “but he has told me so many times that he has met the best friends of his life after he was diagnosed with ALS, making this record.”
“I want him to be where there’s people all around that care for him and he won’t ever feel alone. I want for my dad to feel happy and know that he’s not leaving me behind.”