Wednesday, February 13, 2013

“GOD, Who, in creating human nature, did wonderfully dignify it, and still more wonderfully restored it….”

It can be very easy to judge a dead person when you have never met them and you are only formulating your opinions on the things that you are seeing and hearing at their funeral. They are actually the easiest target for judgment because you are never going to get their side of the story. Let’s face it, judging people and situations comes a lot more easily and with a greater deal of satisfaction than we all like or want to admit. Often times when I am in judgment mode it is because I am working overtime to divert attention from my own fears and weakness. For the better portion of my existence I was completely unaware that I was doing this. My conscious feeling was that I was offering a valuable service in so acutely pointing out the fallibility of others to my nearest and dearest. I was intuitive and knowledgeable! As I look back on my notes regarding a funeral for a very glamorous gal named Doris, I am forced to see right through myself on the topic of judgment: It was a spring day on the cusp of warmth and as I walked into the church, I remembered being told that this was a memorial mass. In other words, there is no casket or ashes and the mass is in the traditional format rather than the funeral text. This type of service is easier for me to sing because typically the family has had some time to process and it feels less like standing in a hurricane of grief. When I entered the church there, to my great surprise, was a massive portrait of the deceased set on a large easel in front of the steps leading up to the altar. This was not just a large photograph; it was a painted portrait with an ornate, gilded frame like ones that the Royals commission. She was a lovely looking woman of about 35 years at the time it was painted. Her features were clear-almost plain. Her grey eyes were fixed and stern and I surmised that she spent most of her days taking no prisoners. It was her red lipstick that gave her away completely. Full tilt glamour on a slightly curled lip that told the story that her eyes dared not tell. She was seated on a dramatic, chaise with carved wooden border. It was obvious that the portrait dated sometime during the days of Camelot, as her dark blond hair was coiffed like Jackie Kennedy and she wore a tailored, moss green dress that looked as if there would have been a jacket to go over her bare arms, but she chose not to wear it. She wore three strands of pearls and as I gazed intently at her face, I found myself fiddling with the heavy strands of faux Chanel pearls that I often don for these occasions. If I had to choose a few adjectives, on the spot, to describe my first impressions of this portrait I would have quickly said; authentically confident, bold and bewitching. But, at this point, left to my own default devices, my thoughts turned to how grotesquely showy and out of place it seemed standing in the humble church. I also remembered that her children picked the music for the service. How did a woman with four children find time to have a portrait PAINTED?! Could her husband have possibly thought that this was a prudent dispensation of family resources? I can’t find time for a mani pedi with two sons (and by the way, I color my own hair because it is too expensive) and this woman can sit for a painter? I read The Girl with the Pearl Earring-I know how long this takes! Then the real judgments roll in: she must not have been a very attentive mother or wife. She must not have pursued a career. She never learned to cook. When it came time for Doris’ eulogy, it was delivered by her widower who looked to me to be very well cared for, especially considering his age. He courageously delivered the words because, as he said, “nobody else could have”. It was a tender story of many years in love, raising their family and working together. Nothing fancy-just a great life. She had died suddenly without ever being ill. I heard nothing of the shallow woman that I had designed from looking at her portrait. She seemed to have changed all the kid’s diapers and cleaned her own floors. The only reference that I heard to Queen-Doris-of-the-Oil-Painting, was that she loved fashion and beauty, worked outside of the home and saved to have fine things. Go figure- A woman before her time that wanted her sense of worth and purpose to be reflected in a lovely outer appearance, rather than a fear-filled Diva, wielding a credit card, striving to create an image that had absolutely no inner reference point. It seemed, at the time, to be an irrefrangible rule of my profession: Fake it til you make it. That may have worked for some, but it could never actually resonate with me, no matter how hard I tried. After years of shooting in the dark on brightly lit stages, having a face down with my deepest demon of unworthiness was long overdue and it was going to happen in that choir loft. Whether many of us realize it or not, when we feel least deserving we are most critical. I spent many of my tender years of career building judging other people’s singing calling it discriminating and selective. But how many of us do this when we feel threatened, unworthy and just plain scared that there is no place for us? What I began to realize was that as the Funeral Singer I never compared myself to other Funeral Singers!! Every circumstance in which I found myself singing was perfectly and effortlessly designed for me to give my best-to open my heart and heal my corner of the world. It amazes me how we change everything when we offer our gifts with that pure intention- Showing up with our lipstick on (feel free to replace lipstick with whatever reflects your hit-it-out-of-the-park fabulousness) ready to give what we have without checking or worrying or comparing. Ego be gone! Now the challenge has become singing my other jobs with the soul of the Funeral Singer. As for Doris, when I was on my way out of the church the Funeral Director was collecting the portrait, as well as a collage of candid photographs that had arrived after I had passed before the mass. I asked if I could quickly survey the pictures. There she was with children on her lap, laughing with friends, dancing with her husband, relaxing in a lawn chair; looking different in every picture, yet so completely lovely and real that she could have jumped off the photo paper. “Beautiful.”, the Funeral Director said. “Yes she is.”, I answered. She was worth every drop of paint that it took to commemorate her time as queen of her life and she knew it. Wonderful, dignified Doris caused me to recognize that it is not only alright to love ourselves, but it is against our true nature not to. Not selfishness or self centeredness, but real, courageous self respect. It is the proverbial oxygen mask that gives us the strength to breathe life into our homes, relationships and professions. You may not ever catch me sitting for a portrait, but you will definitely find me in the pedicure chair.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

…let us console one another…

One might think that routine exposure to death and dying would trigger chronic feelings of depression, fear, loss of faith and grief; especially when you have sung a string of funerals involving the death of a young person or those who seem especially beloved. In my experience, this has not always been the case. Taking a peripheral seat, as I do, often causes me to ponder the role of humor, both in the initial stages of grief and in the overall healing process. For example, one of the most significant losses in my life was that of my Aunt Josephine who was a matriarch and source of comfort love and wisdom throughout my young life. Quite frankly, she was like a caricature of the Italian Old Maid (house coat and all) who shoveled pasta and broccoli rabe down our throats with a full dose of old world advice and religious (Catholic of course) perspective. She had no filters when offering commentary on anything from someone’s physical appearance to their ethnic background. (Didn’t you know that Italians are the only honest, smart, productive, good-looking people on this planet??) I would forgive every word of blatant offense and political incorrectness, because, well….she was so damned funny. Her habits, idiosyncrasies, the things she saved, the things she cooked, the things she said, as I think back and write this now, make me laugh out loud. She knew not what she said and was really only offering up the world as she saw it through the sieve of her gigantic heart and very narrow life experiences; colored only by inferences of cultural traditions, family demands and pride. Perhaps this unspoken understanding of love, tradition and family prepared my sister and me for the day when we would be hired to help at a funeral where we did not play or sing. In fact, we did not understand a word of what was going on. It was the funeral of an obviously beloved family matriarch of a Vietnamese family. The church had hired us to be there “just in case” we needed to jump in and help the full staff of family musicians all prepared to sing, play the piano, guitar and whatever else they had there that day. The loft was packed with cousins, granddaughters, brothers-in-law-you name it. It was My Big Fat Vietnamese Funeral in the making and my only assignment was to shut the microphones on and off. I was feeling useless and out of place; at least let me sing an Alleluia for my fee! I could hardly keep a straight face looking across the loft at my sister by the piano, who had to basically speak sign language to be sure to get them all the music that they needed for the traditional parts of the mass, only to come to understand that they came replete with their own Vietnamese versions of everything. Squeezed by the crowd into a tiny spot in the corner next to the control box, I pressed the button on and off as each song sprung forth from the makeshift choir of family love. They cried as the hundreds (I mean hundreds) of family members processed into the church behind a man carrying high a huge portrait of the deceased. They sobbed as three of the younger members of the choir sang the Psalm in the most raw and dulcet tones with complete reverence and passion for the words that I could not understand. The communion song went on and on for at least 15 minutes, soaring repetitively on the wailing wave of sorrow. Boy, I thought, could anyone be missed as much as this woman? Every time I pressed the microphone controls on or off, I received such looks of indescribable gratitude; as if I had given the choir a box of gold. The entire time, my sister and I shared glances of disbelief trying so hard to hold back the laughter that can threaten to erupt in any situation where you feel uncomfortable, foreign, useless or stupid. When everyone was settled after communion, a man approached the lectern with what looked like twenty pages of paper sure to be the eulogy. I braced myself for the wailing. At first, I found myself frustrated by the fact that I could not understand the story that he was telling. I wanted so badly to know what she was like, what she did with her time, her profession, her likes and dislikes; all the reasons behind this fanfare and homage. Initially, the crowd was quiet-a few sniffles here and there. As the man continued, his seemingly unintelligible words evoked giggles; the kind of giggles laden with fondness and reminiscence. Then, a gradual crescendo erupted into full on uproarious laughter. My sister and I could not help but join in release of all the bewilderment that we had experienced over the last hour. We looked at each other and laughed, as if we had held on for dear life and could finally let go. We could dissolve into our own memories. The miracle occurred when members of the choir put their hands on our shoulders and laughed with us, as if my sister and I spontaneously understood Vietnamese. We were all laughing together for all that we understood and could never understand. Laughing in celebration of our relatives who may not always mean to make us laugh, but do. Most of all, we were laughing at ourselves laughing-lost in the humor and connectedness that we share, even when language fails us. The memory building power of fun and laughter is stronger than just about any relationship fiber that I can think of. Joy will penetrate the darkness of loss, if you have spent enough days in laughter with one that you love. That day, laughing amongst those whom I had never met and did not understand, I could see the face of my sister engaged in the same type of laughter that we share with our family; in spite of some of our people taking parts of our joy away with them. It was magnificent to share the happy part of remembering along with our momentary family in the choir loft. We may not have been laughing at the same thing, but everyone understood the involuntary force of solace cutting through the center part of mourning with every story of the beloved that was imbued with the perfect memory of what it felt like to be near them. It is the same for all us-whether or not we share country, language or creed. Aunt Josie said it best: “We are all God’s children.”

Monday, November 19, 2012

"Remember Paul. In baptism he died with Christ: may he also share his resurrection, when Christ will raise our mortal bodies and make them like his own in glory."

Paul died on a Sunday. The sun swelled through the stained glass like a sting of light so strong, that I knew something important had happened somewhere near where I was standing in the choir loft that morning. I was singing the Sunday mass. When the mass was over, I descended the stairs from the loft and entered the main church; there I was told by a parishioner that Paul had passed. I do not remember what I said; I only remember how I felt. I was brought back two years to the first moment that I ever saw Paul and his family; only about 30 feet from where I was standing at that moment. It too was a bright morning after the Sunday mass. Huddled in front of the alter was Paul, the parish priest, a dear and caring parishioner, Pat, and Paul’s wife, Alice, holding an infant car seat which held their beautiful newborn daughter. Their three young sons were running around the church, while their parents were deep in conversation. I could see my sister (also the church Music Director), toward the front of the church, on the periphery of the conversation. Her face had a strange look, as if her heart knew something that her ears had not yet heard. I lightened my footsteps as I walked up the side aisle. I felt as if I should not be there, in spite of the fact that this was the most common route for exiting the church. As I approached, Pat broke off from the group and joined my sister and me as we came together. She told us that Paul was relaying devastating news to the priest. By this time I had a clear view of their profiles. Paul did most of the talking, but Alice would gently interject, with a word here, a word there. Her right arm rhythmically swaying the car seat, as if that part of her body was far removed from the conversation. I could not hear exactly what they were saying, but I could see the look on both of their faces. It was the look of disillusionment that most people have when they are desperately looking for something precious that they have lost: panic, fear, disbelief and hope that it will reappear very soon. Their heads were moving up and down; eyes meeting and then disengaging, looking desperately past one another, as their mouths kept moving. They were talking to one another and past one another all at the same time, while the priest, speechless, listened. It could not have been brighter in the room, but they seemed to be stumbling around in the dark. The joyful squeals of the little boys as they ran up and down the aisles seemed discordant with the mood, yet offered me some strange sense of relief. If Alice did not notice her boys (whom she always had in check) running wild around the church, perhaps she did not notice me, frozen by curiosity; an accidental intruder. The reason that I was so curious was that Paul’s was one of those stand-out families. The kind where you know that the couple shared love and friendship that could withstand the rigors of raising, what looked to me to be, four kids in five years. Always in church together, I witnessed their bond week in and week out when I sang that mass. The children were beautiful and Alice seemed to be such a patient mother, laying a gentle hand on which ever child was too restless or talkative. She had crowd control down in a way that I wished I could-and I only have two who are five years apart! I always had a clear view of them from the loft, as I sang out over the heads of the congregation. You may wonder how I could intuit all this love just from seeing a family attend church week in week out, but that is just the thing: ANYONE who has brought a young family to a church knows how un-peaceful that can be, yet peace and love are all you could feel from these people- in spite of the fidgeting. It appeared to be so seamless, so simple, so unified-like a beautiful ensemble of musicians-each member essential. When Pat told us that Paul had been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) I was flooded with distress and compassion; compassion for Paul and distress for Alice. As most of us will do, I immediately projected the feelings that I would have in this situation: How will she take care of him? How will he be able to work? How will she, as a stay at home mother, deal with his ultimate physical deterioration and death? Who will help them? How could this happen? It is way, way too much! The truth is: it is too much. Too much for any person outside of the situation to understand the journey that they would have to take and how that journey would feel, let alone how they would get through it. I knew, from personal experience, that you really never get through seeing someone strong and able become helpless and disabled; changing into someone so different from the person you once knew. I also know that children never finish grieving a parent; that journey is never complete as long as you are still here. As I left the church that day, one thing was certain: I would sing Paul’s funeral. Because of the known cruelty of the disease, I would most likely sing it while the kids were still prone to fidgeting in the church. Soon after that day, I would still see lovely family at mass. I watched from the loft, as the months passed. In the beginning, Paul still stood in all the places where the congregation is beckoned to stand and would walk to communion. My heart sank when it got to the point that he struggled so, holding onto the end of every pew in order to make it back to his seat. Every time that I saw him it was worse. He did not give up until he absolutely had to, at which time he stayed seated in the pew and finally a wheelchair. I would see Alice reach out to him and touch him on the back, but it was different than the soothing touch she would extend in order to calm her children. I may have made this up for my own purpose, but this touch was energy and faith for the journey. I felt that I had more, when I saw her touch him. Finally, there came a day when Alice started coming to church by herself with the children. Paul could no longer attend. Every time I sang a song of faith, hope, strength or peace, I would sing it directly to the back of Alice’s head, praying to God that she would hear and understand the things that so many of us are never called to really hear or really understand. Her faith was being practiced in ways that I hoped never to practice mine. Every word of every hymn took on new meaning and significance as I searched for the things that might comfort her and prayed that I could be an instrument of comfort at all. In those days, I would come down from the loft to the front of the church to sing the Psalm. During the Lenten season, there was a special psalm that I would have to sing every week until Easter: “Be with me Lord when I am in trouble, be with me Lord I pray.” Every week, I sang it for Alice. On Palm Sunday, the choir gave a special presentation of the Passion and both my husband and I were present to sing solos and support the choir. On that day I was shocked to see, Paul, Alice and their children seated in the front row, to my right side as I faced out to the congregation. His wheelchair had support all the way to the top of his head and it felt so tragic, at first look, to see how his physical condition had deteriorated since I had last seen him. Alice and their children did not seem one bit different: the same love, peace, patience and hope were all around them. I will never know if that’s what they were feeling, but that is what I saw. The thing is, sometimes others see in us that which we are so unaware in ourselves. It is a silent gift. Just by being who we are-REALLY who we are- we have the power to comfort, heal and inspire those around us without even meaning to do so. When we began to sing, I thought that I might witness a miracle. If Paul’s physical body could have taken him out of the chair it would have, because he was rising and shining like nothing that I had ever seen. There was pure glory on his face. I was so blest to have witnessed that moment of pure grace when I knew in my heart that we are not our bodies. That we will lose everything on this earth and the resplendent spirit that was shown to me by Paul will live on in whatever ways we have cultivated in this life. I never saw Paul again. If memory serves it was two Sundays later that he left the body that failed him. I have a strong feeling that if he had not lived in the cradle of such great love, that he would have left it earlier. I did sing his funeral with the very best that God’s grace would give me. Quite frankly, I do not remember singing at all. What I remember best, is approaching the alter to sing the psalm, as I had done so many times before, and the priest who stood in the circle of sadness on that day two years before, decided to read the Eulogy before the Liturgy of the Word. The Eulogy this time was a letter from Alice chronicling the love story that she shared with her heroic husband. A story so painful to witness through the lens of tragedy, yet so precious and beautifully exalted it was in the steadfast love in which the end could be told. I wrote this knowing that I would never be able to tell this story well enough, but nonetheless, I felt it had to be told. It was, and continues to be, one of the most ennobling experiences of my life to know, at a distance, Paul and his family. It is so important to me to work every day to remember these things which I have heard a million times, but had really never learned: with steadfast faith we have the strength to carry on, love does conquer all-even death, and that the whole world changes when we choose to live moment by moment in that love. Alice taught me all of these things without a word.

Friday, January 22, 2010

In the waters of baptism....

I am learning that being flexible is extremely important. This was never more clear than the day I sang, not a funeral in a warm church, but a graveside service in a snowy, New England cemetery in 19 degree weather.
At first, I was irritated and felt that I was being put on the spot when I was called by the Funeral Director who wanted to know if I knew ANYONE (hint, hint) who would be ( crazy enough)willing to come to the cemetery in Watertown and sing “Danny Boy” at the post-funeral –graveside- service of an Irishman. His family had desperately wanted this song sung at the funeral and it was not allowed by the priest who had a strict policy of only permitting hymns to be sung during the Mass. I must admit that I am always moved by heritage specific repertoire, but not generally so that it will drive me to want to stand in snow to my ankles singing into the unforgiving atmosphere. In any case, I was told to name my price. It was ridiculously high, as I held a secret hope that it would be rejected and I would not have to take another turn down this very strange road as a Funeral Singer. When it was accepted, there was no turning back; they must really want this song.
As I drove down the highway on my way to the cemetery, I was in utter disbelief at what I was apparently willing to do for grocery money (or a new pair of shoes) and could feel my pride blowing away with the snow off the roof of my car. Forty minutes and a few wrong turns later, I drove through the entry gate of the cemetery. I was a few minutes early, so I pulled my car into a spot where I would be able to see when the Funeral Director and her crew arrived. I reached for my book in the seat next to me, but found myself hypnotized by the grave stones surrounding me. I was absolutely fascinated that each one represented a life, or two, or six, depending on if it was an individual or family stone. Looking at the dates, I was relieved to see that most people had live a long life and were generally born around the time the Titanic sank. Some even still had dashes next to their birth date. This held for me, some strange assurance that I still had time to figure things out. I could not help but think about our own family stone back in Wakefield, which displayed the names and dates of some so dear to me. The dashes, in some cases held many years, but some-way too few.
Soon came the Funeral procession and I knew it was show time. After a few quick scales to warm up again, I emerged from the car into the bitter cold. A far cry from the heat of the stage-lights, the wind whipping around my uncovered head felt more like a baptism of fire. The bright sun seemed to mock me. I merged with the crowd approaching the casket which had, by now, been brought to its place to hover above the hole in the ground. Clutching my music, I found a place where I could survey the mourners until my services were needed. I nodded to the Funeral Director as her eyes fell upon me, so that she would know that I was ready for her cue. As the priest began reading from his large book of prayers, I waited and watched. There was now a group of about sixty people around the casket. I was blending into the crowd on the opposite side of casket from the deceased man’s family. His children were barely older than I. The widow was seated and her son’s hand was upon her shoulder. I fast forwarded in my brain to one of my life’s worst fears: being seated, crying, by a graveside with my grown son’s hand on my shoulder.
When it was time, I was summoned forward until I was wedged between the priest and the Funeral Director. The only thing separating me from the space that the widow inhabited was the mahogany box that housed her love’s body. As I began to sing, I heard her breathing become labored and broken. I heard subtle cries from her children as she grabbed their hands and then I could not look.
I stared at my music, taking in as much cold air as my lungs would allow between each phrase. Behind my sunglasses involuntary tears streamed down my face and liquid ran from my nose. I hoped that they did not notice, for I would never want them to think that I was so presumptuous as to join in their tears. I could not tell if it was the bitter cold or the sting of this circle of sorrow that caused this reaction; perhaps it was both. I could hear my voice being carried off by the wind. The only way that I could be sure it was heard, was by the deep, low, hum of the widow’s cry.
I don’t know that I will ever again experience such a close encounter with a sadness that is not mine. What I do know is that I was brought to a place that I truly believed that I did not want to be and while there, I found something for which I had desperately been looking-a question that I needed to be answered: What is the value of a song? In the time it took to sing “Danny Boy” I received an answer. It has been so different to sing this music that poses so little vocal or musical challenge in comparison to what I usually sing. Its simplicity has caused me to silently question its impact and value. The truth is that the merit of any song lies deep within the heart of its listener. A song is a lifetime in a moment. No song is better than the next. I am no better singing Puccini than I am when I am singing an old Irish tune. The singer must never believe that they are bigger than the song: that is the secret. This day brought to me such an experience of purification. All pride had vanished and for the first time ever, I was the song. Expression was not imposed, because it was born of the moment. I could not even hear it. I could only feel it.
I now understand that grief is a melody that the heart sings when it longs for what was. The theme itself assuages the pain and born from that moment are all things new. In this way, the widow and I sang together.
I can only hope that I gave enough to the woman who had paid so much for a song.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

...and take you to the Holy City.

Recently, I sang the funeral of a world traveler. The Eulogy was given by her niece who clearly admired her as an independent, single, woman who did, said and went, wherever she wanted. I was taken in by the account of her travels and the description that her niece offered of her both physically and personally. I drew a mental picture of a well-dressed, sophisticated woman, with solid finances and deep appreciation of all things cultural. I loved the fifteen minutes that I spent following her around this world that she had now left behind; imagining that she had the key in her pocket to some wonderful existence and that at any minute she would toss it over her shoulder to me. She no longer needed hers and I had my hands held out feeling that I had not found mine.
The interesting thing about these life summaries is that they are just that: a summary. Void of detail. There had to be days when her flight did not leave on time, or she was frustrated because she had never found Mr. Right, Wrong, or Indifferent to travel with her. She must have been lonely, at times, in Paris, Rome or Barcelona. Right? It must be terrible to have everyone in your family have a family, and you are left to run around the world chasing the light of great cities.
This brief train of thought, (in a surge of self awareness) I had to admit, was born of a deep, warm jealousy of a woman who was now dead. She reminded me of this great, jet-setting, dream-chasing gal, who’s only responsibility was to the love of her life, her career and her Holy City: New York. That would be me, circa 1991.
Just to walk around New York, live among the colorful citizens, eat her food, wear her clothes, was all I wanted. I had stayed, worked and traveled in beautiful places, but none better than New York. The mid-day bustle, late trains to auditions, quick burrito ( scratch that, only have time for a hot pretzel), street fairs, gypsy cabs, rehearsals, show, drinks with friends, dinner with colleagues, television on the couch, sirens blazing, home, home, wonderful home.
Then came the greatest adventure: After a trip to St. Luke’s Roosevelt, it was stroller up the stairs, down the stairs, grocery bags hung on the back of the stroller, treat us both to lunch at Sarabeth’s, get a babysitter so I can take the audition, find a school, we all make friends and live happily ever after.
After another trip to St. Luke’s Roosevelt, the story changed: Hot pavement to cool grass, Ollie’s Take Out to McDonald’s drive through and the 9 train to Volvo Cross Country. This is where the great woman being eulogized and I part ways. I had made choices that turned into more choices that left me, I thought, with no choices.
You may wonder why this funeral, out of all the hundreds of funerals that I have sung, merits this mentioning, since it seemed to have stirred bad feelings and throw me into a kind of torpor so deep that I almost could not sing “Jesus Remember Me”. Well the truth is, that in that very moment I heard the key hit the ground. The woman had tossed it from my imagination into my own magical existence and I was too enthralled by the light to catch it. I never wanted what she had or I would have chosen it. At every turn I chose, and lived and chose again. I have built my Holy City around me and it makes no difference where I go, where I live or what I do. I am so grateful that I was there to hear her story. A story that bore such stark contrast to the one that I have lived so far, that I was able to choose again.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

…. May the martyrs welcome you…

Today I sang a funeral for an Italian woman who had lived long and well. This was according to the eulogy read by the celebrant. It was a letter that was sent by her nephew and served as a tribute to her loving kindness extended to him throughout his life. The family decided that this would make the best eulogy and asked the priest to read it. At this point in the Mass the priest refers to the speech as “words of remembrance”. It is always amazing to observe the manner in which people remember their loved ones. Often they will read poetry or letters. At most funerals, the people who deliver these words have some degree of distance from the sting of the loss. But with the elderly; anything goes. I think because in their case, death makes sense.
Viola had lived through her eighties. One of eleven children, she had grown up in the Depression in Little Italy and had learned at an early age that sacrifice for family was most important. She lived her life giving her all to her husband and children, as she had learned to do in her home growing up. According to her nephew’s letter, she was last on her list. She suffered with health problems untended and lived much of her life in physical pain. Was she a martyr?
One day a friend said to me accusingly, “Why are you being such a martyr?” This was following an attempt to help her after the birth of her child. I had offered to bring dinner or diapers or something that I can’t even remember, and she shot back with those words. I processed this as a postpartum meltdown and tried to move past it, but the moment was hard to forget. I had reached out in a genuine fashion to a person with whom I was close. This should not have been controversial at all, but because of the conditions it was. Years later I laugh at the memory of being hurt and insulted by being called a martyr, not only because my friend, if not for the surge of hormones, would never do anything to hurt me, but because in my younger days I would rather be called anything than, long suffering and self-sacrificing. It was like taking an arrow to heart. In one shot, I was classified as something I had worked my whole life to never become: the women who raised me.
I grew up in a home where, in my view, my mother had bent and swayed in the winds of her choice to marry and have children. I thought certain I could detect the scent of dissatisfaction and I made decisions based on that impression. I had decided that if I were to marry at all, it would be to someone who would help me be me-whatever that was going to be. He would not be Italian for one, he WOULD wash dishes and he would let me go wherever singing would take me. I would not suffer, I would not up give too much of myself, I would not let him have anything that I did not get.
My mother had come from a long line of martyrs, starting with my great-grandmother who had been dragged from her homeland, on a boat, by my great-grand father, in pursuit of the American Dream; my grandmother, who according to family folklore did not marry the love of her life but rather married my grandfather, worked hard in her family business and in the end wound up with nothing because her brothers inherited everything, only to spend her later years caring, tirelessly, for her daughter with Multiple Sclerosis who could do nothing for herself; Then there was Aunt Josie. She was my grandfather’s unmarried sister who lived with my grandparents. The only daughter in a family of five boys, she gave up dreams of going to college to raise her brothers after the death of her mother when she was 17 years old. Aunt Josie, more than anyone, wore the emblem of martyrdom with pride. There was no other purpose for a woman’s life than to suffer at the feet of a man’s demands. Men were always right, women should simply want to make their dinner, wrap it in tin foil to keep it warm until they came home after fulfilling their purpose in life. That is what I understood, when she called my brother “The King” and would run through all the girls names until she finally hit the right one. Since she was my mother’s greatest help source, we were served, daily, a healthy serving of not only her food, but her philosophy on womanhood. As the eldest girl, I was taught (or rather required) to clean out my mother’s cluttered closets in order to prevent “spontaneous combustion”, bake bread and clean the bathroom tiles with a toothbrush. It was as if I was in the martyr-training-program; a human insurance policy that servitude would survive in the generations to come.
Years later I found myself standing at the threshold of love dressed from head to toe in armor. I was ready for duty, but I was certain that the disappointment that comes from self-sacrifice could not touch me. I had made my choices to ensure this would be true of my life. The thing that I could not have seen coming, was the shifting sands of time and wisdom that comes with its passage. Throughout my life, I had misunderstood so much. I had extracted what I wanted from the stories that were told and the things that I observed. What I think that I am learning now is that every life has its own reasons and with each year in love I am more flexible, more giving, more resilient, more myself, more peaceful, more willing, more like the women who raised me.
It has occurred to me that in modern day, we misuse the word martyr. It has become something that we say to describe a person whose level of giving makes us uncomfortable. The purity of their goals and priorities threatens our need to complicate our lives in the name of sophistication. It is easier to assign a label that infers goodness on some level, yet is swollen with depreciatory intent. It exonerates our self-focus and makes us more complacent in the decisions that we are unwilling to make. The martyrs, in the true sense of the word, suffered willingly for causes that were larger than themselves; things that mattered and mattered to everyone who would come after them-even if they did not know it.
Today I sang for the Viola the Hero, who died in old age without a prodigious career, a mansion or large bank account, but was sent off with a letter from a nephew who was better because she was part of his life. Who like Mom, Nana and Aunt Josie knew that nothing really mattered but taking care of those you love, a clean closet and some spaghetti with a warm loaf of bread.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

May the angels bring you to Paradise....

The first funeral that I sang after getting my church job here in the Boston area, was for a 17 month old child. Talk about being thrown into the fire. I was still at the point where I could have used a nice transition from one way of working to the next; this was not a transition. I was fresh off of singing in French, Italian and German, every beautiful melody in this world; everything I had ever dreamed of singing. Each note seemed so important. I was so important because I was producing the notes. Every time I sang for an audience it was the culmination of the hard work that preceded that moment. Did they know what it took to do this?
When I stood to sing the opening hymn, Precious Lord Take My Hand, I was no more important than the pews in church. In fact, I was less important, for every note soared across the heads of the congregation and fell upon the ears of a mother who could only hear the clamor of grief.
In the end of Madame Butterfly there is a scene where the title character sings a farewell to her child. I had struggled with the flood of emotion at imagining her terror. It was difficult to manage singing beautifully, while conveying my understanding of the gravity of the moment: This was ten times worse. I now have my own children and my own experience with the deepest love there is, by which to try on and measure such grief. That is not to say that I am capable of truly understanding. It is as if the despair were encased in a plastic bubble: You see it's dimension, you see it clearly. You are next to it, but you cannot touch it and it cannot touch you.
With pure grace and courage so raw that a chill ran through the church, the mother glided to the lecturn at the end of mass to pay tribute to her baby son. Like a soldier after weeks of combat, having just been bathed and fed, she found the strength to recount the events, for she knew that no one else was qualified to tell the story of the piece of her heart that has floated away from her body.
Had he lived and grown, what sense would it have made to put pressure on him to be the best or whatever it was that she would have grown to expect? What would she have taken for granted in him as a boy and then a man?
Two years later, I think of her often. I pray for her often. She holds a great secret to the meaning of the journey of parenthood. The perspective that comes from loss. The gratitude through the desperate hours. The sweet Paradise that we often forget in the expectations and stresses of family life, which is the sweetness of that kiss, or the hand in yours. Only when it is gone could we know that that is heaven on earth.