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.