I have been to some funerals in my life: all four of my grandparents’, my great grandmother’s, and more recently my cousin’s. All have affected me in some way, but I have never lost someone geographically close to me before. I have lost friends from high school, and old teachers, but these were people I was once close to, and who drifted from my daily life as time pulled us in different directions. Even the family members that are no longer around are not people that I saw regularly. They were people whose memories still shape me and, from time to time, haunt me, but they were not people that I would see more than a few times a year at most. And I certainly have never lost someone for whom I felt any sort of sense of responsibility. Until now.
This past week, while I was away celebrating and spending time with those “few times a year at most” family members, one of my choir members passed away. I knew that she had taken ill and been moved to a respite house, but it still seemed jarring to me. Just a few weeks earlier she had been singing and playing handbells with me, and under my direction. And now she is dead. It doesn’t make sense.
The family asked if we could play handbells at her funeral on Saturday, and I tried to put something together. Most of the people who normally play and help organize the bells were out of town. I scraped together whoever I could get in touch with, including the non-handbell-playing pastor, and we had a rehearsal on Wednesday night, but it just didn’t work out. We didn’t have enough people to play the tune. If only one or two more people had been there! And then I went home and looked at the photos I took the last time the bells played in church, and I saw the gaping hole that needed filling. She stood there smiling, bells in hand, just a month or two earlier, in exactly the spot that I had been unable to cover. If only she were there to ring for her own funeral, we could have done it. And so the loss kicked in a little harder.
In so many ways that don’t add up, I felt responsible for her. She was getting older, yes, and was starting to forget things. Sometimes she seemed a little more confused than was healthy, but when she sang in the choir she was back to herself. Her eyes lit up and became clear and bright as we sang the old songs and hymns that she knew so well, and even when we sang the new things that she didn’t. Music is so powerful, and a part of me felt that I was helping to keep her going by providing a place for her to sing. I’m sure I was not the only thing in her life that kept her going, but when I heard that she had passed away, a voice inside of me wondered why I had not done more to keep her engaged and sharp. Should I have gone to see her in respite care and sung hymns with her? I have never made a pastoral visit in my capacity as music minister, but should I? Maybe in the future I will.
I read her obituary online, and in so doing I learned much about this amazing woman. She was born in Ancón, in what was, at the time, the Panama Canal Zone. This was because her father was an army doctor and they moved a lot, all over the world! I had no idea! I knew that she loved to garden, but I had no clue that she loved acting and was in a variety of plays and musicals. All I knew of her was what I saw every week in choir and handbells. I knew her joyous spirit and her willingness to try anything. I knew her peaceful smile and her warm hugs. Oh, how much I missed. I wonder what I am missing from my other choir members. What will their obituaries be? And what about mine? How many interesting things do we not know about each other? It somehow never occurred to me that eventually it will be too late to find out.
Tomorrow, instead of playing handbells, I am going to sing. I am going to sing a song of peace and comfort and salvation in hard times. When the rain falls – sadness. When the floods rise – fear. When the storm comes – anger. I am washed by the water – peace. I have listened to this song dozens of times since Wednesday, trying to learn it perfectly so that I can sing it on Saturday, but I will go on singing it long past this weekend. I will carry a piece of this song with me for the rest of my life, and it will always make me think of her. And she will live.