When We Sing (for Miriam, Edward and Sonya)

When Jon and I were dating, and attending graduate school at Auburn, we used to take weekend trips home.  Whether we went south to Clio, or northwest to Birmingham, one thing remained constant.  Jon  sang along the way.  Left elbow out the window, brown hair blowing in the breeze, he belted it out.  Sometimes I would try to join him, but the result didn’t satisfy me.  Better to listen.

He didn’t much care what he sang.  He sang “There’s a Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road” with the same enthusiasm as “How Great Thou Art”.  Of course the former meant less to him than the latter, but he sang both with vigor.  When a song popped in his mind, it burst out his mouth, and usually sounded pretty good.

Singing came naturally to him- to his whole family- his parents, his sisters, his cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents sang. At first, I  found it disorienting to be around them.  They all sang, all the time.  Often, and this would drive me crazy,  they sang different songs at the same time. “Chaos!” I thought, “what a cacophony!”

But when they sang the same song,  and my mind didn’t have to sort through multiple messages and melodies, it was different.  Their voices blended effortlessly.    I sat on the outside, an unmusical music lover, and drank it in.  Often this happened  in the kitchen, where Miriam’s sweet soprano presided.  Whether she was cooking turnips and cornbread, or Brunswick stew, or carrot cake,  the family was sure to check out the progress of the meal, and as they did, they added their own voices.  A pinch of Miriam, a teaspoon of Sonya, a tablespoon of Jon, and a quarter cup of Edward.  Sometimes I sensed that the song didn’t sound right to them- that they were missing an ingredient.   Then I knew they were remembering Jon’s sister, Quenette, her lovely voice, her valuable piano accompaniment.  And sadness would creep in.

Well, Jon and I married; he kept singing, and I kept my old job of listening. He sang “Eentsy Weentsy Spider” and “In a Cabin in the Wood” with the children when they were up and running;  he sang “Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ra” to them at bedtime.  He sang “You Get a Line I’ll Get a Pole” on the way to church, while I sat fuming because we were running late.  Childrens’ songs, Beach Boys songs, Tennessee Ernie Ford Songs, Rogers and Hammerstein show tunes, and of course, hymns,  created a musical background for our lives.  And then, everything changed.  It got quiet.

Our “song-mobile”, the old  F-150 Jon and I used to drive to Clio is still parked outside.   It doesn’t see much action these days, but it’s a reminder of those road trips home, of Jon singing the wrong lyrics to the right melody:  “Born free, as free as the sun shines“?  “Oh come on, Jon!”  He would laugh and make the correction I recommended, and sing on for the joy of it.  Maybe those memories caused me to start singing in the car myself.

One day, something magical happened as I sang a hymn.  I had the sensation of being part of two worlds at the same time.  One part of me was  navigating the twisty road home,  enjoying the twilit canopy of summer trees, but another part of me was feeling the presence of God, and singing with Jon in a great assembly.  That other world was close- just a spider web width away;  it surrounded me, filled me, beckoned to me.  And then the door closed, and I was singing solo, off-key and alone.

Alone?   Probably not.  A Renaissance scholar reminds us, perhaps warns us, that :  “Bidden or not bidden, God is present”.   Whether or not we sense His presence, He is always here with us.  For in Him, “we live and move and have our being”.  And once in a while-  when we are most aware of this- JOY!

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The New Creature

When a loved one dies, the world is quick to respond with well-intentioned, comfortless remarks.  Just last week, the piano tuner assured me that Jon’s spirit was still in the house watching over us.  Besides being a downright creepy idea, I think that would be kind of a bummer for Jon, who expected to see Jesus, but got to watch me vacuum and do laundry instead.  And what about those movies where the bereaved is told that the loved one will “always be alive in your memory”?   I mean,  really,  who wants that to be the extent of the beloved’s existence? For one thing, my memory is faulty and limited, and I couldn’t begin to do justice to the Jon that God created. For another, when I die, unless someone else is “keeping me alive in his memory”, we’re both sunk.  Fortunately, God didn’t leave us wandering in the unsubstantial  land of wishful thinking.  Scripture tells us that we should “not grieve as those who have no hope”. We are emphatically told that the child of God continues, safe and happy in God’s presence.

But the bereaved is still- bereaved- the limping half of a couple that was, the remainder of an amalgam of two people. If it is true that a new organism was formed when I married Jon, a strange  creature is left behind.  And the question is:  how will the fractured person I became when Jon died,  function now he is gone?  There are several possibilities.  Do I try to remember and re-invent the single person I was before I got married?  Do I race out to find another soul-mate?  Do I gradually slide out of life with no goal besides pain avoidance?

The idea of numbly sliding through the remainder of my life is sometimes attractive.  Time has devoured a precious part of me.  The normal, the usual,  has been lost.  It’s not coming back.  Ever.  But while anesthesia stops pain, it also enforces “existence only” mode.  Do I want to live out my life- lifeless?

Another “soul-mate”?   Well,  it could happen, but finding a person who would fit in with an already full family is a tall order . Should I  spend precious time and energy chasing around,  trying to re-create what I used to have?  Or are there better things to do?

As for returning to the person I was before I married, I think it is impossible, and a “chasing after the wind”.  After all, I am not the young, active, ego-centric person I used to be.  I can’t run backwards fast enough to catch up with the dancing, jogging, horseback riding, foil -wielding person I was.  That person is gone.  Some things are the same, but more has changed.

So, who am I?    Who are you?  And why are we obsessed with that question?  We are told that “if any man is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old things passed away.  Behold, the new things have come”.  Apparently, there is a fourth option.  Despite the dizzying unfamiliarity of the terrain, I am still on the road leading to completion, toward whatever God intends me to be.  In fact, in God’s eyes, I’ve  already arrived, completed in Christ. Consequently, I just have to keep walking.  I don’t need a new i.d., and I don’t have to worry about the contents of my backpack.  It’s all been taken care of.  What is essential, what is eternal,  remains unchanged.