A blinking answering machine. What doth the little satan want this time?
I listened to the message and found out that one of my dear ex-choir members had died. I immediately called the one person, let's call her D, that I knew who could give me the scoop. A confidant and friend from those days when I served as "music minister" some seven years ago. We hadn't spoken in a while, but with her, it's as if time never passes. We simply pick up where we left off with no judgments.
D told me what I had heard so many times before: a long and arduous struggle with a chronic disease, causing a slow but serious weight loss, which ends with the body running out of resources to fight. In short, you run out of fight and options. It's hardcore, I know, but that's the way it plays out. But Mary had 85 years. That's pretty damn good by my reckoning.
Mary was a retired nurse who was the alto anchor in our little mismatched choir at St. Anthony's. We were a ragtag, badly blended, vocally unbalanced (mostly women) primarily elderly group who did our best to bring music, if not to celestial heights, then certainly to the congregation. Catholics are notorious for not being the most full-throated of congregants. They must be strenuously encouraged. What we achieved was to bring and open and friendly, genuine spirit to the music that made it easy to sing along. This is the sole purpose of music: to praise the creator through song. What we lacked in polish and pitch, we made up for in presentation, enthusiasm and love.
When my appointment at the church was clearly threatened by Father "Dismal," I would often call Mary at home just to see if she saw the same writing on the wall as did I. This dear lady agreed with me that I was not in fact just imagining things, but that the old priest was indeed secretly plotting to be rid of me for purely financial reasons. Music and musician's services should be free? Right? When most of the choir tried to allay my fears by writing off his antics as the act of a disorganized mind, Mary and I were in clear and sharp accord and in the end, completely right.
She had worked at a hospital for several decades and drew many parallels in my situation and the shifty practices of the suits in administration. She said she could always decipher the rhetoric and know what was really being said and the subsequent changes. Her honesty was something that was very much appreciated. Plus, she had a wonderful sense of humor.
When it was apparent that my time was over, I asked her what she was going to do. After all, wasn't there any loyalty among choir members and their director? Nay, stay thy ego. The answer was typical: "I have been at St. Anthony's all my life and no priest is going to run me off." That settled the matter for me.
* * *
It felt weird returning to the place where I had spent eleven years as choir director, considering the circumstances of my dismissal and considering was attending a funeral viewing of someone with whom I had spent countless Sundays. She was always there early and always with a cheerful disposition. Lovely.
On the steps, a few faces smiled and said hello to me. Well, that's a nice start, but reminded myself repeatedly that despite any discomfort, this was not about me.
I made sure D and I coordinated our arrival at the viewing. It's good to have friends and support. She was already there and had her mom with her. She came over and stood in the receiving line with me. Her daughter remembered us both. But, it was time to do the really hard part.
"I have already been up to the casket. Do you want to go?"
"Yes, but come with me."
"It's going to be hard."
"Yes, but we must learn to bear these things."
I stated this with all sincerity. Who was I? Where was this strength coming from? I don't know. Now, reflecting on this, I was sounding like Chance Gardener who says, "Yes, Louise. I have seen it often. It happens to old people."
Then the shock. As always.
"I told you she had lost a lot of weight." D was right. The person in the casket was far different than my memory of an elderly, but still vital woman.
To lessen the shock, funeral services do all sorts of tricks to make the person appear less dead. Doesn't make sense, right? The design is to perhaps make the incomprehensible somehow acceptable. That's my best shot anyway.
We both stood in silence. D put her hand to her face and slowly shook her head in a silent disbelief.
Afterwards, I began to get hugs and hellos from familiar faces. Then it began to dawn on me: it doesn't matter if the priest isn't your favorite, church is about people. The priest can set the one and direction of a church, but the people remain steadfast and loyal to "their" church.
Her granddaughter sought us out and gave us a sweet hug. Seven years had transformed a little girl into a beautiful young woman. "I can't believe you remember me," she said without affectation. "Of course,” we both agreed, "You were playing piano more at the masses." Always a shy one, her granddaughter was the obvious apple of Mary's eye.
"I still remember the Christmas masses," she stated with a fondness. The 5:30 Christmas masses were designed for the kids. It was always a madhouse of clarinets, guitars, trumpets and the unmistakable timbre of children's voices, all impossibly out of sync and tune, but even the One on High would have to have found utterly charming.
* * * *
Soon, despite the terrible circumstances that brought them together, people began to do what they always do: socializing. The conversation level rose to a noticable level, people mulled about from group to group, mothers carried fussy infants on their hips, and it began to resemble a wedding rehearsal.
Was this sacrilege? No. It's what we are, what we do and how we try to comfort one another when we faced time and again with the inevitable and unchanging truth of life. We are not gods. Far from it. And whatever unseen forces that are directing our lives are not forthcoming with an explanation. But in this dilemma we find that we are not alone, that we are in accord with other people and it is the best solace we can hope for.