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Songs in the Night
In a way, grief can make someone feel untouchable. Like they’ve passed into a land where you have no business being.
I have a friend whose husband just died. I think about Julie and I am bereft. For a long time, I’d read that word—bereft—and pronounce it in my mind with only one syllable. Like I was trying to get it over with as fast as possible. But I learned bereft has two syllables. Buh-reft. I learned the sound of it lasts longer, takes up more time and space, than you’d think. I’ve also learned that actually being bereft takes up not only more time and space than you’d like, but it takes up more time and space than you’re even aware of being able to give.
Until you start to give from a deficit. Until you draw from wells deep within that no longer hold water. They are dry and dusty, but you keep digging because Grief is still thirsty. You hit blood, you hit bone—parts of yourself that were never meant to be offered. But you are bereft and this comes with quite a price tag and when it is time to pay, again and again, day after night, you give yourself away.
And you wonder—when there is nothing left, when your bones are only very quietly holding you together, same as every skeleton that every other body holds: the nameless shuffling bodies that line the subway, the bodies that have found each other, like puppies in the whelping box after their mother has lost interest, warming themselves, making sure they each survive; your own skeleton is no different, you are simply trying to exist, to not break, to rattle around in a way that might sound like music if you listen with your eyes closed, Nina Simone singing about feeling good in the distance, and a book of poetry that reminds you this is all worth it, skeletons are cages that house souls that never die, and tomorrow we might be marching into peace instead of battle.
But when it does not feel exultant to exist; when it feels like work, and it hurts to be awake and conscious and remembering, you wonder: when your blood is simply utilitarian, passing out oxygen and nutrients like an assembly line worker who comes back week after week because they need the money; when you’ve lost all aspirations other than to simply make it through today and your body has become a machine that works apart from dreams and quiet thrilling thoughts that look forward to anything at all—will Grief decide you’ve paid enough? Will she leave a little bit of yourself so that you can keep going, keep reading about life in books that remind you life is not found in better times, it is found right now, right here. Maybe this is better times. A ghastly version of it, like the Ghetto was for the Jews before they were sent to Auschwitz—but that is a secret time always keeps. It is only our job to live, to taste the days the way my babies first touched watermelon, with sticky fingers that grabbed the whole fruit and pressed their faces into it like they were fashioning busts out of juicy pink fruit that hold obstacles called seeds.
My friend’s husband just died and I keep thinking about her laughing with me on a recent trip to Chicago. Julie’s smile comes easy and when I tell her I love her, she says, “I know.” When we were waiting at O’hare airport, there was a man playing a random piano. This is how we know the human spirit remains indomitable: there are beautiful things placed on purpose in spaces we are tempted to think of as soulless, like airports. There are pianos there because someone knows music helps. When we are weary and waiting and delayed and our babies are crying while we spend too much money on snacks that will only make us feel worse, we find a piano that a stranger is playing. This is good news.
The sound of this stranger’s music drew me to him and I awkwardly hovered while he played. As if reading my mind, he smiled and looked up and asked, “What do you want to sing?” I suggested Amazing Grace because this is a song that intersects with a lot of people, as familiar as pizza and baseball and holidays we all go home to celebrate.
Immediately, I heard him coax the melody from the keys. One short note, followed by a long note, and repeat. I sang and he played and we met right in the middle of those lyrics. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. We weren’t bereft, not then, not that we knew of anyway, but we could agree that we needed something and grace had come to provide it. My friend Julie, a singer too, joined me and we started singing a song called Way Maker. She took the harmony, her notes soaring about three notes under my own. People stopped and listened as we sang about a Miracle Worker, Promise Keeper, the Light in the darkness. We were laughing, light-hearted, swaying as the stranger pounded a rhythm on the keys under his fingers. We had no idea what kind of darkness would try to combat the light in just a few months. We had no idea how bleak it would look, how obscured the path would become.
But I know my friend. I know those words she sang with me in the airport weren’t conditional. I know she didn’t sing them simply because she thought they were pretty or because we needed to pass the time before we boarded our flight home. She sang them because they were true. She sang them because they are true. She sang them like a prophetess in Terminal C, throwing out weighty words that don’t always change the situation, but are a boomerang that comes back to us, changing us, which, after all, is a miracle, too.
Now I think about my friend plunged into grief. In a way, grief can make someone feel untouchable. Like they’ve passed into a land where you have no business being. But I follow her with my prayers. Our circle follows her by making food, planning the funeral, offering our words, time, help, presence. And I keep thinking about her singing this song: Way Maker, miracle worker, promise keeper, light in the darkness.
This morning she came to church. I had to wait to hug her, she was so surrounded. We sang that same song again, Way Maker. I watched her stand up and sing. She did it with as much heart as she did in the airport, before the “light in the darkness” felt as absolutely necessary as it does today. There was something about her countenance that made me think of Moses having to veil his face after coming down from the mountain top where he met with God (Clearly Moses was before his time when it comes to masking). My friend was bright. Have you ever seen someone grieve and be bright at the same time? Have you ever seen someone weep and sing? It feels triumphant, like a broken down marathoner celebrating with an upbeat version of taps. Like joy in a minor key. This is how we grieve, I thought, heart full, as I sang, too. Grief does not change our songs; grief proves our songs true.
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