The Children Sing
Quick, where's the Kleenex box?
It was a hard week.
It began, as so many hard weeks have in this chaotic era, with a news story: a white nationalist, the kind who are the most rabid believers in the Trump agenda, only this one was even more extreme than they are, took his Trump-empowered bigotry and part of his NRA-empowered gun collection into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed eleven people. I saw that in my news feed Friday after school, and coupled with the other horrible things that no-longer fringy conservative white men had done that week (pipe bombs, shooting elderly African-American grocery shoppers when a prayer meeting proved inaccessible), I started the weekend in a bad place. All these crimes hit close to home one way or another: the bombs being sent to people of any prominence at all who'd been critical of Trump (making me thankful my blog reaches dozens, rather than thousands, of people); the attempted assault on a church much like the one where I played the piano and preached for five years, culminating in the deaths of innocent people targeted solely for the color of their skin; and finally, the worst assault on a Jewish community in American history reminding the Jews in my family of what Jews since the first diaspora, thousands of years ago, have always known: that no matter how safe a community may same, there are always resentful anti-semites who are just an impulse away from committing a genocidal act.
So that was my weekend. And then came the capper: Sunday night, my mother had a stroke.
This may be the most midlife meditational thing I've written in awhile. Part of midlife is the growing awareness of your parents' mortality. My father died four years ago. It was a long time coming: he had the first warning signs of heart trouble when he is 53, four years younger than I am now. There was a heart attack at 66, a stroke at 69, a broken hip at 80, followed by a steady decline in health to his death at 88. Mom has had health issues of her own, but has mostly kept them to herself, putting off many of them until Dad was gone. He was nine years older than her, so it was easy to imagine she wouldn't face a physical decline like his for some time.
That reprieve came to an abrupt end over the weekend. I spent all of Monday at the hospital. The rest of my week was divided between my classroom and her bedside. My sleep patterns, never reliable, got worse: most nights this week, I've been lucky to get five hours. By Thursday afternoon, I was struggling. I had just one class after lunch, a challenging but satisfying half hour with fifth graders who, for all their behavioral issues, took well to the complex drum ensemble I've been teaching them. As I was moving around the room, switching kids from part to part, I felt my watch buzzing repeatedly, notifying me of instant messages I would not be able to look at until the kids were gone, so I knew something was up. Once the room cleared, I picked up my phone, and scanned the string that started the night of the stroke, a conversation that included all my brothers plus our spouses, and here's what I saw: during the night, Mom had fainted, with her pulse disappearing for awhile. Had it not returned, her DNR order would have meant that was the end.
I read that, and for the first time since Sunday night, felt tears welling in my eyes. I'd been pushing through, forcing myself not to think about what this all meant, maintaining the professionally-regulated empathy I'd learned as a pastor. I had to be present for my students, my family, my mother; there wasn't the time or space for me to feel the impending loss, to grieve the end of her independence, to think about what her life will be like for the time she has left, or how little that time may be. Now it was hitting me hard: I am going to lose my mother. It may not be this week, but it will happen. It almost had, and I hadn't found out about it until at least twelve hours later.
So for a few minutes, I let myself experience the fear and grief, let in the empathetic sorrow I have felt as I've watched Mom grieve Dad's passing. But then I had to set it aside: in a few minutes, my after-school choir would be coming into the music room, and I had to be up for them.
Byrom's choir is a seasonal group. They're fourth and fifth graders, they rehearse once a week after school, and perform three times in the month before winter break. The set list I put together for them changes from year to year, though there are some staples I always have them do: "Jolly Old Elf," a four-part canon based on "Alfred the Alligator"; and "Christmas Time Is Here," the Vince Guaraldi classic introduced in A Charlie Brown Christmas. This year, they're also singing Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song"; "Suo Gan," a Welsh lullaby; and "A Child Is Born," a jazz lullaby by Thad Jones. "Jingle Bells" and "Jingle Bell Rock" round out the program. Thursday's rehearsal featured typical after-school hijinks, enhanced by it being the day after Halloween, so I did have to remind the choir multiple times that they were there to rehearse, not socialize. But when they sang, especially on "Suo Gan" and "Christmas Time Is Here," they were magical.
Most of the time, I'm good at keeping my emotions to myself. It helps that I'm an introvert, and that I spent more than a decade ministering to people in crisis. Despite these natural and learned firewalls around my feelings, there are triggers that can bring them to the surface. One of those triggers has always been the sound of children singing together. It moves me as no other music can (and as a musician, that's saying a lot). There are a lot of things at work when children's sing: the infectious joy of hearing them embrace a song that's older than their parents; their complete lack of self-consciousness doing a thing that scares many adults; the purity of voices that haven't yet learned to over-emote; the way that a song sung by children arrives free of all the layers of interpretation and meaning that generations of performers and audiences have attached to it; and many other things I could come up with if I didn't want to move on to my next point. Putting it simply, hearing children sing moves me as an adult performance cannot.
As they sang, I felt all that had been weighing me down melt away: my anxiety over the state of the nation, my general grief for the victims of racist violence, my personal grief over my mother's stroke, my fears over what awaits me and my family in the months and years ahead. I was having a true moment of zen: I was as utterly present in the hearing of this music as the children were in its performance.
It healed me and prepared me for the time I would spend that afternoon, and the afternoon after that, and today and tomorrow and all next week as I travel to that hospital room and, hopefully at some point, to the rehab center, then my mother's house, checking her progress, providing her with whatever I can offer during the time I'm with her. Before the stroke, she had told me she wanted to hear the choir perform, but I'm not sure that can happen this year. I hope it can. In this time of national crisis, it's more important than ever that we take the time to listen to the children sing.
We're coming into the time of year when children's choirs will be popping up in public places. They'll be singing Christmas carols and other holiday-appropriate music. Some of them will be off-key. Their phrasing will not always be precise. They may be confused about the meaning of the lyrics they sing. If they have instrumental parts, some of them may have trouble finding the beat. Whatever they sing, they'll sing with passion, as if the song they're singing is the most significant work in the history of choral music.
Should you stumble across one of these concerts at a shopping mall, church, school, or some other place you're visiting for the holidays, I encourage you to linger. Open yourself to the sincerity of these tender voices, the hope and joy they are freely giving you. You may find yourself comforted, inspired, healed, and ready to face whatever new horrors await you the next time you pick up your phone.