Sunday, October 22, 2006

Whispering Hope

Sixteen years ago today, my grandmother died.

My father and I sat quietly in her hospital room as she slept that evening, and I remember counting the seconds between her last breaths, realizing these were her final moments of life.

She was so many things to me in life, but more than anything, I found comfort in her presence. Whether I was watching her and her friends play a game of 42, shielding their dominoes from one another, or whether I was helping her in her kitchen with light bread or cinnamon rolls, I found comfort just being in her home, just being with her. We could sit in her living room together for hours of an evening without exchanging many words at all. She would be working a crossword or doing her nails; I would have a textbook, or, in later years, a novel or a newspaper. And we would just be together.

What brings me comfort and joy today is that this day was not sorrowful. Today was filled with many gentle memories that brought repeated smiles. And each one was a comfort. She comforts me still. And, at the end of the day, that comfort came, truly through her own hands, extended through time.

When I arrived at my grandmother's bedside two days before she died, she welcomed me as if I had just arrived at her home for a visit. She ran through a familiar list of questions about how my drive had been and whether I had eaten dinner, and she asked me if I wanted a Coke -- I think I have some out there, she said, referring to a store room off her kitchen at home. It gave me an odd sense of peace to know that she felt so comfortable in this hospital room that she imagined she was home in her easy chair with me on the sofa beside her.

The next day, she called me over to her with an intense and determined look and began to give me instructions about where to look in her desk for something she wanted us to find. We found them already, I told her. And the urgency left her brow. What we had found, in looking for some other documents in her desk, was the list of songs she wanted sung at her funeral.

It came as no surprise to any of us that the hymn "In the Garden" was on her list. It had been her mother's favorite and it was hers. But the rest of the list was a glorious surprise. We would not know just how wonderful it was until the funeral.

She had chosen six songs -- a lot for a funeral. And every single one was hopeful. Every single one was a comfort. Every single one was meant to bring hope to the hearers.

Five of the six were hymns. The sixth, though it was first on her list, was "Sweet Mystery of Life," a duet sung in a 1935 movie starring Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy.

My grandmother had attended the Church of Christ in Jacksboro, Texas. The pastor's wife led the acapella choir -- no musical instruments in the Church of Christ. I wasn't sure how much latitude that left for show tunes at a funeral. But Sara Williams, bless her, had gone to the Jacksboro library -- one of my grandmother's favorite places -- and found the words and music.

As our family was seated in the front pew, we were engulfed by a chorus of beautiful acapella voices singing:

Ah! sweet mystery of life, at last I've found thee;
Ah! I know at last the secret of it all;
All the longing, striving, seeking, waiting, yearning,
The burning hopes, the joys and idle tears that fall!

For 'tis love, and love alone, the world is seeking;
And 'tis love, and love alone, that can repay;
Tis the answer, 'tis the end and all of living,
For it is love alone that rules for aye!

(These are the original words by Rida Johnson Young. Hollywood changed them a bit, and I don't know which version the Church of Christ used.)

Those are the two songs I remember from my grandmother's funeral. "Sweet Mystery of Life" and "In the Garden." But, tonight, I had a nagging need to know for sure that Oct. 22 was the right day. And that is how I came to find the complete list of songs.

I have been talking to my grief counselor some about the upcoming anniversaries surrounding my father's death. The coming week marks the week last year when we learned of his aortic aneurysm. And his birthdate is Nov. 15. I will likely always remember the date of his surgery because it fell on my mother's favorite Catholic feast day -- the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12. But I have suggested to my counselor that I suspect a day will come when I don't recall his death date, choosing instead to celebrate and remember his life around his birthday. She has told me I will always know. Not that I will always recall the date but that in my bones, in my soul, somewhere inside me, I will always know.

And I knew inside me that today was the anniversary of my grandmother's death, but I could not remember for sure. In fact, in recent years I haven't really even bothered to do more than recall that she died in late October, choosing instead to celebrate and remember her life at Thanksgiving, the holiday when her bread and pies brought loving sustenance.

I knew today was the day by the crispness of the morning.

I knew today was the day when I took a sip of communion juice as I was returning the consecrated liquid to the ground and was snapped back 4o years to my grandmother's kitchen. I cannot taste Welch's grape juice without thinking of my grandmother, because she always had little bottles of that sweet, sweet juice in her refrigerator for me as a child. I lifted the chalice in a toast to my grandmother's spirit before I poured its contents on the ground.

I knew today was the day when Jeff and I gave in to Ryan's culinary desire to go to Hometown Buffet, and the dessert I was drawn to was peach cobbler, and I was snapped back 20 years to dinners with my grandmother at the Green Frog Cafe that always ended with peach cobbler. I cannot taste peach cobbler without thinking of my grandmother. I even put frozen yogurt on top tonight instead of ice cream because that's the way they served it at the Green Frog in 1987.

I knew today was the day as Jeff and I were putting Ryan to bed, and I said silently into the void of time: Do you see this boy? Do you see this family? Do you see this happiness? I do so wish she had lived to know Ryan. They would have teased each other mercilessly. And I know my grandmother would be pleased that Jeff now uses the decoupaged crossword board -- the one with the drip of pink nail polish -- that she used nightly.

I knew today was the day, but I wanted to know for sure. So, I turned to a genealogy notebook I haven't really touched much since my grandmother's death. That was a project she and I pursued together. And what I found was that I had not recorded her death. So I went searching through a pile of unfiled papers in the same drawer and found the funeral home's memento of her service. And, of course, today was the day. But that search unearthed treasure. That search provided me with the complete list of songs. The other four were: "No Tears in Heaven." "Beyond the Sunset." "Won't It Be Wonderful There." And "Whispering Hope."

And, across time, my grandmother's choice of hymns that comforted me with their messages of hope and faith beyond sorrow 16 years ago, comforted me again today. I would never have imagined that my grandmother, 16 years departed, would bring me comfort as I learn to abide in the reality of my father's absence.

Across time and eternity, she whispered another message of hope.

Whispering Hope

Soft as the voice of an angel,
Breathing a lesson unheard,
Hope with a gentle persuasion
Whispers her comforting word:
Wait till the darkness is over,
Wait till the tempest is done,
Hope for the sunshine tomorrow,
After the shower is gone.

Whispering hope, oh how welcome thy voice,
Making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.

If, in the dusk of the twilight,
Dim be the region afar,
Will not the deepening darkness
Brighten the glimmering star?
Then when the night is upon us,
Why should the heart sink away?
When the dark midnight is over,
Watch for the breaking of day.

Whispering hope, oh how welcome thy voice,
Making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.

Hope, as an anchor so steadfast,
Rends the dark veil for the soul,
Whither the Master has entered,
Robbing the grave of its goal.
Come then, O come, glad fruition,
Come to my sad weary heart;
Come, O Thou blest hope of glory,
Never, O never depart.

Whispering hope, oh how welcome thy voice,
Making my heart in its sorrow rejoice.

And I rejoice, even in my sorrow, I rejoice.

1 comment:

RevErikaG said...

I've read this a couple of times now...and truly appreciate the sorrow and joy... the legacy and nostalgia represented in these lines....