The Feast Of All Souls

My grandmother visited me after she died.

I know that stuff is supposed to be for Halloween, but today is All Souls’ Day in the old Christian tradition, and Catholics still observe it. Today is the day when the Church celebrates the souls of all the dearly and faithfully departed. So my ghost story gets told today.

My grandmother died on Easter Sunday, 2000. She’d been sick for a decade: Alzheimer’s Disease and emphysema. And she’d never really had any medical treatment beyond the tanks of oxygen her brother-in-law, who was the only doctor she trusted, prescribed. He was a psychiatrist and he was eleventy-two years old, but he was the only one she trusted. She’d always been afraid of doctors, and years before, she had made my grandfather promise he would never put her in a nursing home. He never broke that promise, even though she was a mean Alzheimer’s patient. Her character had always been one of strength, fortitude and stubbornness. That was multiplied tenfold in her illness. It was a tragedy, but we found ways to laugh about it because we’d never stop crying if we didn’t.

Hey, she met someone new every day. Usually my aunt.

Anyway, she died at home on Easter Sunday. She was not the first loss in our family, but she was the first loss of someone to whom I’d been close. Frankly, as everyone in the family damned well knows, I was her favorite grandchild. So when I went to bed on that Easter Sunday night, I made her a deal.

“I don’t want to see you,” I told her spirit. “And I don’t want to hear your voice. I’m okay with other stuff, but I swear to God, I don’t want to see you. Got me?”

Deal.

Would that my mother had told her the same thing. One night, months after my grandmother’s passing, my mother was jolted awake because her bed shook. She thought at first that my father had twitched in his sleep, but no, she says… this was a more powerful, singular spasm of the mattress. She opened her eyes, and standing beside her bed was a whitish… something. It didn’t really have a shape, but it was there. Mom says she sensed right away that it was her mother. She rolled over quickly to wake my father, but by the time she turned back, the figure was gone.

This is apparently how my mother found a pair of tweezers she had been looking for for days. My grandmother, turns out, may or may not have shown up to put the tweezers back in the pocket of my mother’s robe, where they had not been the day before.

A few years after that, my parents were visiting a house they own at the Jersey Shore. My mother woke from sleep and looked down at the foot of the bed to find my grandmother standing there, in her trademark plaid pleated skirt, collared shirt, pullover sweater and brooch. She lingered a few seconds, then faded away.

Sneaky old thing.

For my part, my grandmother upheld our deal. I never saw her and I never heard her. At least, not while I was awake.

One night about a week after she had died, I dreamed of her. And not in a good way. I dreamed that my cousins, sisters and I were all gathered in the parlor of the funeral home where she had been laid out. It was the night before her funeral, and we were all, for some sick reason, spending the night there. My cousins and sisters were lying in sleeping bags at one end of the room, with all the flowers. I was on the other end of the room. And I was not in a sleeping bag.

I was in the casket.

With my grandmother.

I was lying on my side, knowing that she was right behind me.

Suddenly, the casket on its setting began to move. With increasing speed, it rolled toward the other end of the room. Terrified and paralyzed, I knew what was about to happen: the casket would crash into the pile of sleeping cousins and sisters, topple over… and my grandmother’s body would fall out on top of me.

I woke up before it happened.

A short time later, I dreamed that my parents, sisters and I were at my grandparents’ house. My grandmother had just died. She was laid out on the couch, wearing the dress in which she’d be buried. I sat near her head and noticed her neck was at an odd angle. When I tried to adjust it, I felt something in her ice-cold skin change.

She began to wake up.

My parents and my grandfather were overjoyed, but I knew this was very, very bad. I scooped up my little sister and ran into the kitchen, where my other sisters were eating Chinese food.

What the hell? We never eat Chinese food.

In the living room, I could hear the cries of happiness. It seemed only I knew we were doomed.

The nightmares kept coming, for months. With each dream, my grandmother was more undead, more decomposed, and coming closer to catching up with me. In each dream, she would stare at me menacingly – from the dining room window of my old house. From the backyard of her home. From the curb as I ran to the other side of the street. The conscious part of my brain knew I was dreaming and tried desperately to wake up the rest of me, willing me to move a leg or an arm, something that would rouse me, but I was literally paralyzed with fear (and limbic sleep). I often woke up shaking, sweating, crying. Once, I woke myself up cursing her back to her grave.

It was horrible. Why was I seeing these awful things about my dear grandmother, who was stern, to be sure, but doted on her grandchildren and would stop at nothing to protect and care for them? Why was she becoming a monster in my dreams?

The Christmas after she died, we visited my grandfather. I made a point to have a picture taken with him, just the two of us. When I had it developed (developed!), I got doubles. I got two of the same pewter frame and kept one for myself, and sent one to my grandfather. He placed the photo on my grandmother’s dresser in their bedroom.

Sometime near the end of January, as I got ready for work, I walked out to my kitchen to get a drink, passing my living room on the way. Blind for want of glasses or contact lenses, I noticed something laying on the back of the couch. Puzzled, I walked over to it.

It was the framed photo of my grandfather and me.

It was laying face-up on the back of the couch, atop a handmade afghan.

It was supposed to be sitting on the end table… on the other side of the couch.

I looked at the cat.

The cat looked at me. “What?”

I looked at the end table. At the photo. At the cat.

“What?” she cocked her head.

I looked the photo – cat- end table – cat – photo – cat.

“Oh for crying out loud,” she seemed to say.

Could the cat possibly have dragged that heavy pewter frame across the back of the couch without disturbing the afghan or dropping the photo behind the furniture?

It was impossible.

Holy crap.

Shaken, I picked up the photo and put it back where it had been the night before. I finished preparing for work. “Stay,” I said to the photo aloud as I walked out the door to head to work.

But as I drove, I suddenly remembered a dream I’d had the night before. I dreamed of my grandmother. I realized I had awoken sometime in the night, once again terrified. But now, I could not remember the context of that nightmare. I couldn’t recall what had happened that had left me so afraid when I awoke in the dark.

Now, all I could recall was the way the dream had ended.

My grandmother had finally caught me.

And we sat together, and talked. And I told her that I missed her and that I loved her. And she hugged me.

To this day, that is the only part of the dream I can recall.

I suppose, for what would have likely been the only time in my life, I may have been sleepwalking that night. I suppose I may have gone out to my living room, picked up that photo of my grandfather and me, looked at it, and put it back where it didn’t belong.

But I don’t think I did it at all.

I think my grandmother came that night.

And I haven’t had a nightmare about her since. I have dreamed of her, yes. I have, from time to time, smelled her Ciara perfume (once, I smelled it while I was on a plane that was entirely too small, sharing a flight with a Catholic Cardinal I recognized. I smelled that perfume and thought, “Oh, we’re either really blessed on this flight or we are going down.” The airline lost the Cardinal’s luggage.) I sometimes hear an ice cream truck play “You Are My Sunshine,” the song she always sang to me when I was small. Last night, I heard my downstairs neighbor playing it for her baby boy. I always think of her and smile when I hear that song. But I have never seen my grandmother, and the nightmares have never returned.

And that photo, in its pewter frame, never again moved from its station. And my grandfather’s copy still sits, alone, on my grandmother’s dresser.

Funeral, and A Good Time Was Had By All

Have you ever wished you had a camera at a funeral?

My father’s uncle, Larry, died last week, peacefully in his sleep at the age of 87. I’m glad somebody in my family got to go like that; it’s not usually the way things work for my people. My parents were unable to make the trip for the funeral, but Tuesday night, after work, I headed to my sister’s house, crashed for a few hours and then went to the service Wednesday morning.

You have to understand my family in order to understand the way we do funerals. There are a few key words:

Irish
Catholic
Big
Loud
Honest
Lively
Completely inappropriate in almost every possible way

Alright, so that last item was several words unto itself. But they’re probably the most key keywords.

So somehow we all managed to arrive at the church at the exact same time, coming at each other in all different directions to centralize in the parking lot. Within seconds, at least five people were standing in the middle of that lot, in mourning clothes, eating soft pretzels. This is Philadelphia’s version of breakfast. And the pretzels were warm, so it qualifies as gourmet.

Generally speaking, when we all get together for funerals, we start reminiscing about other family members’ funerals. This gathering was no different, and before long we were waxing nostalgic for that time in 1994 when my father’s cousin Diana was killed in a car accident. Diana was Uncle Larry’s daughter. She was… um… not small. My father, his two brothers, two of their male cousins and three other grown men were pallbearers. None of them are small men, but between Diana’s size and their limited ability to move when they were all in place, they struggled to get the casket where it needed to go. In fact, they almost dropped her once. My youngest uncle, Joe, recounted his reaction when everyone arrived for Diana’s burial Mass.

“I wasn’t playin’ around,” he told us Wednesday morning as he held part of a pretzel. When he’d sized up Diana’s coffin, he had known enough about physics to voice a preferred position in the honored cadre of men. “I pointed at that casket, I said, ‘I call middle,'” he laughed.

His cousin’s husband, Carl, cracked up. “You ass,” he said. “You stuck me on an end!” (Carl, being an in-law, is of a somewhat less bullish build.)

“Damn right I did!” Uncle Joe crowed, polishing off the last of his breakfast.

“You missed the night before, at the viewing,” I told Carl. “Uncle Joe and my dad, standing at the back of the funeral home next to each other, staring at Diana, talking out the sides of their mouths to each other: ‘How we gonna do this?'”

Uncle Joe broke up again with laughter. Choking on carbs, he painted a clearer picture. “We didn’t think they’d even be able to close the casket.”

Carl rolled his eyes and nodded with a groan as if to say, “I hear ya.”

“And then,” I said, “I was up kneeling on the prie-dieu with Dad, and he bumped her arm. All he saw was, her arm moved. And he opened one eye at me–” I gave the proper look, one eye wide, the other closed, the beginnings of terror evident– “I had to tell him, ‘Dad, you bumped her. You bumped her arm.’ Dad goes” — I dropped my voice low and quiet, sotto voce, and barely moved my lips — “‘Are you sure?'” Back to my normal voice, I finished.  “I said, ‘Yes, Dad, you bumped her arm. What, you think she’s moving?'”

Howling from Uncle Joe and my dad’s oldest brother, Jim. It wasn’t just because my dad wasn’t there to defend himself. He would have been mocked if he were there, too. But he also would have been joining in.

“Remember Aunt Beth standing outside?” Sister 1 asked me. Did I. Because Diana had been killed in a car accident, certain modifications had to be made at the funeral home. No one would have known that if it weren’t for Aunt Beth standing outside, telling everyone as they walked in for the viewing, “Don’t touch her head. Don’t touch her head.” To some people who couldn’t help but throw a curious look her way, she drew an oval around her forehead with her finger and broadly mouthed “wax” with a grimace.

(You’re welcome for that image. I’ll spare you the story I got to hear later about an Italian guy whose mother, in her dramatic sorrow, lifted his head up off the casket’s pillow. You don’t want to know.)

After twenty minutes of eating and clowning around in the parking lot while our dearly departed uncle lay in blessed repose inside, we decided we should probably act like grown-ups and go in. The funeral director had brought Uncle Larry over from the funeral home for a final calling hour before the Mass began. Greeting scattered relatives as we passed by them, we worked our way to the back of the church where the casket stood, open. But before you get to the body, you have to peruse the obligatory photo collage.

Oh dear.

Uncle Larry had some outfits.

In one photo, he and his late wife, Aunt Gennie, were wearing matching clothes. His shirt and her dress were both excruciatingly loud orange and brown patterns. They were reclining on a twin bed. The color that had faded from the photo – which I’m putting at a good 45 years old – did little to dampen the visual assault. Below that photo were two snapshots of Uncle Larry seemingly surrounded by snow. It was piled well above his head. He wore a fur-lined hat, with the front of the hat folded up so the lining showed. He was hunkered down and appeared to be in winter military dress, which would put this photogenic moment in the era of World War II. In his left arm, he cradled, of all things, a black and white cat.

“How the hell did he find a cat in all that snow?” Carl asked, but I was already on to a family dinner photo  – you know, the ones where everyone gathers at one end of the table – which not only featured Uncle Larry in a hugely plaid button-down shirt, but also a far hairier version of Carl in a tight and fuzzy v-neck.

“This is a flattering shot of you, Carl,” I directed his attention to the mustachioed, long-haired guy who had morphed into a present-day man shaved bald in every place north of his shoulders.

“Yeah, those were my porn star days,” Carl quipped.

“Oh my God, what the hell is that?!” came from Carl’s left. Another cousin, and she was pointing at a photo in the upper right corner of the poster board. It was Uncle Larry, shirtless (please God, only shirtless), in a red, heart-shaped tub full of bubbles. Some of them were piled on top of his bald head. (Uncle Larry never did have hair. The only picture I’ve ever seen in which he had hair was the one taken of him, my grandmother and their youngest sister when Uncle Larry was probably four.)

At first I wondered why Aunt Gennie wasn’t in that bubbly tub shot (which I guessed had been taken in the Poconos), but then again, I was glad; Lord only knows what would have been going on in that picture, and this was church, after all. Cackling from the “mourners” in the back notwithstanding.

Directly below that photo was a shot of dear old bald and portly Uncle Larry in his best tux. By which I mean his only tux.  I believe the event was his late daughter Sara’s wedding sometime in the latter part of the ’70s. (Yes, Uncle Larry and Aunt Gennie lost both of their daughters young; Sara had severe diabetes and died in 2001 when she was about 50). The tux featured a shirt so ruffled down the front that it looked more like a costume. The ruffles were edged in black piping.

My dad’s youngest sister, Anne, is the executor of the estate and power of attorney. She tells me that Uncle Larry wanted to be buried in that tux. Which means he still had it. She had told me on the phone shortly after his death that she and Uncle Jim were looking at two suit options, one of which had been purchased in 1956 and the other of which had been purchased in 1957. She wisely nixed the tux and had the funeral home put Uncle Larry in one of those black, loose-knit suits.

After I knelt at my great-uncle’s casket, said a prayer for his peaceful rest and took a good look at him (They never get the mouth right, I mused with disdain. People always say, “Oh, he looks so good!” but they never get the mouth right.), my eyes roamed over the sprays of flowers around him.

And then I saw it.

Uncle Larry spent every Sunday for the last decade in Atlantic City at the casinos. He’d ride a bus down, collect $20 in quarters from the tour company, eat the meal they fed him and play the slots all day. When I see seniors squandering away hours and prescription co-payment money sitting in front of a ca-chinging, blinging, dinging machine in a vast, windowless room with mirrored walls and hideously patterned carpet meant to make you forget what day or time it is, it makes me really sad. But Uncle Larry loved it. He did not miss a Sunday. And he did not care if someone in the family was being Christened, or making their First Communion, or having some other sort of party. There were no exceptions. If it was Sunday, Larry was in AC playing the slots. Invite him anyway if you want, but he ain’t comin’.

Days before the funeral, the florist had asked Aunt Anne, and Uncle Larry’s only grandchild, Patrick, if they wanted anything special. Jokingly, Patrick had asked, “Got a slot machine?”

And behold, I present unto thee…

Why yes, it IS a slot machine floral arrangement.

Yes. I took a picture at a funeral. I mean, somebody had to.

I left the body out. You’re welcome for that, too. If you’d like the layout (no pun intended), this gem of a floral creation was at the immediate foot of Uncle Larry’s casket.

My mouth dropped when I saw this thing and I looked at Aunt Anne.

“No.” I said flatly.

“Oh yeah,” she said, nodding. “Yep. It is.”

I looked at it more closely, taking in the details: the 7-7-7 on the roll, the spillover of floral silver coins coming through the mouth at the bottom of the machine. The only thing that would have made it better (and by “better” I mean “more horrifyingly, deliciously inappropriate”) would have been a swirling light on top and sound effects, and maybe a rig-up that made it sound off and spit out more floral silver coins every time Uncle Larry’s name was mentioned.

“Oh, I wish I had my camera,” I said. “Is that wrong?”

“Hell, no!” Aunt Anne replied, pointing at a cousin. “He took a picture. Do you have your phone? Post it on Facebook and tag me in it.”

I dug my phone (which I had respectfully turned off) out of my purse and snapped the shot. If my mother had been there, she would have chidingly said my name and tsked her tongue.

But my mother wasn’t there.

Neener neener neener.

The casket also featured one of those mesh-backed ball caps with the name of Uncle Larry’s favorite gambling establishment emblazoned on the front above a bill that had never been bent. I’d seen that red, white and blue cap perched on Uncle Larry’s head many times, hitting far above his brow so that the mesh left his bald head air-conditioned. The hat now lay at his feet, along with old framed photos of him with Aunt Gennie, Diana, Sara, Sara’s late husband Tom (Agent Orange vaccine, Vietnam: Hep C and then liver cancer) and Patrick.

Taken as a whole, the display was just stunning. As my family often says, “All class. Lower-middle, but all class.”

The Mass proceeded as it usually does, and those of us with parts to read did well, including my father’s cousin Margaret, who was terrified that when she got to the word “hoary” in her reading from the Book of Wisdom, Aunt Beth would make her laugh. Even Aunt Beth herself, who is not at all fond of speaking in front of groups, did well with the second reading. Sister 1 and I handled the Intercessions (non-Catholics: this is the “we pray to the Lord/Lord hear our prayer” part). Nobody tripped or fell or slipped and banged their head on the casket, which is an improvement over some other family eternal send-offs.

We behaved.

We cried when Uncle Jim did the eulogy and mentioned after all the laughs that Uncle Larry didn’t warm up to goodbye kisses at parties until very late in life, and only once is on record as having picked up a child for that purpose. It was my nephew, and my sister had captured the moment with her camera. It was one of the photos on the poster board in the back of the church. We cried again when the funeral director and his assistants removed the traditional white drape from the casket and replaced it with an American flag to signify Uncle Larry’s service in World War II. We sang “How Great Thou Art.” We filed out.

And, standing at the back of the hearse as the funeral director firmly but solemnly told my cousins and uncles how to put Uncle Larry’s casket into the back of the vehicle, someone cracked, “Aw hell, just put him on the truck.”

Uncle Larry had been an over-the-road trucker. Apparently, this is exactly what he himself would have said, because several people nodded and agreed that’s what he’d want.

Lovely, no?

I had to leave straight from Mass and drive back home to go to work, so I missed the procession to the cemetery, but Patrick posted photos on Facebook later. (Yes. Photos on Facebook of his grandfather’s funeral procession, taken from the vehicle behind the hearse.) He really only took two, and it was so he could show everyone what led the funeral procession: a big, shiny red rig.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s things like this that tell us who our loved ones really were when we send them on to their final resting place. I have no doubt that there were a lot of honest, hard-working, blue-collar people who saw that rig leading that procession and thought, “There goes a hard-working man. May he rest in peace.” And I’m grateful for that. But considering that my grandfather was buried with two Navy sailors flanking his grave and a gun salute from the police department of which he’d been a member for 25 years, this big rig and slot machine stuff was… well…

Tacky, okay? There, I said it. Incredibly, stuff-I-thought-onlyother-families-did tacky.

But it was Uncle Larry. Uncle Larry, who wanted to be buried in the ruffly tuxedo shirt from 1978. Uncle Larry, who was known by name to every casino employee in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Uncle Larry, who pushed his false teeth out at the young kids until Aunt Gennie yelled at him to stop.

You may not be surprised at this point to learn that Uncle Larry was the one guy in the family who actually used to tell people to pull his finger.

Uncle Larry, may flights of angels wing thee to thy rest, and may you have one hell of a reunion party up there with your sister, your brothers-in-law, your parents, your wife, your daughters and your son-in-law. Down here, we’ll miss your crooked smile and your curmudgeonly grunts that stood in for greetings. We’ll miss your laugh and the way you could sit in the same spot with your arms folded for hours.

But never again will we buy a slot machine floral arrangement.

Because that thing is hideous and wrong.

And I have the picture to prove it.

I think the spray of greens behind it really classes it up, don't you?

——-
Sadly, the lovely featured image is not from Uncle Larry’s funeral. It’s from gordonandthewhale.com.

The Gift of Funerals

I went to a funeral today. It was for a gentleman with whom I used to sing, a sweet, kind, gentle, slightly pushy but never gruff man named Al.

Al wasn’t terribly young, but he wasn’t terribly old; I don’t know his exact age, because there was no program with the printed dates of birth and death on the cover, but I’d guess he was in his early 70s. He was a big man, but I didn’t get a chance to know how big until I went to the service this morning.

His family was small; his wife, Mary, their daughter Susan, her husband and their two daughters and one son. He had two brothers, and a best friend. A few nieces and nephews completed the roll, it seemed, and perhaps some cousins. But the center section of the church was nearly full, and before the first reading of the Mass, it was easy to understand why.

Albert had been a teacher; I knew that, though I can’t be sure what he had taught. Had it been music? Or English? I knew that my music director, Ed, had been his student. He had known Al since the age of 14. That was 45 years ago. Aside from the fullness of the church (something relatively unusual for an older gentleman whose family wasn’t very large), the first thing I noticed was the number of priests celebrating the Mass. This funeral was at my church; Al and I sang together in the church choir, and several fellow members had gathered to say goodbye to him. But there were four priests and a deacon on the altar. Two of the priests, I’d never seen before.

I came to understand through the service that one of them had worked with Albert at a retreat house for periodic weekends of reflection. The other had known him for years through a looser affiliation. The deacon was ours, and the pastor. The main celebrant used to be assigned to our parish and had been on the faculty at the school where Al had taught before he retired. I’m fairly certain he’d been a student of Al’s, as well.

When you get four priests and a deacon to celebrate your funeral, you’ve lived right.

The funeral began, unusually, with the eulogy. It was delivered by one of Albert’s nephews, a man I’d put in his late 40s. His name was Andy, and his writing was full of flourish. His delivery was firm and theatrical. It didn’t take long to realize that this was not necessarily because it was Andy’s nature (although I suspect it was), but because this was Albert’s nature. Albert was a man who loved the arts. Loved them. He surrounded himself with them, all kinds. Andy’s soliloquy was full of color – literally. He invoked all the crayons in the big box of Crayolas that most self-respecting men would never use in description of life: periwinkle, lavender, cobalt, light orange, fuchsia, and seafoam green.

He pronounced this last color with a great deal of weight and zeal.

Apparently Albert loved the color sea foam green, because his whole family laughed out loud.

Andy’s requiem for Al went on with demonstrative phrases about garden party invitations and what I can only assume was Al’s fondness for prompt guests who could handle being needled. It described him, I imagine mostly poetically but with a good deal of truth (indicated by the family’s laughter) as a man who literally commanded the flowers on how to behave. (“I can get the gardenias to sit up with just a stare,” he apparently mimicked.) He painted a picture of a man fond of “the show, the production;” someone who wanted things to be just right. In my several years’ knowledge of Al, I never found him to be prickly, but he was quite precise about how to pronounce the word “kyrie” when singing. He usually upstaged Ed to instruct the choir on it. At least twice a year.

It always made me smile.

Al smiled a lot. He had a sweet, round face- round everything, really – he was rotund – and incredibly soft and smooth hands. I know because every time he saw me he’d put out a hand to hold mine for a moment. He had a silky, sonorous voice that didn’t boom and wasn’t imposing, but could convey authority when called upon.  I got the impression more than once that being the former teacher was a bit of a struggle for Albert; though he was usually able to keep quiet and just follow along (often a bit behind the beat due to a loss of hearing or reflexive rhythm, either of which came with age), there were moments when he was inclined to lecture on the music we were singing in rehearsal.

It became apparent through Andy’s eulogy and, later, Father Jerry’s, that Al infused his life with the arts: music, theater, literature and painting. And through these words offered by these men who had loved him in different, but equally moving ways, I got a brighter, clearer picture of the man I had known, too.

The readings accomplished the same thing. Most Catholics are pretty familiar with the standard funeral fare, but these were not presented in the standard way, and, in one case, a reading was not the common fodder of funerals at all. Rather, it was the reading from 1 Corinthians, the one that so many people have at their weddings, instead:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.  For we know in part and we prophesy in part,  but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.  When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

What a thing to say at a funeral.

And how absolutely right it is to say it there.

That reading was presented – not “read,” no; presented– in a wholly unpretentious but beautifully intepreted way by Albert’s friend and fellow theater lover. Clearly this man was an actor, but he did not act this passage of scripture. He knew it. It’s not just that he barely looked at the text as he went; it’s that he felt the words as he said them. For 21 years, I’ve known this was important in singing: in order to convey the proper message in the sound, regardless of the language, you have to know what you’re saying. But I had never heard this rote reading presented in such a way.

And I never want to hear it any way other than this again.

Seriously, I’m flying this guy in to do it at weddings wherever I go.

Al would have adored it. He would have adored the harmony our altos and basses sang impromptu in the hymns his family chose – standard hymns for a funeral, as they generally go, but lovely. And apparently, he would have loved the fact that we sang “God Bless America” at the end. I was thrown when the organ started its opening strains; we had sung it at the end of Mass last week, and I was worried  momentarily that Holly, the accompanist, had spaced out and started playing something that had been left on her music stand in the organ pit. But  no, soon enough I realized this was quite deliberate. Al would want his funeral service to end with a blessing on the country he loved.

I wondered if he had served; there had been no mention.

So many times, I find myself leaving funerals wishing I had known the honored dead better in life. I have learned so much about them in that brief time sitting in the pew, listening to those who loved them most tell their life stories. I’ve learned about friends’ traits and characteristics, before then untraced to previous owners, and realized, “Oh, that’s where he gets it!” I’ve come to know friends better by attending their parents’ funerals.

I’ve written a eulogy or two, and delivered them, and I’m sure that those who didn’t know my honored dead the way I knew them left feeling the same way. But I’m not saddened by the lost chance; Al and I didn’t come into each other’s lives until about eight years ago. Rather, I’m so happy to know that those who knew him best got to live his love for life through him so boldly.

What a gift a funeral is.

I’m so glad I went.

Long may you rest, and well, Albert. I will miss your smile and your softness, and I will think of you, as I do so many others, when I sing.

“The Gift of Love” by Hal Hopson
This is not our choir’s recording, but it is a piece we have sung many times, with Albert in the tenor section.

The Rapture vs. State Emissions Inspection

My car did not pass its emissions inspection. For reasons having precisely zero to do with emissions or environmental unfriendliness. It’s a Honda, people. It gets 32 miles per gallon on a bad day. And it’s not even a hybrid. What problem could there possibly be, here? Well, as the state sees it, the problem is that the Check Engine light is on. The Check Engine light is on because there’s something wrong with the oxygen sensor, which means only that I’m running a bit more fuel-rich than I need. And I’m still getting 32 miles per gallon. But still, the state says that has to be fixed or I don’t pass, which means they suspend my registration, which means I get arrested for driving with a suspended registration and spend some quality time in the pokey.

So I called the folks at my preferred automotive service shop (who are the ones who told me the reason the Check Engine light was on in the first place), and they told me that it would take “at least half a day” to fix this non-problematic problem that they already told me I didn’t need to have fixed.

Which I figure translates to “about half a paycheck” in labor costs. Oh, and also a day without a car.

Here’s what I want to know: If the world is ending Saturday, do I really have to get this done? And wondering that led me to categorize my to-do list.

Things I Absolutely Will Not Do If the World Is Ending Saturday

1. Laundry
2. Clean (I don’t care if cleanliness is next to godliness. Jesus walked around on dirt floors. Know what I’m sayin’?)
3. Fill up gas tank
4. Wash face – use all that anti-aging crap (Apparently psychic medium Sylvia Brown is right: we do all look like we’re about 33 in heaven)
5. Drop $150 on cut and highlight
6. Make bed
7. Learn tricky few measures on Faure’ piece (already know plenty of classical stuff to sing with the cherubim and seraphim)
8. Buy more flowering plants (btw: Jesus, could you have a chat with Mother Nature while you’re packing for your visit? We’re on day six of rain after I water the plants and day six of no sun, which I can’t produce. Who peed in her Wheaties? Was it Father Time again? He’s such a jerk.)

Things I Really Have To Do If the World Is Ending On Saturday

1. Bathe
2. Brush teeth (furry teeth and bad breath at the pearly gates? Not a good first impression.)
3.  Lose at least five pounds to get back to pre-apocalyptic weight (must be thinner than high school nemesis in case we run into each other)
4. Hide liquor
5. Shave
6. Call mom
7. Then hide liquor (wine’s okay)
8. Seek forgiveness for all transgressions
9.  Read Bible
10. Empty fridge

Things I Probably Should Do, Just In Case

1. Avoid physical pleasure
2. Tell truth, all times
3. Resist urge to roll eyes while on phone with mom (Commandment #4)
4. Avoid voting – wrong candidate could have serious repercussions this time
5. Render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s (pay bills – haha)
6. Call financial advisor – cut losses if market opens Monday?
7. Be nice to everybody
8. Drive at speed limit

Does anybody know the next Rapture date if this one is a hoax? I have til September 21st to get the damned car fixed.

I mean darned.

"All this smog! Gabriel can barely get a breath to blow the horn!"

Music Monday #4: Holy Commercial

Last week, I regaled you with the amazingness of the Flower Duet from Lakme’ and mentioned how it’s been used in commercials. I think it’s sort of bizarre when commercials use classical and opera pieces that are seemingly completely unrelated to the product they’re pushing. Case in point: this week’s Music Monday sampling.

I have Comcast cable, and the monopoly company has been running an ad lately in which people and objects sort of jump out of a television screen at a viewer who’s rather blown away by the whole thing. Nevermind that I don’t want that to happen in my house, ever, and I find it to be a fairly meaningless ad. The reason it caught my attention at all is because of the music it uses.

It’s the “Sanctus” movement from Mozart’s Requiem.

Ah, Mozart’s Requiem. I said in my first Music Monday post that I have had a love affair with it for years. I sang it in France. I’m letting that sentence fall flat because of the link; I don’t want to launch into the whole thing right now, so you can read a bit about it in that previous entry if you want. Point is, the Mozart Requiem is a very well-known work in choral circles, and it absolutely rings and echoes and soars in French churches, be they made of marble or humble stone with dirt floors. We did it in both, plus a more modern, plaster-walled place, just because we could.

The work has a back story that’s almost mythical: Mozart was commissioned to write it for the late wife of a stranger. Our Wolfgang and his wife Constanze were desperate for money and she was getting increasingly anxious about it. (Wolfgang was a bit devil-may-care about things like this; he had other things to worry about, like the Emperor.) But Mozart was becoming increasingly ill, and seemingly going mad; he felt the work would kill him.

He was right. Though he wrote the foundation of the entire work and had completed parts of it, he died in the middle of writing the “Lacrimosa” movement (coincidentally, the only movement in the work that concentrates on grief).

With her husband dead, Constanze was left to search out someone who could finish the commissioned piece so she could get the much-needed payment. Constanze was not a gold digger… she was just really strapped for cash, with mouths to feed and a husband dead at 36. Eventually, she convinced one of Mozart’s associates, Franz Sussmayr, to complete the work.

That’s all I’ll say about that for now.

The “Sanctus,” for those unfamiliar with the Catholic rite of worship and, more specifically, the funeral mass (which is what a requiem traditionally is), is the part of the mass that translates to the Holy Holy Holy. It beatifies God during the consecration of the bread and wine, in the liturgy of the eucharist. It’s a song of praise, and Mozart makes it triumphant in the midst of mourning and fear and heartfelt requests for the forgiveness of sins… but it still has plenty of the darkness that comes with the fear of God in that moment when a soul hovers between Earth and either Heaven or Hell.

Which is why I find it odd that Comcast uses it in their commercial.

There are so many beautiful moments in the work, it’s almost impossible to pick a favorite, but the “Sanctus” movement is one of mine, for the sake of one single line. Throughout all the rehearsals and performances of the Requiem, I was next to my friend Bill, who has a gorgeous tenor voice. Every time we got to this one phrase, when my soprano part dipped lower and his complementary tenor part soared higher, it was all I could do to keep my sound going; the phrase just takes my breath away. It boils down to one note, really, but Mozart was so brilliant in the way he structured the chord that it just opens the whole thing wide. Below, the link to the movement, conducted by Sir Colin Davis. I regret that I do not know which choir he is conducting or when and where the recording was made. The phrase I adore begins at 1:09, and the tenor note to listen for is at 1:14-1:15. As usual, I encourage you to find better quality recordings on your downloadable music provider of choice; if you do, I suggest a recording on the London Digital label, of the Vienna Philharmonic, conducted by Georg Solti and featuring Cecilia Bartoli, Arleen Auger, Vinson Cole and Rene Pape as soloists, with the Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsoperchor. (That’s a choir.) It was recorded live in Vienna in 1992, to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death. If you want to buy the CD, the cover looks like this:

 

Apart from checking on the time for that tenor note… close your eyes and listen. Happy Music Monday.

Mozart Requiem, K 626, V. Sanctus

Bumper sticker mentalities

I would like to ban bumper stickers. I have many reasons for this, not least of which is that they make your car look crappy. There’s really no such thing as a classy bumper sticker, I don’t care what the message is. You’re still putting a cheap piece of inelegant plasticized schlock on your car. Ick.

A few examples of things that are unnecessarily expressed via vehicular communcation:

“My child is on the Honor Roll at <school>!”
I’m glad your child is smart enough to be on the honor roll, and I applaud the fact that you want to visibly support that child in his/her academic endeavors. But I was on the honor roll, and I forbade my parents from putting those stickers on the car. Because the only thing more nerdy than consistently being on the honor roll is riding around in a car that screams about it to everyone behind you.

“This car climbed Mt. Washington.”
First of all, by all outward appearances, that was 20 years ago. But congrats. Now, can the car accelerate past 42 miles per hour on the highway? Get out of the way.

“Hunt with your kids, not for them.”
I don’t even know what that means. I puzzled over it until my puzzler was sore. I called other people, people who hunt, and asked them. They didn’t know, either. I couldn’t find a supporting foundation or organization that put out this sticker. It’s baffling.

But the biggest reason I want to ban bumper stickers, by far, is because I really didn’t ask for your opinion, and I certainly don’t want to read it while I’m stuck in already irritating traffic.

I don’t mind that you have opinions. Obviously, I have a few, myself. It’s just that I don’t want to know your stand on war, or a given politician, or abortion, or cancer (which universally is believed to suck, so I don’t need your bumper sticker to state the obvious), or mean people (also universally believed to suck), or the United Nations, or whatever.

Why do so many bumper stickers have something to do with politics or religion? There’s ample room for debate on the topics that we slap on our cars, so why are we constantly insulting everyone’s intelligence by implying that it’s really so simple that we can fit it on a sticker? It’s not that simple. In fact, I bet there are a lot of people on this road who know a lot more than you do about the topic your bumper is yelling at me about in all caps. This bumper sticker mentality is, I believe, partly responsible for the circus that is our present political and campaign system. The bumper sticker is the abbreviated form of the soundbite, which is the abbreviated form of an explanation for an actual political concept way too complicated to be boiled down into any of the above things.

I don’t believe people who have these bumper stickers want to “start a national conversation.” I believe they want to argue, gloat, and/or insist they were right all along.

“Don’t blame me – I voted for <Name>.”
Okay, well, I don’t blame you for anything except being a narcissist and a bad driver. And I don’t really care who you voted for. Even if I voted for the same person, I’m annoyed, because I realize I’m now lumped into a category with you.

“I’ll keep my money, my freedom and my guns. You can keep the ‘change.'”
How ’bout you keep moving. Preferably away from me.

“It’s a child, not a choice”/”It is a poverty that a child must die so that you may live the way you wish. ~Mother Teresa”/”Abortion stops a beating heart”, etc.
Okay… deep breath. I happen to agree. But that’s me. And I’m Catholic, so I kind of have to agree with everything Mother Teresa ever said. It’s tough to find a case where she was wrong, because she was just super-nice. But not everyone believes the same things, not everyone understands life in the same way, not everyone has the same life, choices, education, resources, home life, opportunity… Reducing this incredibly sensitive and complex issue down to something that fits on a bumper sticker is just irresponsible and will do nothing to change anyone’s mind. It will only make people angry. Including me, and I agree with you. So take the sticker off your car and mind your own business before I rear-end you on purpose.

“Visualize world peace.”
Visualize your accelerator. Long pedal on the right.

There is, however, one kind of bumper sticker I can appreciate. That, as you might imagine, is the genuinely funny kind.

“Jesus loves you. Everyone else thinks you’re an a$$hole.”
Now that’s the kind of bumper sticker mentality I can get behind.

Half-Assed Holy Days

I’m not Pat Robertson’s daughter or anything, but Easter has always been a joyous day for me. It’s not that I go overboard celebrating; I keep a pretty low candy profile (though I have been known to have brownies for breakfast on this festive day of our eternal salvation, because eternal salvation food has no calories). But I’m always in a good mood on Easter Sunday morning, despite invariably being up late the night before and up early on the holiday to sing. I’m a cantor at my church, and I often get the 9am mass on Easter. Aside from the challenge of getting the vocal chords to flap properly at that hour, I’m happy to do it. But from the second I get up there in front of the rest of the church, I can tell: Easter is not joyous for everyone.

It’s the dead faces that give it away.

Yo. Jesus died… and then rose from the dead. You think you could at least look alive?

Leading people in song (allegedly), I figure, is a lot like teaching. You look out and see some animated faces and a lot of completely dispassionate ones. And you spend the next hour trying to drag people along. Anyone who sings, dances, acts or speaks to groups knows this feeling. You draw from the energy the audience or congregation gives you. When you get nothing, you feel like you’re falling flat.

I was gettin’ nothin’. No joy. I was Bettye LaVette, lookin’ for my joy. Except white and not nearly as distinct-sounding.

It’s interesting, because the parishioners all certainly seemed chatty before the mass started, while our newest priest was futzing around in the sacristy and running really quite late.

(You know you totally love that I just used a Yiddish word in the middle of an Easter blog.)

Now, this whole phenomenon is not new to me. We have a very musically-oriented parish, but there is always that lot what refuses to sing, and the cantors can sense it as soon as the entrance hymn starts: “Oh, it’s gonna be that kind of mass, is it? Okay, dig deep.” I could get on my soapbox here about how everybody in the pews will probably sing in their cars to Bruce Springsteen or Olivia Newton-John or Justin Bieber, but they just won’t do it in church…

Yup!


       Yup!


 Yup! (Own it)


                            Nope.

…and about how if you listen to live recordings of pop star concerts and hear everyone sing, they sound pretty darned good, so I don’t want to hear the “my voice is terrible” excuse. But I won’t get on my soapbox.

(Sorry I lied on Easter about getting on my soapbox, Jesus. Just tryin’ to do You a solid, here.)

(Did you know Jesus reads my blog? See? You’re in good company.)

My point is, I’m not up here singing for the sake of performance art. This is not a concert. You’re supposed to sing with me. You won’t sing at all without me. I know because if I cough, you have no idea what to do. You know the words, and you know the tunes, because we’re Catholic and this is Easter and it’s not, like, you know, new. So what’s your excuse?

I guarantee you, if I asked that question and waded through the “my voice is terrible” and “I don’t like to sing” excuses, what I’d really find is… “I’m half-assing the holy day.”

Let’s face it: you’re at the 9am mass because you want to get this thing over with so you can go get the kids to the Easter Egg Hunt and then go have brunch at your parents’ house before you get home to change back into your sweats to watch golf/hockey/baseball. It’s called a Holy Day of Obligation for a reason, right?

Don’t lie. It’s Easter.

Look. I’m never going to tell you you’re a bad person for coming to church and not really participating. You’re here, and I don’t know how the Jesus Jackpot really works, so who am I to say? We’re all just hoping for the best, here. But I am the head singer in charge, and I would really appreciate it if you would help me out. Every Catholic knows: the things that distinguish one parish from the other are A) the caliber of the priests’ homilies, and 2) the music. You will totally complain if you don’t like either one. We’re here to enrich your worship experience. So if we’re making the music good for you, please consider returning the favor. It really does matter to us. It’s not that we take it personally; it’s that hearing voices joined together makes us happy. If you sing, you make my day more joyful.

Happy Easter!

The Creepster Bunny

Ah, spring… the air is fresh, flowers are blooming, bunnies are hopping, birds are singing, April showers are… well, they kind of suck, but only because my birthday is in April and it always rains on my birthday.

But back to our happy vision… it’s finally no longer winter. That means hippity hoppity Easter is on its way. Thoughts turn to children in their best dresses or suits, little girls in bonnets, and eggs of pretty colors decorating baskets. And, of course, the Easter Bunny.

Or, as I’ve taken to calling him: the Creepster Bunny.

It is my belief that there is no childhood fantasy deliverer-of-goodies creepier than this guy.

Come ON.

Santa Claus is magical and brings tidings of comfort and joy and goodwill and childhood wonder and lessons of what it means to give, as God gave the world His Son out of love. The Tooth Fairy is also magical, comes to take our nasty fallen-out teeth, because who wants those laying around?, and leaves cold, hard cash under the pillow. Total score. Also, she’s probably kind of hot, or at least she is in my head, and though I’m straight, it’s always better when they’re pretty. Pretty = fairy. Ugly = witch. Fact.

Pretty.

Ugly. (Photo from the Tennessee Theater Company)

 

The Cree– uh, Easter Bunny is a six-foot tall furry animal with huge ears and giant buck teeth, fundamentally unrelated to anything religious but using Easter as an excuse to show up. Nobody knows how he gets into your house, and he leaves you unwrapped candy and unrefrigerated eggs.

Really? We allow this?

Which of these is the most likely to be a total perv? The Creepster Bunny. You know it. Because even though Santa lets you sit on his lap and tug on his beard and whisper in his ear, and even though the Tooth Fairy flies into your bedroom and gets super-close to you while you sleep, the Creepster Bunny is worse. He isn’t so much as marginally human. He’s not even necessary. He’s a feverish nightmare. Where do we come up with this stuff?

And why does he bring candy and eggs? Bunnies can’t eat candy and they don’t eat eggs. They don’t even lay eggs.

WTF is up with this guy?

Highly suspicious, I tell you.

So I looked it up. Rabbits are symbols of fertility. Eggs are also symbols of fertility. Spring is the time when everything comes to life, so okay, fine, that’s lovely. I get the premise there. I still argue that rabbits don’t lay eggs, so we’re confusing the children with that whole thing. Where the candy comes from I have not been able to ascertain, although there is the argument that chocolate is an aphrodisiac and that, too, is about fertility. But I made up that argument.

There is no explanation of how he gets into your house. No coming down the chimney, or having a magic key (which is what Santa has for people who don’t have chimneys, FYI). There’s no way the thing can flutter in on gossamer wings. You never hear stories about how this thing hops around the world to every (Christian) kid’s house in one night without the aid of flight.

It’s all wrong, and I’m having none of it.

I asked my sister, who is the mother of a 13-month-old, whether she and her husband are taking the kid to see the Creepster Bunny. She said, “Good Lord, no.” She and I agree on the Bunny. We remember the photo of our twin nephews, at four months old, lying in the arms of a giant, disproportionate rabbit at a mall. We discussed the photo when it came in the mail. We both thought it was so terrifying that we cringed every time we looked at it.

Now, those twins are three, and one of them is actually skeeved out by the idea of an old dude sneaking into his house in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, even if he does bring presents.

Smart kid. I’m worried about what will happen when he finds the picture of him and his brother with the Creepster Bunny.

This cracks me up every time I see it.

God is not a carcinogen. Now what?

A word of warning: this is some intense stuff. 

There are things one is not to discuss in polite company. Tea partiers. Salaries and costs of homes. Personal sexual escapades. And thoughts like, “What the hell is God doing, anyway?”

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Probably for about four years, if I’m really honest. I am Catholic, and I have no interest in leaving the Church. I’m not the best Catholic, and I’m not the worst. I don’t endorse some of the things the Church has gotten into, and I’m just absolutely disgusted and infuriated by other things, but my faith is a Catholic faith, and my method of worship is a Catholic method of worship, and so there I stay. But for the last few years, I’ve had what more Godly people would call a crisis of faith. Alright, maybe a mini-crisis.

This will not come as good news to the parents of my godsons, by the way.

It started with my grandmother’s death. No, not her death. Her dying. It was the first time I ever really got angry with God, a concept that I previously could not even fathom. But my grandmother had been sick for 17 years. She had devoted her life to God and serving Him. There was evidence of this throughout the house. Not the clutter of ostentatiously pious bric-a-brac, but some serious signs of ecumenical and sacrificial dedication. All of her children went to Catholic schools. She held some fundraisers and organized others for the parish. She helped put together plans for major Church events. She sang in the church choir. Articles were written. Honors were presented. When I called to tell her, on Easter 2000, that my mother’s mother had passed away, the first words out of her mouth were an awed, “Praise be to God.”

I didn’t blame God for Grandmom’s Parkison’s Disease. I don’t believe God causes bad things to happen. I get a little frustrated with people who say someone’s death, particularly an untimely one, was God’s plan, or that God wouldn’t give them anything that they can’t handle. I don’t believe that God plans for a teenager to be shot to death in the middle of a street. I don’t believe that God would “take” a life willfully, would steal a child from his mother and condemn her to a lifetime of unimaginable heartache. I’m not even convinced there is a “plan.” My way of summing this up is to say, “God is not a carcinogen. God gives us life. Life gives us cancer.” I truly do believe that.

But in July of 2007, my grandmother developed pneumonia. I was in France when she was hospitalized, but I had a horrible feeling something was wrong at home, and as I stood in the gift shop at Sacre Coeur, staring at rosaries, a voice in my head kept saying, “Grandmom. Grandmom.” I found out when I got through customs back in the States that she was quite ill, and the family had thought we might lose her while I was away. When I arrived at the hospital, straight from the airport, she seemed relieved to see me. She had thought she might not. And as I kissed her goodbye at the end of the visit, I admonished her not to say such things.

She nodded once and winked at me. “Right,” she whispered, unsmiling.

Of course, we both knew she was dying. Pneumonia is what most often claims the lives of Parkinson’s patients. She went home, but for a month, she slowly deteriorated. Then she took a turn, and I sat by her bedside at home as she slept something like 20 hours one day. Late in the night, just before I went to pick up my father from the airport and bring him to her, she woke up, held my hand, and asked me to sing “Ave Maria” to her, right there and then. She told me not to forget that I was to sing it at the funeral.

The next day, she had more energy, and she was awake most of the time. With my father back from Florida and her family assembled, it seemed all the pieces were in place. “I wonder what we’re waiting for,” she said to me.

I remember praying that God would have mercy and take her peacefully, that He would be mindful of all she had given to Him, of how she had literally and figuratively sung His praises all her life, of how she and my late grandfather had raised their family to be faithful.

But dying, it became increasingly clear, is a thing one does alone.

“Are You even listening?!” I finally screamed at Him in my head. “Are You paying attention?! Do You even care?!”

It was another week before she passed. I had had to go home, and go back to work. My father called at 6:20am from the airport in Florida, where he had been bound back north after he, too, had had to return to work. I never cried for Grandmom. I was only relieved that her suffering was over, and I believed she had been reunited with my grandfather and her parents. I was at peace with her death. I helped plan her funeral Mass, and I sang the “Ave Maria.”

But I was pissed at God. He didn’t help her. He let her suffer. After 17 years of a degenerative, humiliating, painful disease, He let her actual dying take a month. Her body was exhausted and aching, her lungs were damaged, her soul was crying for Him. But He let her die on her own.

And I started to realize the many things for which I had faithfully prayed that were never granted.

There’s a sweet saying about being grateful for unanswered prayers. There’s a parable about footprints in the sand. They are nice thoughts. I suppose they are a comfort for those who find themselves praying all the time for something that never happens. Not material things, not trivial things. Real, important things. It used to comfort me to think of the gifts of an unanswered prayer, until I realized how many of them there have been.

There are tragedies large and small literally all day long. Some of them you know about. Others you don’t. Sometimes the details of someone’s personal pain are so horrid that it’s just not necessary to impart them on the world. And then sometimes, there are catastrophic global events. 9/11. Katrina. Indonesia. Haiti. Japan. There are photos and videos of unrelenting waves marching through and obliterating towns and lives. Of cracks opening up in the earth and swallowing people up. Of buildings crumbled into piles on top of entire families. Of cars swept out to a sea that was once a mile away. Of a man clinging to his rooftop, spotted by helicopter crews, ten miles from a new kind of nowhere, nearly insane with worry about what had happened to his wife.

Eli, Eli, lema sabbachtani?

People say everything happens for a reason. I used to believe that, but I don’t anymore. I can’t see the reason for things like the human nightmare of massive earthquakes and tsunamis. Sometimes things just happen and they’re horrible and there’s no reason for it at all. But I believe we can find good, that we can force good to come out of those horrors. And I do think life is sometimes a mercurial thing, with connections we could never fathom. I have said that if 20 pints of blood donated for one sick loved one couldn’t save them, but a single one of those pints went on to save someone else, it was worth the sacrifice. I believe in miracles. I believe that maybe God did send those helicopter crews. That maybe it was a miracle that that man survived. That maybe it is God’s work when a rescue team pulls an old woman out alive from the rubble of a building that fell ten days before. I believe with God, all things are possible. But they don’t feel very likely.

And so, more and more, I wonder. Why do horrific things happen over and over in places where no one has anything to begin with? Why do some families endure innumerable heartaches and struggles? Why do individuals battle for years with everything from loneliness to illness to addiction, begging for help from God all the time, trying to listen, trying to be open to a voice, and never seem to get it? When people pray for help, does God ever answer? Of all the people who send prayers to heaven, to how many does He truly respond?

One person’s miracle is another person’s coincidence, and a third person’s logically explained development. I have always been taught that faith is the key. Keeping faith, even when it wavers, even when one doubts, is the most important thing. And so I continue to believe, however imprecisely. But the way I believe has changed. I no longer pray for myself. It seems that all the prayers I can remember saying in which I asked God for some benefit (and I have never prayed for anything material) went unanswered. Some of my deepest needs haven’t opened any other doors for me. But it also seems that, when I have prayed for others, there have been some responses. So I continue to offer fervent, faithful, hopeful prayers for those who are ill, who are dying, who are struggling, who are seeking. Perhaps selfishness is the problem; asking for something for oneself, however deep and spiritual the need… maybe that’s not the point.

From this, another belief evolves: that we should be the answer to each other’s prayers. Since the days of Job, we have questioned whether God tests us. I think being “tested” with cancer or abuse or depression or job loss is just cruel, and runs counter to the loving and forgiving God who came to us through Jesus Christ. A God who would test His faithful with such pain is not a God I want to worship. And so I do not believe that we are tested by God. But I am beginning to believe that when we see people suffering, the answer to our heartfelt prayers that God help them… is that we help them. Maybe that is what the faiths of the world mean when they teach us to recognize the God in one another, and in ourselves. Maybe prayer is just supposed to be a way to open up our hearts, minds and spirits so that we can be angels for each other.

I do not know how best to help the people of Japan. I do not know how to help the people of Darfur, or North Korea, or Iran. There are so many who need so much. It’s overwhelming. It is easier to help those I can see, those I know, those near whom I live. I do not know how to be an angel for people on the other side of the world. I am powerless to stop their horrors, and it does not seem that God will stop them, either. I can pray for them to find food, shelter, medicine, missing loved ones, peace. And now, the only thing I ask God to give me is grace. To accept, to give, to love, and to try. Sometimes that’s all I ask for because I just don’t think He’ll give me anything else. Sometimes, I’m fairly sure it’s all I need.