We were so privileged to grow up in a home where:
- Late at night we’d drift off to sleep listening to the muffled notes of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata ringing out from the grand piano upstairs.
- We’d come home from school to a live chamber music session (piano, cello, and flute) passionately rehearsing in the living room.
- After Christmas dinner she’d tune all the crystal goblets to a perfect scale and we’d play carols by running our fingers over the rim.
- We’d move the couches and have an impromptu polka party, just for fun, with her at the piano.
- We learned to sing Tender Shepherd as a round before we could even talk.
- We’d sing hymns in 4-part harmony before bed.
So it was only appropriate that when the cancer had finally consumed her entire body and the cheyne-stokes breathing indicated she was not long for this earth, we reached for the hymn books. Now it was our turn to sing her to sleep.
The nurse and the grief counselor told us their hearing is the last thing to go. So even when it doesn’t look like they’re paying attention, when they no longer have the strength to respond, and might even appear to be unconscious, they can still listen.
We each took a moment to say our goodbyes. And then we started to sing. At first it was hesitant, awkward. We fumbled for our parts as we choked back our tears. Gradually, flipping through the hymn book to find our favorites, the most comforting ones, we gained some confidence. Our voices rang out in a rich blend. Sweet Ben climbed right up onto her bed and lay there next to her, crooning softly into her ear with his golden voice.
Then, amazingly, while we were singing “I Need Thee Every Hour,” our voices were somehow amplified, almost as though we were suddenly joined by a growing chorus of angels from the other side. It was beyond beautiful. We were so caught up in the moment, the richness of the music, the power of the performance, we almost didn’t notice...then someone pointed us back to reality, and we watched in awe: On the last phrase of the last verse, right when we sang, “O bless me now, my Savior, I come to thee...” she took her last breath.
And I felt the veil part. As though the very divider between heaven and earth slipped open, just a crack, to let her soul pass through. And in that instant, so full-to-the-brim it couldn’t be stopped, some light and truth and love seeped through from the other side. It filled the room, and wrapped around us, bathing us in its warmth.
I remember feeling so beautiful inside, I wanted to hang onto that moment forever and ever. I have never been so sure in all my life of the reality of an after-life; that her soul slipped away to someplace bigger and better than we could possibly imagine. That she was with God.
I never imagined that her moment of death would have such a lasting impact on me. That over all the years of teaching and training and loving and serving and, yes, laughing...what I would remember best was her leaving...and the amazing cushion of peace she left behind.
I love that — just once — when it mattered most, I got to sing her to sleep.
She told me once she wanted to be remembered as a peacemaker.
And now she is.
The image above is the portrait I did for her funeral program. It was from a photo of her directing a Christmas chorus.