When my mom died 13 years ago this week, I devoured every book I could find on the experience of losing a parent--self-help books, memoirs, magazine articles. I was searching for some clue how to survive what was surely the most devastating blow of my 20 year life. There were words that moved me to tears (many, many tears), and words that spoke so directly to my experience, I felt a spiritual connection with the writer. Some anecdotes stayed with me for no apparent reason. One such story was about a girl's visit to her father's grave a year after he died. Quite spontaneously, this child turned a cartwheel over his grave. She had always loved cartwheels, but had stopped turning them when her dad died. Her symbolic gesture one year later was to let him know she would continue to embrace life; she would still find joy in the world.
Though I never made a conscious decision not to sing after my mom died, one day of silence turned into another and another and another. My mother had been aware of my intention to record some songs to be played for her memorial service, and after an afternoon of singing to her as she lay dying one room away, I began to sing "Wind Beneath My Wings." She knew this was one of the songs I had planned to sing for her service, and I was halfway through when a family friend ran into the room and called to me with a hushed voice, "She's dying, Jennifer. It's time!" I collected my sister from upstairs and we both rushed through the living room doors to witness the final gasps of our mother's breath. Some part of me knew it was a gift to sing my mother into the next life, but another deeper part of me felt partly responsible for her death. I had resisted singing the memorial service songs for more than an hour--I somehow knew they would be a prompt for her to let go and move on. I had always felt and believed my voice spoke to people, but the power of this last message felt too overwhelming to fully acknowledge.
After recording songs for her service, my world became very quiet. Music was somehow too powerful, too close, too connected to my already inescapable sadness. When I returned to college the following fall, I would occasionally sneak into a music practice room and sing in the stillness of that close space. After a lifetime of public performance and real comfort with the stage, I had no desire to share my voice in any way. The silence grew into anxiety, and again, without a conscious choice, years passed without my singing in any public forum. A friend whose parents were killed by a drunk driver had performed a concert with her siblings to mark the ten year anniversary of their deaths. For no reason other than Mary's story, I, too, decided ten years would mark the end of my silence. By that time I had a daughter and I sang frequently in my home. With some small prompting from members of my church, I sang a song in church on a summer Sunday. Nervous? Yes. Shaky hands, dry mouth, quivery voice? Yes. But I sang, and I was proud of my accomplishment.
I returned home to the audience of my two year old daughter and ever-devoted husband, and continued to offer the best of myself in only the smallest of spaces. This past fall, though, I knew I needed to let my dad and grandparents know I was singing still, even if only in the comfort of my own home. I recorded a CD and gave copies to members of my family as a Christmas present. At our church's annual "Blue Christmas" service, I shared tearfully how I made the CD as much for my mom--to give her the gift that I would still sing. One of the enthusiastic organizers of the women's fellowship encouraged me to share my music more publicly, and I (foolishly!) suggested that an evening program for the women's fellowship might be just the right context to do so. She didn't let me forget!
After a February date didn't work, the program was planned for this evening--April 4th, only two days before the anniversary of my mom's death. I was not only going to sing, I was going to sing in the fire of my loss. For weeks I have prepared my program, practicing, writing program notes, and courageously asking a family friend to sing with me a song from my mother's memorial service. Nervous again? Yes. Shaky hands, dry mouth, quivery voice? In the beginning, yes. But I persisted and sang, and even had moments of great joy in doing so. The kleenex was passed aisle to aisle, but I managed to leave the tears in the audience and saved mine for my return home.
Mom, thirteen years later, I turned this cartwheel for you....