June 4, 2015

The Song of Life and Death—For Those Who Pass & Those Who Remain.

Deb on Flickr

My dad loved Dixieland music about as much as he loved me.

The sounds of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Louis Armstrong filled my house growing up. I can remember him taking me and my pigtails to listen to the St. Louis Ragtimers live on the banks of the Mississippi River. I was so small he’d hoist me up on his shoulders so I could get a glimpse above the crowd and I’d stand on his feet while we danced.

When my dad was diagnosed with cancer so many years ago, the doctors predicted he’d be gone within six months. I don’t know how he did it, but he fought and fought and hung on for nearly two years.

The summer before he died, we took a trip out to get some ice cream. In the car, he pulled a CD from the Jim Cullum Jazz Band box set I’d given him for Christmas and we listened to the most incredible rendition of “Ave Maria” I’d ever heard. We noted how each of the instruments came in one at a time, starting slowly then building into a joyful exuberance—a flat out raucousness—that made us tap our toes and smile big. It seemed to be telling us the story of life.

“I think I’d like you to play this at my funeral,” he said.

When the end came, it came fast. The hospice nurses had taken such good care of my dad for such a long time and one night, they told us he’d be gone by morning. My brother and aunt and I carried him into his room and laid him on his bed for the last time. He was in just terrible shape—his body so weak and frail, his eyes so empty and breath rattling in that unmistakable way that means, without a doubt, that death is near.

While it tore me apart to see him suffer, there’s nowhere I would rather have been than with him at that hour. I wanted to create a lasting memory for us both, so I played that special “Ave Maria” and we listened together. I held his hand and whispered that it was okay to let go. He hadn’t had the strength to move in two days, but somehow he mustered up the energy to turn his body toward the music. That single movement showed me that, at that moment, he knew who he was, who I was, and what was happening. It seemed almost as if by turning toward the music, he was turning toward the inevitable. He seemed ready. I said my goodbyes and left him with the music playing on repeat and he died within hours.

A few days later, when family and friends gathered at the funeral home, there was nothing I could say that the music couldn’t say better. So when the time came for me to deliver the eulogy, I just pressed play on “Ave Maria.”

I’m remembering these moments now because I just got the word that another part of my family is gathered around their matriarch and it’s just a matter of time. I’ve got no words that can ease the grief or the journey or the emptiness that follows. All I’ve got is this song in my head, this song of life and death.

I listen so hard when teachers across traditions talk about the end of days in this body, because the idea of losing life to death is one that I haven’t been able to reconcile yet. I know we’re all terminal but it’s so damn painful when it happens.

And while the lessons of non-attachment and ever-lasting grace nibble away some of the sharpness of the stabbing loss, it’s only just a little.

My dearest aunt was in the funeral home that day and heard the “Ave Maria” that sent my father off. My memory can’t say for sure, but I suspect she would have been tapping her toes at the biggest part.

And so I play it now for her, and for all—those who are transcending, those who remain.


Author: Becky Vollmer

Editor: Katarina Tavčar

Photo: Deb/Flickr

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