Seven years ago, in my second year of teaching, I taught at a Catholic elementary school. I’m not Catholic, but French teachers are often in short supply, and I was in no position to be picky about jobs.
Sometimes I was a bit uncomfortable being a Quaker inside the Catholic bubble with all the unfamiliar liturgies and rituals, like on Ash Wednesday, for example. One of the Grade 6s remarked, “Hey, your ashes have already rubbed off, Madame!” Of course, I hadn’t had ashes dabbed on my forehead, because I would have felt like a faker, but I didn’t feel comfortable explaining, either.
Then, the night before the last day of school, I got a phone call from one of my co-workers, telling me that our principal’s husband had died suddenly in a farming accident.
I was thunderstruck. We all were.
We loved our principal – one of those women who knows exactly how to wear with grace the many hats her job entails, adored by the kids, but also feared just the right amount. A practical and affectionate mother and wife, with a son in Grade 4 and a daughter in Grade 1; theirs was the kind of happy, healthy marriage and family a newlywed like me could aspire to.
Suddenly, violently, she was a single working mom, the loving company of her husband replaced by an unfathomable weight of grief.
On the last day of class, the school became a cloister of shared sorrow. I don’t remember what actually happened during the liturgy assembly that gathered us all together, but I was grateful for it: the community, and the ritual that gave a shape to the sadness.
I remember that even the littlest kids sat and listened quietly, gravely.
I remember the image of a group of attentive friends comforting one of my Grade 5 girls, whose face was awash with tears. Her dad had died the year before. At ten years old, she was dealing with personal memories as well as empathetic grief.
Mostly, I remember the feeling: the communal heartache, the tears of so many compassionate children and their teachers, the fervent wish to do something to help, with no idea where to start.
I also remember the music. Before the ceremony began, there was a song playing that lodged itself firmly in my memory:
I… I’m desperate for you…
And I… I’m lost without you.
A female voice sang, full of yearning. I knew it was a song about God, but on that day, it was about humans – the ones lost to us. I looked around at my co-workers and saw that we were all crying, and I knew we were thinking together of how desperate and lost we would feel, in our friend’s shoes. I sincerely hoped that she had the kind of relationship with God that would bring her solace.
Over the next few days, I wrote a collection of words about how I felt – how I knew we all felt. How much we wished that we could somehow make things better, that the sadness we were feeling could somehow be subtracted from hers, to ease the burden.
That summer, I put those words to music. It was the first time (out of two, so far) I had ever tried to write choir music, and I didn’t know if I’d ever hear it sung, but I had to do something. And music has powerful healing properties. Writing this seemed necessary.
When all those people were slain in Newtown, my own words came back to me. I know we were feeling it, all over the world: if only we could do something. If only we could help somehow. What could a person possibly do?
I don’t usually pray in a traditional way, but I do believe in the value of (as Quakers say it) holding someone in the Light. People all over the world have been holding the Sandy Hook community in the Light with their own tears, and vigils, and writings, and thoughts. And music. So, what I did… was this song.
I debated about posting this now, at the beginning of this fresh new year, since it’s obviously not a festive post. But maybe that’s when it’s most needed. I know there are a lot of people out there who are facing 2013 as the first year they will have to do without someone they love very dearly. I remember how I felt as 2012 began, when suddenly there was one more barrier – symbolic, but significant – between me and the existence of Sebastian. And even if it’s been many years, missing someone still hurts.
This song was carefully put together, one vocal track at a time, by a few caring people who love to sing and were able to give some of their time during the busy holiday season. We aren’t professionals, and I admit it’s a rough recording, especially since we couldn’t all sing together… but I hope you can hear how heartfelt it is. Honestly, I feel nervous and naked sharing this – somehow even more than for my lullaby, because it’s pretty raw, both technically and emotionally. But maybe one day someone will hear it who takes some comfort from it… so I think it’s worth putting it out there, for that possibility.
Profound thanks to Matt Hunter-Tribe, Alan Spreadbury, Beth Shepard, and Dylan Coombs, for contributing your voices, and your compassion. I wouldn’t have a song without you.