During the first hymn, which I′d never heard before, I practiced sight-reading, trying to anticipate each rise and fall in pitch as I studied the hymnal. It was an absorbing mental game, a relief from thinking about the last time I saw Helen, when she had been twisted and slumped and barely responsive. Up a third, down a third, down a third, crap. Focus! By the second verse I gave up and sang by ear, following the pianist and the well-practiced congregation of Presbyterians. By the fourth verse, I had it.
High King of Heaven, my victory won,
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.
As we rustled back down into our seats, adjusting skirts and suit jackets, I realized I had no idea whether Helen would have sung such a hymn sincerely, to God, or whether she would have sung for the pleasure of it, as I had. I had known Helen all my life and yet I did not know whether she was a believer.
She did celebrate Christmas; I could vouch for that. Christmas Eve at her house was a treasured ornament of my (Jewish) childhood: we kids sitting on the carpet by the pretty little tree in the parlor, the grownups settled around us on sofas and chairs. We each got a Bible passage to read, and I was terrified I’d have to read the word “Selah,” which I sort of knew how to pronounce but could never make sound natural, like I meant it. Christmas at Helen’s made you want to mean it. The presents were modest, the decorations more loving than lavish, and when we sat down in the dining room to eat, the candlelight gave her laughing eyes an extra sparkle.
2. “On Eagle’s Wings”
The next hymn sounded familiar, especially the chorus, which had the push and swell of a diva pop song. I bided time through the verses for a chance to sing at full voice.
And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
bear you on the breath of dawn,
make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of his hand.
It wasn’t just Christmas. I always thought of Helen and her husband Jim as the best of Christians—kind, loving, learned. This church we were in—their church—was known for its good works, and Helen was an active member. But did she believe the Bible was the Word of God or a work of literature, like her beloved Faulkner only maybe not as good? Did she believe in God? In Heaven? Did she think, as she took her last breaths a couple of weeks before, that she would soon be seeing Jim again?
I could ask one of her daughters, couldn’t I? Maybe not the one I knew to be a practicing Christian—the one who had chosen the hymns—but the one I knew best, who’d stayed in my hometown. I looked among the mourners and found Karis’s face. But she was weeping and I had to look away.
3. “We Shall Overcome”
I could not sing the next hymn. I kept trying, but my voice kept breaking into ugly pieces. This one I knew, of course; it had already worn a groove in my hopeful liberal heart. It also reminded me of Helen. The first political discussions I remember hearing were between Helen and my father, two progressive Democrats who managed to find plenty of room for debate. Just a couple of years ago, bed-moored in a facility, she still read the Washington Post religiously and lit up at the chance to gripe about House Republicans. That was my husband’s gift to her, on our infrequent visits. Better by far than flowers.
We are not afraid;
we are not afraid;
we are not afraid today.
I gave up trying to sing; I cried instead. I cried because she was gone and because, though I had loved her, I hadn’t really known her. I cried because it didn’t occur to me until she died that she taught me—without ever lecturing me—what a woman could be. She was an intellectual, a reader, an activist, a traveller. She was radiant. She made a lovely home, liked a stiff drink, relished a good argument. And boy, could she tell a story.
Helen had been 88 and ill, her dying past due. But still, how was it possible that she no longer existed? I looked around the light-filled church, and cried for everybody in it. For all of us humans, burdened with the knowledge of death, doing everything we can to bear that burden more easily. Trying for millennia to make it make sense. Trying—with giant contraptions of mythology adorned with poetry and rules and songs—to make death not permanent, not true.
Religion is beautiful and touching, when you think of it that way: a massive, communal labor of invention.
4. “Amazing Grace”
For the last hymn, I pulled myself together. I loved this tune, and when did I ever get to sing it for real? I could do that now. I could add to this fragile fiction for a few minutes. I could lend my voice to this heart-breaking, age-old attempt to make the end not be the end.
And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace.
As the song came to a close, the pianist dug into a crescendo. He hadn’t done that before, and it surprised me. But my voice followed joyously, and I was, for a moment, consoled.