The day was a microcosm of seasons passing. My morning began with sunshine and a bright, clear sky. By the time my daughter awoke, she suspected she remained in the arms of Morpheus when she saw a snow squall outside her dormitory window. The day cleared, then swiftly again grew gunmetal gray. Wind gusted so fiercely it made us weave as we walked my daughter’s bike up the campus.
My husband’s and my alma mater, which this daughter will share, held a Service of Remembrance for alumni who had passed away during the last year. A program listed all these names. From them one could picture the bell curve in which the vast majority had lived long lives in which they welcomed children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren who held their parents’ hands in pews around us.
We were ushered to seats by a silver-haired representative of another, earlier generation’s class. He asked me for whom we were there; when I told him my husband, my daughter’s father, he looked at both of us and asked what class my husband was from. When I told him it was the Class of ’81, his expression betrayed that he was saddened and taken aback.
Like pharmacists who repeatedly assumed I was getting medication for my father during Jim’s treatment; he clearly expected we were there for someone whose years with us had not been cut so short.
The program bore single names from the Classes of 1930 and 1932–men who had lived half-a-century longer than my husband. At the end of the list was a sprinkling of names of those who had died far too young, including Jim’s.
The list ended, tragically, with the name of a young woman who had entered the University at the same time my elder daughter did, but did not live to the end of the first semester. My daughter was glad to see her included and remembered.
The University Chapel was filled with yet another community to which our family belongs and in which we joined in remembering and thinking about people we have lost, and people we had not even known.
It was touching to see representatives of decades of classes in this community quietly walking to the front of the chapel, where they gently unpinned flowers from their lapels and added them to a wreath to commemorate every one of those who had died. “Another throng shall breathe our song” was part of the school song we then sang.
I have ever learned
in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
Students read prayers: El Maleih Rachamin, Surah Al-Fatihah, and Bhagavad Gita. (“Did you understand that?” I asked my daughter after a young man clad in bright turquoise beautifully spoke the latter; “That’s Sanskrit, not Hindi,” she educated me. She does not yet speak Sanskrit.)
The program was punctuated with a directive to “Please stand if able,” and I was reminded of the afternoon when Reverend Bob came to our house just after Jim died. The children and I were collapsed upon each other on a single couch. The Reverend looked at me and asked, rhetorically, “How can we get you to where you don’t have to lean?” Sitting up would be the baby step towards standing, which he and I knew I would need to be able to do days later in order to speak at my husband’s service.
Our friends Joe and Diane met us at the chapel. They had not been able to come to Jim’s memorial service, and drove to New Jersey to remember him at this one.
To say the day was frigid would be an understatement. Mist shrouded the chapel for well over an hour. Copper leaves rose from the ground and audibly whipped against the stained glass windows. Even inside, two plump snowflakes adhered persistently to my daughter’s raven hair.
The very last words everyone sang, facing forward towards the alter, were from “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore You,” Beethoven’s Hymn to Joy.
A miraculous thing happened at the end of the first verse:
“Joyful, joyful, we adore you, God of glory, God of love; Hearts unfold like flowers before you, opening to the sun above. . .”
People began to turn. As we sang “opening to the sun above,” it was as if something had tapped us on our shoulders, beckoning us to face the chapel’s front window instead.
“Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the storms of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day.”
At “fill us with the light of day,” the sun filled the chapel fully from the front window; nearly everyone, having felt the shift as the first rays peeked through, by then had turned around to look far up and marvel as the colors and light streamed in.
Diane hugged me and my daughter.
“How did they do that?” I asked Diane, meaning those who had organized the service.
“They didn’t,” she smiled.
Well done, Jim, I thought.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon