I should be sleeping now instead of talking about it, but I will quickly say that if I hadn't gone to my clinic yesterday and had my latest and as-yet-unnamed-On-Bright-Street epiphany, I would have divied up the day into little improvement-oriented chunks that would have kept me under control, made me brush my teeth, and ruined everything. I would have missed the deadline for submissons, June 15th, today.
I'm not saying I did it big. I just did it. At the end of the first draft I looked it over and said, See, self? I can do this, and nobody suffered for it, except for maybe my sweet little visiting teaching companion who had to sit next to me on the couch.
There's not enough time or brain activity left in me to go into explanations about why this is personally a big deal, this starting and finishing of a few paragraphs. Blah blah blah. Here's the essay already. I hope it fits the bill for the Irreantum folks. I won't hold my breath--the important thing is that the words are cooling on the page now, and no longer sizzling away in my head.
The call came early, and as most everyone knows, when the phone sounds before the sun, you vault from your bed and sleep takes a hasty turn to panic: Hello! Who's died? On this particular morning, April 6th, there was no death to report yet, but a weary stalwart voice on the other end of the line politely breathed woe into my ear: We're in the emergency room. Leslie's had a stroke. Please come.
Oh, Kitty. Yes. Yes, we're on our way.
Night yielded to a misting morning, and Rob and I drove to the hospital in disheveled unshowered solemnity. April 6th. Today is Christ's birthday, I thought. Of course He has invited Leslie to His table. What a gift to have a favored son come home; a celebration is surely being prepared. But here with us, as if to reveal the mortal brightness that was being extinguished, the heavy sky, hungry for sun, turned grey and slow with weeping.
There he was and there she was, just like always, except that his saying and seeing had ceased, and nothing was left but the labor of his breathing on a borrowed bed, between the unnatural light above and the cold, aseptic tile beneath. Whispers and blessings, loves and prayers, tears and pain, we few labored alongside him without knowing how.
What can I do? What do you need? Help, let me help.
Tansi, then. Tansi needs her morning walk. It will be her first walk with the unanswerable anxiety of absence. Is there even the smallest comfort for a cherished, grieving pet? She'll want tending.
Warbling song. It occurred to me that perhaps this I would miss most about Leslie. Funny to apprehend that the great man touched my heart most deeply singing snatches of contented tunes while seeing to everyday comings and goings--standing in the backyard, watching Tansi play; locking up the house and loading into the car; bringing in trash cans and taking them out; walking slowly with Kitty and friends through a restaurant parking lot. I never recognized his meandering melodies; I believed them to be his own irrepressible inventions.
On her own threshold I encircled Tansi's neck with the familiarity of her leash and spoke kindly. She was tense and confused, sick inside as I was. Stepping through the doorway and urging Tansi forward, all I could think was that Leslie would be singing now. He would sing to Tansi as they walked the long drive and trudged down Carterville Road, following their customary route. The certainty of it filled my head. Alright, I thought, then I will sing for you today, my good pup.
I laughed at myself, a justifiably reluctant alto. Never mind that. I could warble too for an occasion like this, only without the charm. What should I sing? I know none of Leslie's songs. Surely he would croon sweet melodies known to old Welshmen, but strange to radio ears. Nothing came to me. Nothing. Then a little something, just a single hymn that lodged in my mind:
Guide us, o thou great Jehovah,
Guide us to the promised land.
We are weak, but thou art able;
Hold us with thy pow'rful hand.
Holy Spirit, Holy Spirit,
Feed us till the Savior comes.
Feed us till the Savior comes.
Open, Jesus, Zion's fountains;
Let her richest blessings come.
Let the fiery, cloudy pillar
Guard us to this holy home.
Great Redeemer, great Redeemer,
Bring, oh, bring the welcome day!
Bring, oh, bring the welcome day!
When the earth begins to tremble,
Bid our fearful thoughts be still;
When thy judgments spread destruction,
Keep us safe on Zion's hill,
Singing praises, singing praises,
Songs of glory unto thee,
Songs of glory unto thee.
I cried as I raised my poor voice. Would Leslie balk at a Restoration paean? I felt foolish in my solo as I passed neighbors' houses--a stranger in black, singing a song of worship while walking a troubled dog--but I carried on. The hymn left no room for another anthem, so I repeated it, jumbling the verses–that didn't matter. Tears spilled from me. I kept time with my footfalls and imagined how Leslie would sing such a hymn. Where would he and this little Welsh Terrier wander together, and how? I yielded to my companion’s tuggings, mimicked Leslie’s pace and his endearments, and gave to Tansi as many memories as I could. The song flowed from me and Tansi and I relaxed. There was a spirit of comfort with us.
Late in the evening, after a devilishly hard day’s work, Leslie went quietly home to feast at his Master’s table and celebrate in good company the beauty of nascence. We who stayed behind scattered, our stomachs burning, beneath the blackened sky.
The question of song arose again as funeral plans began to unfold. He and she had agreed that their services should be conducted after the manner of their Latter-day Saint friends and colleagues, but Kitty was fretful about having to sing their soulless songs. First one friend, then another, was given the job of making musical selections; a new widow’s mind is understandably cloudy. No matter. The task appropriately fell to Wally, who appeared the next day, kindled, dependable, and reverent, with his choices. He thought it right to sing a traditional Welsh hymn to end the service . . . Cwm Rhondda? It was familiar to both faiths. Oh! Yes, Kitty answered, please, Leslie would love that. And what was the tune Wally began to sing then? The same that had the day before taken hold of my mind and rolled off my lips to soothe two forlorn creatures. A rush of connection filled me, and I knew that a generous nature was its source.
The correspondence didn’t stop there. Reading the traditional text of Cwm Rhondda I felt afresh the surge of interconnection as I realized this hymn was Bread of Heaven, the subject of one of Leslie’s final, marvelous, unpublished poems. I’d read that poem and read it again, and I’d loved it.
So the hymn we share was Leslie’s long before I knew it was mine. It began where he began and where my family began, in Wales. He grew to love the song in chapel. He learned a mischief to its tune in his mother’s kitchen. He chanted it with mates at football matches after dodgy rulings by referees. His fathers sang it in coal mines. I sang it to his dog. And we all wailed it soulfully to heaven in benediction to his life.
In a month and a half, it was Leslie’s birthday. It was a day to spend with Kitty, but other family business called us out of state. It was a bittersweet trip–another early morning but not so grey as the last one we’d risen to meet, a quiet drive into unfamiliar territory, and a new life to consider. We joined our clan for a baby's blessing, little Scout’s first occasion wearing handed-down ancestral white. Her father blessed her with the poetry of love and priesthood. As a family we shared the feast of the sacrament table and were filled. And then, miraculously, we sang, Guide us, o, thou great Jehovah, guide us to the promised land. We are weak, but though art able; hold us with thy pow’rful hand. When the regular congregation, that justifiably reluctant choir of Saints, reached the chorus, it couldn’t be helped; I had to sing out, overflowing, Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven, feed me till I want no more (want no more). Feed me till I want no more. My tears fell then and again at home when I held my tiny niece. Privately I warbled the hymn for her, once more with the Welsh refrain, in the hope that she would always remember, feel connected, and be fed.