This morning I was out walking and thinking about my friend Bob, who just lost his wife. I met Bob a little over eight years ago, when I joined the choir at First Presbyterian Church. I was just coming off a 20-year stint as an atheist.
Actually, “atheist” is too dramatic and almost too noble a word. It implies I was actually struggling and rebelling and actively rejecting belief in God. In reality, I just wasn’t much interested. I went around saying things like, “Art is my religion” if anybody asked, and I guess I believed it. If I ever stopped to think about it. Which I didn’t. Much.
(Walker Percy wrote, “The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” Looking back, I think that was me.)
But now something had changed – everything, actually – and I found myself in this church choir. With Bob.
Bob’s a tenor – a very strong one – and I’m a second soprano (not as strong) so Bob sits right behind me in the choir loft. He’s a fairly small man with a giant personality. When I think of Bob – who must be 80-ish now – words like “patriarch” and “prophet” and even “saint” come to mind. But Bob’s not your average saint. Oh, I could name about a thousand “good works” he’s involved in, but he wouldn’t like that one bit. He’s very humble, but he’s also a bit of what they used to call a “pistol.” Bob has this way of seeing right through you – right down to the ugly parts – and loving you anyway. He’s got this smile that’s both wry and beatific, that takes you to task and showers you with forgiveness . . . at the same time. He’s a retired college math professor and smart as a whip; he’s also one of the most faithful, Bible believing, orthodox (with a small o) Christians I have ever met. (I find that Math Professor/Jesus Freak combo seriously compelling.) And here’s another thing about Bob: he’s fearless when it comes to singing a solo – a prospect that terrifies me – and one of his favorites is “How Can I Keep From Singing?” Bob can’t, and he loves to belt out some old-time hymns. But he’s a stickler. It’s gotta be good. He’s one of the toughest, tenderest men I’ve ever known, and he’s been a great listener and a steadfast friend as I’ve scrambled to find my footing on this new, old path.
And now Bob has lost his beloved Kelley. They’d been married forever, but he still treated her like his girlfriend. Called her “my bride” and “my sweetheart.” Kelley was everybody’s sweetheart, really. She just radiated kindness and good cheer. For the past eight years, she never failed to send a card on my birthday or Amelia’s. Even when I stopped making Amelia come to church a couple of years ago – something I know she and Bob didn’t approve of, though they never said a word – the cards kept coming, without fail, along with her sunshiny smiles and her warm hugs. For the past few years, Kelley’s been in terrible health. It’s just been one thing after another. And Bob the Stalwart, the Adoring, the Ever-Faithful, has been by her side. Sometimes, he’d show up for choir practice late, or leave early, and we always knew. Sometimes, he wouldn’t make it at all, and again, we knew. There’s not much that can keep Bob from singing. So we knew.
Kelley’s funeral is Monday, and Bob has asked the choir to sing. We’ll be joined by members of the Sea Island Chamber Singers – Bob sings with them, too – and from what I gather, our combined choir will be bursting the seams of our little white church on the corner. How splendid! Bob has requested what may be the two most joyful anthems ever sung at a funeral: The final movement of Saint-Saens’ Christmas Oratorio (“Praise Ye the Lord of Hosts”) and the Hallelujah Chorus. Not your usual funeral fare, but Bob’s not “usual.” And he believes, without a doubt, that the Lord God omnipotent reigneth, and that he will see his sweet Kelley again. So why not sing for joy?
I adore both these pieces. I just hope I can get through them with Bob sitting in front of me, his eyes saying everything – instead of standing behind me, his voice raised in song.