According to the Weather Underground historical data, Friday, April 22nd, 1983 was a relatively mild day in Phoenix, AZ. The high for the day was a modest 78 degrees despite abundant sunshine. This was seven degrees cooler than the average. From my perspective, and in my memory, it was SIGNIFICANTLY hotter. This was the day I was to be married. I had finally found the girl of my dreams. We had celebrated my father’s birthday the night before in the RV resort they had reserved a spot in for their trip from Michigan. I had spoken with my best man that morning and he was ready to meet me at 1 pm for our trip to the Justice of the Peace in time for our 3:00 wedding appointment. My bride to be was still convinced I was THE guy. Her father had come around to accept me as an addition to the family, although he wasn’t initially thrilled that his 17 year old daughter had fallen in love with a 23 year old music theatre performance major. To my credit, I had no idea she was THAT young until after I had proposed….more details of our early relationship are in my posts in February.
As so often happened in our lives…life got in the way. I can’t remember the exact reason my best man was late, but he was. In 1983, Phoenix only had two freeways – I-10, and I-17. Everything else was a surface street. Traffic got heavy during rush hour…and stayed that way for three hours usually. I remember slamming my hands on my steering wheel as the car clock approached 3 pm…then passed it…I remember the temperature suddenly seemed like the middle of summer as I imagined my father in law fuming at the possibility of my not showing for a wedding we had both talked him into signing permission for. I was dead. I knew it. The Justice of the Peace office closed for the weekend at 4:00 pm. I finally squealed my tires into the parking lot at 3:45 pm. My future father in law’s face was a sunburnt scarlet, but not from the heat OR sun! My bride to be was in tears. Even my own parents – who were with me in the car – were upset.
Fortunately, Judge Howie (yes that was his name) was not. Indeed, he was very understanding, and stayed late to perform the ceremony. Fortunately, my father-in-law is one of the kindest men I have ever known and was quick enough to forgive me for my tardiness. Fortunately, my beloved bride remained with me through good times…through bad times…through thick and thin (see my last post)…and for 34 years I felt like a king every time we walked arm in arm in public.
I spoke in my “This Can’t Be Love” post for Valentine’s Day of a vocal trilogy I have been composing with my wife for the last several months. This trilogy utilizes several sources for the text, as well as original lyrics of our own. It begins with two Soprano-Tenor duets, and ends with a three-part women’s chorus. The work was finished in time for Valentine’s Day, and one or another of the songs was scheduled to be performed this year by a few school groups in AZ as well as MI, with the entire work to be premiered in AZ later this fall. Then the virus hit.
I know how many people get either creeped out by my discussing the communication I have learned to cultivate with my departed bride, or flat out think I have truly lost it. This isn’t as crazy as it all sounds. There have been several instances where the ability to interact with a beloved spouse has occurred well after death. And, remarkably, this ability appears to possibly be genetic. My paternal grandmother and grandfather were married in 1912…they raised 10 children together on a farm. My grandfather passed from cancer in 1943, not long after my Dad’s 10th birthday. At the time, my dad had a cousin nearly his own age, who had a sister just a couple of years younger. Their dad, unfortunately, was an alcoholic. My dad and grandmother told me of the number of times my grandfather would have to go over to their house and “straighten out” my uncle, who was a mean drunk and sometimes beat the kids and my aunt, who had adult onset polio and was confined to a wheelchair by this point. My grandmother used to tell me that she had experienced grandpa’s voice a few times after his passing, but that on the morning of August 4th, 1945, she awoke to find him at the foot of their bed and he said “I’ve had it Zula. I’m taking those kids away from him to be safe with me. And then he disappeared.
That night, my uncle was in rare form, celebrating the impending defeat of Japan, so my aunt decided to take the kids to a movie to get away from a potentially dangerous situation. It was an uncharacteristically gloomy night. The city sidewalks were in disrepair, so Jackie decided to push his mother’s wheelchair on the edge of the street. You can guess from there. Jackie was thrown high into the air by an inexperienced teenage driver traveling far too fast and he died almost instantly. His sister Wilma was dragged under the car for about a quarter mile, ripping off the back of her skull. She passed a few hours later. My aunt survived, but had PTSD and mourned those kids for another 48 years until she passed in 1993.
So my ability to experience my wife’s presence and voice didn’t surprise or scare me. Indeed, it gives quite a bit of comfort. No, I have never seen her…except in my dreams, of course. But I hear her voice frequently, and often can feel her presence and touch. What I would like to share with you is this trilogy, as well as her involvement in it, beyond what I shared in “This Can’t Be Love.”
The night after she passed, I finally had worn to the point I fell asleep. Within two hours, I felt her presence, heard her voice, detected her scent…and she lay beside me in the bed they had just carried her from eight hours before. What was said between us I will not relay here, but I knew that our time together was not yet finished. Just our walk together on earth. For months, she would pop up unexpectedly…I’d feel her voice inside my head…feel her laughter and cracking wise as I pedaled my way around, trying to keep those promises I made to her to get back to my mileage goals. I struggled with how to deal with this, and when mentioning it to family – hers, mine, and ours – they all looked at me like I had lost it. Finally, I stumbled across a book on grieving and loss that approached death between two beloveds that came from an esoterical point of view and postulated that it is indeed possible for two souls that were brought together and united by a love vow, to form one Abler Soul (see The Abler Soul, and This Isn’t Love posts). The theory justified itself in Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Sufi, and Buddhist teachings. The book is called “Love is Greater Than Death” and is written by Cynthia Bourgeault. Even if you are not grieving, it is a fantastic read and offers insights on inner spirituality.
When planning her memorial service – my wife explicitly did not want to be buried and insisted on cremation – our children and I opted to call for donations in lieu of flowers and decided we would use the proceeds to send an at-risk, inner city junior high student to a summer music camp free of charge. We decided this was the best way to keep her legacy alive. She loved her students (see Herding Cats post) and, again, our conscious decision to serve in inner city schools was what we wanted to do to change the world for our own children and grandchildren. The response was overwhelming, and we found we had more than enough to send not one, but FOUR students to camp that summer, with plenty left over. We formed a 501-c3 association, and host several fundraisers throughout the year to benefit this mission. Every dollar donated goes directly to scholarship awards.
Last October, we hosted our annual bicycle ride as a benefit. Despite the weather, the turnout was great. We had several riders in other states participating virtually as well. Friends of ours came up from Indiana to spend the weekend and ride with me. After the ride was finished, we went out for dinner. I expressed some frustration with the weather, as well as with the fact that some of our mutual friends could not be bothered to attend – even though we had ridden in charity events for them previously. One of them pointed out that her legacy was not in numbers, but in the fact that others were willing to go out into the world and do good works…inspired by her. Mind blown.
I had been revisiting the works of John Donne since Bourgeault’s work had discussed his poem “The Ecstasy,” which first used the term “abler soul” to describe the passion between Donne and his wife. My friend’s quote reminded me of other works I had stumbled across by this largely forgotten 16th’/17th century British poet that perfectly captured my experience with my beloved wife, from our marriage, through our last day on the planet together, to our continued journey together in a wider astral plain. That night, on the journey home, I began to talk with my angel about composing a vocal trilogy. The first task was to revisit that awful day in February two years previously and set aside some pain for each of us, as well as inspire others. Our last couple of years together, we had received several notes from students and friends that commented on our devotion to each other and how inspired they were by our work on a true marriage.
The first task was to select the lyrics. Although I may be an accomplished/published author, I am NOT a poet. All of my previous completely original vocal compositions were done as a pastoral musician, utilizing Psalms or biblical quotations – usually lifted exactly from the source or the liturgical handbook. My best work was actually as an arranger of instrumental accompaniment to existing songs by contemporary composers, or as choral arrangements of traditional hymns into untraditional settings, such as an SSA rendition of “In the Garden” for my father’s funeral in 2009.
My wife, on the other hand, lacked the fundamental music theory skills to generate melodies, harmonize, etc. What she was VERY good at, however, was writing original text to existing melodies, as well as generating an original libretto to craft a musical tying seemingly unrelated songs together for her elementary students.
As I contemplated how best to explain our relationship in a meaningful way, I felt her guiding me towards six texts from three authors. Bourgeault states that in an abler soul partnership, often the living partner is led into directions by the departed in ways that he/she would never have thought of on their own, and distinctly has the tincture of the departed beloved involved. Such was the case here.
For our texts, we together settled on the section of Bourgeault’s work that discusses the reason that the abler soul partnership extends the relationship beyond death…”Once the building is built, you no longer need the scaffolding.” This simply states that the two beloveds do not need to physically feel or see each other, but that the communication can and does extend beyond death.
Of course, accompanying this text had to be Donne’s “The Ecstasy” portion where the abler soul is first discussed. These two works HAD to be combined for the greatest impact and understanding. We decided this piece would be the first setting of the trilogy and would capture our last day together, as I alternatively sat and lay beside her, telling her constantly “I love you,” because I wanted those to be the last words she heard in this realm. How to go about it, however, was an issue. I felt this was the first piece that needed to be written. I contemplated making it an SATB (four part mixed chorus) work, but my wife’s voice insisted on an intimate Soprano-Tenor duet. As I revisited the source texts, I jotted down what I felt were the important sections, and after I was finished, reread what I had put down on paper. As I read, I felt her hand crossing out certain words, writing down substitutes where appropriate, and when finished, noted that approximately half of my original text was substantially changed! But the result was extremely satisfying and had her essence all over it!
The next step was to compose the melody, which I managed to generate in about two hours. There was little input from her on this, but I did feel her guide me to interweaving that melody in a give and take true duet between the voices. This made the harmonization much easier. The rest of the compositional process I have discussed in previous posts, so I will skip it here. Later in this post I will post the text and add the audio file generated by my software for what it sounds like (minus actual human voices singing the text).
The next piece, actually the first part of the trilogy, had to capture our wedding day and describe the vows we felt we were taking…the entire essence of our marriage. She made it known to me in the process that she wanted it to resolve some pain that I had felt in the last few days before her passing. I had watched as our girls, sons in law, grandchildren, and other family members and friends came to say their final goodbyes and make her promises to watch out after each other. I heard her struggle to tell each the final “I love you” before she slipped away into unresponsiveness…yet those were not the final words I had heard from her. That final “I love you” came a day or two after I had made the difficult, but necessary decision to enter hospice care two weeks before she passed and about a week before family started showing up. I never heard her say the words to me again. It hurt deeply.
My wife was a HUGE “Outlander” fan. I never understood this, and instead actually cringed at the brief explanation she gave of a woman who travelled back in time and married a Scot – despite being married in her own time in post-World War II England. I struggled with this concept because I felt it was adulterous behavior and couldn’t understand my wife’s interest in it. I did, however, watch the Starz presentation of the series with her. After her death I felt I HAD to read the books on her Kindle to try and resolve this issue. I knew television presentations do not often convey the essence of an original text (see Game of Thrones, for example). And so I worked my way through the books and quickly saw us reflected in the fiery, and loving, relationship between Claire and Jamie…which is, after all, what she saw…she told me several times that it wasn’t about the adultery, it was about Claire finding true love and partnership.
For the text of our first piece, The Vow, then the setting had to begin with our own wedding and the vows we would have taken in front of Judge Howie if that wedding had taken place the day she passed. The vows Claire and Jamie took are a traditional version of those spoken in the Highlands. “Blood of my blood, bone of my bone, I give ye my body that we might be one.” Later in the series…actually in “The Fiery Cross” (the book that is the source material for this season’s television series)…Jamie tells Claire “When the day shall come that we do part,” he said softly, and turned to look at me, “if my last words are not ‘I love you’-ye’ll ken it was because I didna have time.”
The remainder of the text of The Vow is original lyrics composed by ourselves and weaved together the story of our lives up to the day of her death. I have spoken before of her involvement in the instrumental portions of this piece, including the creation of the quadrille interlude and the wedding bell accompaniment that I had tried to compose at the ending of “The Abler Soul,” but had failed in capturing. Again, the melody, was a collaborative effort in weaving the relationship between the tenor and the soprano, and we selected which portions of the vow would be sung by which voice, which portions of the remainder of the piece would have the melody in which voice, etc. As I came to set the text from The Fiery Cross, however, I quite clearly felt her presence and smelled her perfume as my decision was overruled, and she set the harmony, melody, and rhythm to erase my pain as though she felt the words while drawing her final, halting breaths. I was given to know that she felt and heard my cry of anguish when I knew she had crossed over. She let me know that in spite of her inability to say those words to me in her final days, she knew this was important to me. I felt my jaw move in rhythm as we came to this segment of the piece. By the way, I still spray a bit of her perfume on the pillow that was underneath her head when she passed that day…every night before I go to sleep.
For the third, and final movement, “Death Be Not Proud,” we selected Donne’s Funeral Elegy, written for the funeral memorial for the 14 year old daughter of his patron – Elizabeth Druery – and Holy Sonnet #10. I wrote previously about her distinct input into changing the direction of this setting – from SATB to SSA – as well as the form – from vocal fugue to a traditional ode setting that captured the essence of the junior high select women’s choruses that had been such an integral portion of our lives, and best suited our daughters’ abilities. The adaptation of the texts and abbreviation was done to highlight the mission we still had before us…to continue her legacy of inspiring good, as our friend put so eloquently last October. The accompaniment was actually written by her, once I had harmonized the melody we collaborated on. The accompaniment was written in the same style she had done an arrangement of Silent Night for just weeks before her diagnosis and she wanted it to be reminiscent of a harp accompanying an angels’ chorus, out of respect for the young woman who I had been assigned to be mentor for in the Boston University doctoral program in music education. This phenomenal musician was a brilliant harpist who was also a part of the Boston Bruins’ Ice Girls! (Which, because of our joint interest in all things hockey, was why she was assigned to me…as well as her interest in identity formation and ideation among adolescents). My wife loved her because in one of our first online mentoring sessions, this young woman told me how much she appreciated my advice and input, and stated she thought I was very wise. I asked her to hold that thought, called my wife into the room, and asked her to repeat what she had just said to me…This was their first meeting. My mentee, in a nod to how intuitive and intelligent she clearly is, looked straight into her webcam and said “I told him to listen to EVERYTHING you had to say!” My wife laughed so hard and so long (because she knew this woman had just trolled me) her sides ached for much of the remainder of the evening!
So that’s it. The story of the compositional process. We have decided together that we will give the score of this piece to any organization/school that is interested in performing it. We would, of course, like to have any donation made to the scholarship fund that is deemed appropriate. We know, through years of service in inner city schools that administrations tend to look on choral programs as cheap alternatives to band and push back against any funding request. We always struggled to get our administrators to fund the cost of new music…usually between $60-90 per song title for a classroom set of 40 copies. Please note that it is a violation of federal copyright law to purchase one octavo and make photocopies for students. Such usage is not covered under the fair and educational usage provision of existing copyright law. Composers and arrangers are entitled to make a fair living. Regardless, our publishing company, SARABRIK, will provide enough student copies of the complete score, with duplication and performance rights to any organization. (It would make a nice gift to your local school’s choral program, BTW!) Additionally, I am willing to video conference with any conductor or group interested in performing the work, free of charge. The schools that had begun work on “The Abler Soul” and “The Vow” were visibly moved – well, the girls were in tears, anyway, as they learned of the grounds for, and meaning of, the lyrics. I had to fight back the urge to laugh out loud as I heard the atypical junior high girls’ chorus of a sobbing “Awwwwww!” Please message me here if you are interested and I can contact you to set up the details, or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Below are the lyrics for the trilogy in performance order, as well as the audio files. Happy anniversary my love. Truly. You’re the BEST thing that ever happened to me!
Stood they two, to speak one vow.
Swore they two, to love as long as soul’s life did allow.
Blood of my blood, bone of my bone,
I give ye my body that we might be one (that we might be one)
I give ye my spirit ‘til our life be done (‘til our life be done)
Each one was perfect, in the other’s eyes
And joyfully both surrendered to love (surrendered to love)
Thus love and time forgave each other’s flaws
As stars crossed the night skies above
When love and years had claimed their due
They smiled in silence, those two
He bent and kissed her, their faces lined
If my last words ae not “I love you” (I love you)
I Love You
You’ll know I didn’t have time, my love.
My love, it wasn’t enough time.
The Abler Soul
Sat we two, one another’s best.
Sat we two, as she prepared for body’s final rest
And whilst our souls negotiate there
We, like sepulchral statues lay
All day the same, our postures were
And we said nothing all the day (nothing all the day)
If only so by love refined
That he soul’s language understood,
And by good love were grown all mind
Within convenient distance stood
When love with one another so interinanimates two souls,
That abler soul which thence doth flow
Defects of loneliness controls
For once completed spire doth allow the bell to ring
The lovers need not the scaffolding!
Death Be Not Proud
She did no more than die
If after her any shall live
Which dare true good prefer (good prefer)
For ev’ry such soul is her delegate
To accomplish that which should have been her fate
For future virtuous deeds are legacies
Which from the gift of her example rise (her example rise)
And ‘tis in heav’n part of spir’tual mirth
To see how well the good play her on earth
The good play her on earth
Death be not proud
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
She dies not!