The unthinkable happened this week: A little boy, not even three, succumbed to cancer. His name was Charlie and he’d been in my music class, just like his big sister Bella before him. He had huge brown eyes and a sweet smile under a mop of dirty blonde hair. He also had a tumor high up on his spinal chord.
I saw the family on the sidewalk, coming home from that dreadful final hospital trip, and joined them for some quiet tears. Charlie’s mom told me that he’d been a big fan of mine. “He thought you were the best,” she said. I told him I was glad I got to know him.
My own child was with me at that moment; we’d been out for a stroll. He was bounding and bouncing as usual, utterly full of life. I felt so horrible at that moment, because I had my son and they didn’t have theirs. More importantly, though, I felt a huge surge of love and gratitude that I still had this warm little hand gripped in mine. I cried all the way home; my son asked why I was laughing, bless his heart.
The next day I got a call from a friend of Charlie’s family, asking if I’d be willing to sing a couple of Charlie’s favorite songs at his memorial service. I told her I’d be honored, which is true–but I kept to myself the fact that I had NO IDEA what I could possibly sing at this service. I sing children’s songs, for pete’s sakes… goofy ones! How could I dare intrude on this family’s grief with some stupid ditty?
I anguished over it the rest of the weekend. The family seemed eager to have me there, which I couldn’t fathom. Fortunately, I was given a request: “Apples and Cherries,” a lovely melody that can be sung in a round like “Row Your Boat.” I thought that would sound nice with the whole congregation joining in. But I’d been asked to do up to three song and I was stymied. Should I sing the traditional Music Together “Hello Song?” Maybe a lullaby? I had no clue. Fortunately I’ve been blessed with an intelligent and empathic spouse who reminds me, at times like these, to quit worrying and be myself. If I just trusted in the universe the right course would present itself.
The church was packed with folks; it was a beautiful showing of love and community support. The line of friends and neighbors waiting to enter and pay their respects went way around the block. Once inside, I asked Charlie’s nanny what songs Charlie liked and she said “Ram Sam Sam.” I mulled that one over… and it seemed right, somehow.
Four friends and neighbors of the family got up and spoke and led prayers, and then it was my turn. Surrendering to the will of the Universe meant I didn’t rehearse any speeches or eulogies–and I had some good ones gearing up in my head. But I had been asked to sing, not talk, so I grabbed the guitar, invited the kids up to the front, and did my thing.
“Ram Sam Sam” turned out to be a good choice. The “Hello Song” would have seemed trite, I think, but a nonsense song like “Ram Sam Sam,” with everyone waving their arms frantically, actually worked to give people a little release. Then I led everyone in two-part harmony on “Apples and Cherries” and they sounded just as good as I’d hoped. I closed by asking everyone to go home and make music with their loved ones.
They ended the service by giving all the kids balloons to release outside. My son let go of his prematurely and cried, but a nice girl gave him another one and we launched them all over the rooftops and waved goodbye. It was sweet and touching.
Here’s what Charlie’s parents posted on their CaringBridge page after the memorial:
Tonight we celebrated Charlie’s life. The church was filled with people who all felt some connection to Charlie’s life and who understood, while we all will mourn for Charlie in our way and for different durations, tonight was not about mourning. Tonight was about acknowledging the life of a very special boy. It was about reminding his mom and sister and dad just how many people cared about the life and passing of Charlie. It was about celebrating the strength and frailty of children and making sure that the community of children that Charlie left behind felt that it is okay to laugh and sing in his absence and that there are still good times ahead for all of them. It was meant to diffuse fear and uncertainty for children trying to understand what it means to never see a friend again. Mostly, for us, beyond the amount of love and support we felt tonight, it was about letting his very special sister know that Charlie left his mark on so many people and that, like them, it is okay to cry and sing in Charlie’s name.
Several people have thanked me for leading the singing at the service; everyone seems to agree that it was just right. All I can say is, I hope I NEVER get good at that sort of thing.
“The death of a baby is like a stone cast into the stillness of a quiet pool; the concentric ripples of despair sweep out in all directions, affecting many, many people.” – John Defrain, 1991
We’ll always love you and miss you, Charlie. Thanks for making music with me in the too-short time you were given.
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