Friday, December 21, 2007

La Natividad: Year 2

Last year, I wrote about participating in La Natividad, the Christmas show of In the Heart of the Beast Puppet & Mask Theater. This year, I am reprising my role as the Star of the East. The critics have been generous: "Brilliant!" "A leading role." "A rising star." "If you're wise, you'll go see it, too."

We're doing six shows this year -- all sold out before Dec. 1 -- after so many people were disappointed that they couldn't get into last year's. It is essentially the same show as last year, with the addition of one more stop on the Posada: Just after leaving the theater on our way to St. Paul's, José goes to the door of a neighbor of the theater to ask for shelter as the choir (and audience) sings the Posada song. She comes out and in her best old lady scolding voice says "No! No! I haven't any room" as a choir member sings (in English), "You cannot stay here, this is not an inn. There is no room, your story is thin. You will rob me, then you'll run away. You cannot stay here. Go away, go away, go away!"

The most touching part for me happens at St. Paul's when, through a nice bit of stagecraft, the masked
José y Maria are replaced with a flesh-and-blood couple holding a real baby. The switcheroo can't be seen by the audience until the right moment when the adoring animals and wise men part, and when they realize what's happened and see the living actors and baby there's a spontaneous "ohhhh" that fills the church. I tear up every time. I realized tonight that this is what happens whenever we are able to break through the masquerade of religion and illusion and encounter the Living God on the other side.

We have one more show tomorrow (Dec. 22), and then we're done. I've gotten to know some of the other performers better, having so many more times to hang around together.

There are some very nice photos here. (This is to the Star Tribune's site and I don't know how long this link will work.)

I hope everyone reading this will have a happy Christmas.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears. . . .

On Oct. 17, Lovely Wife's mother, Barbara, died in her bed, here in our home, shortly before sunrise. She was a few days past her 86 1/2 birthday.

Her death was not unexpected, but we didn't expect it that Wednesday morning. This once vibrant, energetic, astute, intelligent woman had been in a steady state of physical and mental decline for perhaps 15 years, being confined to a wheelchair and bed for more than half that time. Although early on it looked as if she had Alzheimer's disease, her doctor eventually diagnosed her with Lewy's Body Disease, which has similar symptoms. The main difference, in her case, was that she never got the zombie-like, nobody's-at-home consciousness that most Alzheimer's patients develop. Right up to the end she was able to communicate fluently with her eyes, expressing delight, distress, humor, and other emotions, which made living with her and her disability much less burdensome than it might have otherwise been.

She had lived with us since Christmas 1999, meaning for most of our children's lives. They each had a special and loving relationship with here that was a blessing to everyone.

While Lovely Wife took on the main caregiving responsibilities, her sister visited several times a year to let us go to Yearly Meeting or FGC Gathering, professional conferences, and occasional weekends away. Her two brothers were also generous in their help. This, plus a thousand small favors from friends and neighbors over the years helped us feel connected and supported.

While Barbara's health had been in long slow decline for years, she was remarkably durable. She must have had a sturdy constitution, but we also think that her steady diet of applesauce and Spirutein (at least five bowls a day) had a lot to do with it. So did the social engagement she had to endure as we schlepped her to meeting, card games, concerts and plays, school events, and other parts of our busy social lives. Whatever it was, she just kept on kicking, though always in a long, slow slide.

Earlier this year, she did develop a pressure sore that was life-threatening, and in July began to get help from a hospice program. Having this extra help in our home was very welcome, but as these things go her supposedly un-healable and fatal sore began to get better, resulting in her being removed from hospice a week or so before her death.

I need to say that, for all of my sometimes petulant criticism of modern-day Quakers, our Meeting sure came through with what we needed, and we feel deeply grateful. One dear Friend, Elizabeth, happened by our home the morning Barbara died to pick up a book, and she stayed a while and was wonderfully helpful in practical ways. Always a steady presence, Elizabeth reminded us we needn't hurry to notify the police of the death and encouraged us to just sit for a while. So we did. And we sang a little, watching the sun shine on her face through the window and reflect off the blue blanket that covered her body. (Blue was always Barbara's color.) As we did, we noticed that Barbara's wrinkles seemed to smooth out and she became more beautiful and at peace. Elizabeth also helped me do a little electrical task in the basement before leaving. After she left, a neighbor brought over meat-and-cheese sandwiches and apple pie. Never underestimate the power of simple, practical help.

Once we set a date for the memorial meeting (a month out due to one brother being in Australia and needing time to make travel arrangements) a representative of Ministry and Counsel came over and helped us with planning details. It is amazing how many small decisions and things need to be done even for a very simple and straightforward Quaker memorial meeting, and it was helpful to be guided through them efficiently and without pressure.

The memorial meeting was held on a Saturday morning, and it couldn't have been more powerful. We were so grateful that such a large number of Friends from the meeting came to it -- about 70 -- considering that except for one Friend who knew here from the 1980s in Ann Arbor, my parents, and her immediate family, no one in the Meeting knew Barbara as a fully functioning person, but only as a disabled, non-verbal old woman. But the presence of so many Friends confirmed for us visibly the feeling we had had over the years that Barbara had, indeed, connected with others, that her beauty and light and grace shone through her diminishment and touched others in a deep place. We also understood and felt the love of those who recognized and honored Lovely Wife's extraordinary caregiving. The vocal ministry, which included messages from each of her four children and one grandchild, was rooted and strong.

It was also exciting to have a house full of relatives for a long weekend -- fourteen of us in all, in a house not built for that many. But it was cozy and informal and lively and exactly like Barbara would have wanted it to be. It seemed very quiet after everyone left.

Although Barbara usually loved music, and especially when Lovely Wife and I would sing to her, she was never very fond of Sacred Harp music. I could tell. Nevertheless, we invited 14 Quaker Sacred Harp singers over two nights after her death to sing, and it was wonderfully healing, to me at least. One of my favorite songs is Northfield (155), which is a simple but powerful fuging tune. The Cooper revision of the Sacred Harp has a verse (from Revelation 21:4) that I always like to sing to Northfield which is not in the Denson revision:

His own soft hand shall wipe the tears from every weeping eye,
And pains and groans and griefs and fears,
And Death itself shall die; and Death itself shall die.

I was also reminded of the wisdom of the line from Odem 340:

Give me the roses while I live,
Something to cheer me on,
Useless the flowers you may give,
After the soul is gone.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007