Yesterday I had the tough assignment of singing for the funeral of Joan Anzalone, a Racine woman who was killed last weekend in a helicopter crash. She was traveling with her fiancee in a small helicopter when its engine suddenly failed and it crashed right into a house where a family of five was sleeping peacefully. Incredibly, that family survived and no one even suffered injuries to speak of. But the two people in the helicopter were both killed. Her parents apparently had heard me sing and requested me, and it just so happened that my Carthage schedule did accommodate this, and I was able to oblige.
Sadly, I awoke Friday morning with a terrible cold – the worst I’ve had in years – and was tempted to bow out, but hated to disappoint the family. So I did some warm up and eventually figured out that I could still sing the requested piece- Cesar Franck’s “Panis Angelicus”- if I transposed down a fifth. (Instead of starting it on the “a” below middle C, I started on the “d” below middle C.) So that’s what I did, and I was glad that I was able to do what I had promised to do. It turned out to be a far tougher assignment than I had anticipated. I didn’t know this woman, so I was not feeling any sort of first-hand grief. But as four different people stepped forward to share their eulogies, I came to realize that this was a very special person who had been killed and had left behind her a gaping void in the lives of those who loved her, and by the time it came for me to sing, I was fighting off waves of grief and sorrow for someone I had never met. (Echoes of singing for the memorial service for the Carthage freshman who died the same day his parents had dropped him off on campus.)
One thing really struck me – and that is how two of the four people who went forward to speak had their spouse come up there with them, in case they couldn’t finish the eulogy themselves. As it turns out, they did manage somehow to muscle their way through to the end… wavering but not breaking down… but I kept thinking about that spouse standing right behind them and just off to the side, ready to step in if necessary. . . and of how comforting it had to be to know that they were there, just in case.
I’ve delivered two eulogies in my life. . . one for Everetta McQuestion – an older woman who had been an amazing fixture in the fine arts community in Kenosha, and a dear friend . . .and the other for Bill Guy, the news director at WGTD. In both cases, I walked up to the podium, cleared my throat, and proceeded to go to pieces. I have no idea how long it took me to finally begin speaking – and it makes me wish that it had occurred to me to bring Kathy up there with me, who was in the congregation for both funerals. I guess I was determined to be the tough guy- and that certainly turned out to be a poor plan of action. Sorrow is such an interesting emotion, especially for the way it surges when we least expect it.
Anyway, it felt good to be able to deliver “Panis Angelicus” to this grieving family. Later that night, for a Broadway night at Tremper High School, I sang “Old Man River” – down a perfect fourth. That means that instead of starting on low G, I started on low D . . . which is roughly a sound that only dogs can hear. . . but that was the only way I could get through the climax at the end. As I sang that – and the Franck earlier in the day – I realized maybe for the first time in my life that one of the scary things and exhilarating things about singing a solo is that no one can do it for you. It is just you and the song. . . and it is up to you. Sure, all kinds of people have helped bring you to the point of being able to sing- past voice teachers, music teachers, pianists, other singers . . . but in that moment when the audience grows silent and it’s time to open your mouth, it is entirely up to you what the next sound is that people will hear. I remember once sportscaster Jim McKay, while offering some color commentary on figure skating, called it “perhaps the loneliest sport in the world.” And there’s some truth to that, I suppose. There is this small army of coaches, nutritionists, choreographers, etc. who have gotten you this far, but then you step out on to that ice all by yourself, and it is up to you to land that triple lutz. No one else can land it for you. That’s how I felt yesterday, battling this horrible cold- so anxious to sing – well aware that I couldn’t sing anywhere close to my best – and just hoping that grit and determination and smarts would get me through.
pictured: one of the people giving a eulogy at the Anzalone funeral – with their husband standing just to the side of them, ready to step in if need be. (It wasn’t.) The funeral was at Emmanuel Lutheran Church on the north side of Racine.