One week ago, I was sitting in the pews for a very special and moving funeral service. It was for Gail Roth, the daughter of Bill Roth – the longtime organist at Carthage and someone I have such fond feelings for. It has been over three decades since Bill and his wife Carol received the news that their daughter had MS, and they have been contending with the heartache of that ever since. I had only known Gail in the context of MS, so it was so interesting to hear about what her life was like before the disease struck – and of course to hear about all she accomplished and was still hoping to accomplish made all of this still more tragic. And yet, the service was conceived as a celebration more than anything – if one of those services where one is almost constantly brushing new tears away. (My former music colleague, Dick Sjoerdsma- a very close friend of Bill’s – told me after the service that he still vividly remembers the day when Bill showed up for their weekly tennis match with the staggering news that Gail had just been diagnosed with MS. That was 33 years ago, but Dr. Sjoerdsma says he remembers it as though it were yesterday.
It was a beautiful service in so many ways, but what was especially astonishing was that Bill himself played for the funeral. Any number of colleagues and friends of BIll would have gladly stepped in – including me – but Bill decided fairly early on that he wanted to and needed to play for this funeral. And it got me thinking about the funerals for close friends and family that I have experienced . . . and of how in nearly every case I have done more than just sit in the pew as a mourner. One of the first cases that comes to mind is when our beloved doctor in Atlantic, Einer Juel, died quite suddenly and tragically. I was the organist for that amazing funeral (I can still remember rows an rows of nurses, each dressed in their finest starched uniforms standing at attention during both the processional and recessional) and I would guess that this was the very first time that I had to try and play organ with tears in my eyes. I’ve been blessed to have suffered few losses over the years, although I did lose my mom very suddenly in 1988. I think a lot of people were astonished when my siblings and I walked out at the start of that funeral to sing one of my mom’s favorite songs, “There’s a Quiet Understanding.” It seemed to everyone like this amazing feat of emotional strength, but truth be told it felt good to be offering something and to really be a part of the proceedings. For the funerals of my close friends Everetta McQuestion, Bill Guy and Playford Thorsen, I delivered the eulogy . . . and actually for Playford’s I did quite a lot of the music as well . . . and I think being busy with many and various responsibilities was actually the very best for me to handle such a moment. On the other hand, all I remember doing for Kathy’s mom’s funeral is sitting in the pew, grieving – which was so much tougher than having a role in the proceedings aside from mourner.
So I guess I can understand how Bill wanted to be on the bench for this funeral. (And as the pastor told us in his sermon, when he asked Bill if he really thought he would be strong and steady enough to play organ for the service, Bill replied that he and his wife had already cried all of their tears long ago.”) It probably provided him some comfort for him in being able to do something and to be a tangible part of the celebration of their daughter’s life.
But I can’t help but wonder what would it feel like to sit on the piano bench for your own daughter’s funeral. It seems like there would be an especially heavy weight of responsibility weighing you down – although you would never guess it from the way Bill played. it was probably the best I have ever heard him play. . . and how neat a tribute from dad to daugher is that?
pictured above: this is a photograph which shows Gail and her dad on the occasion of her graduation from college. It’s an image of Utter Joy, but I think it’s worth thinking about how neither Bill nor Gail had any idea of what was in store for them when this picture was taken of them. (it was part of a neat collage of pictures at the church.) And thus life is- sometimes over in a flash and sometimes in excruciatingly slow motion . . . sometimes SO predictable and sometimes a wild unexpected ride.