“Why does my heart go on beating? Why do these eyes of mine cry? Don’t they know it’s the end of the world. It ended when you said goodbye” (“End of the World” written by Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee and recorded by Skeeter Davis in 1962).
When our 30-year-old daughter, Maria, fell victim to cancer in late January of last year, I found myself singing various songs to help me through the days that followed. Some were popular songs I remembered from my youth. Others were modern songs that reminded me of Maria. Still others were traditional Christian songs that we had sung together in church during her growing years or during her final 30 days in the hospital. All of these songs helped me or haunted me in different ways.
“I wake up in the morning, and I wonder why everything’s the same as it was. I can’t understand. No, I can’t understand why life goes on the way it does” (“End of the World” written by Arthur Kent and Sylvia Dee and recorded by Skeeter Davis in 1962).
I have always been a singer, even though I don’t have a great voice. When I was about ten years old, in fact, and preparing to sing at church with all of the other altar boys, one of the nuns sidled up to me and said, “Jim, just move your lips.” Despite that early end to my public singing career, I have continued to hum or sing as I go through my daily activities. I can vividly recall singing Beatles’ songs to myself in 1964 as I sat in the rear corner of my seventh-grade classroom. I also remember being inspired in 1969 at the age of 18 by the words of Mama Cass when she sang, “You gotta make your own kind of music, sing your own special song, make your own kind of music, even if nobody else sings along” (“Make Your Own Kind of Music” written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil).
So as Maria was growing up with her younger sister, Katrina, they always heard me singing to them at home or in the car. Naturally, I often sang the “Maria” songs from West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, 1956) and the Sound of Music (music by Richard Rogers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein, 1959). But I also sang about the musical girlfriends of my youth: “Michelle” by the Beatles (written by Paul McCartney and John Lennon, 1965), “Barbara Ann” by the Beach Boys (written by Fred Fassert, 1965), and “Dawn” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (written by Bob Gaudio and Sandy Linzer, 1964).
As Maria began listening to music from her own generation, she seemed to prefer songs from movies or music from church. For example, she especially enjoyed the soundtrack from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991) and later the soundtrack from A Walk to Remember with Mandy Moore (2002). In church, she enjoyed some of the traditional hymns like “Amazing Grace” (written by John Newton in 1779), yet she also liked modern praise songs such as “I Can Only Imagine” by Mercy Me (written by Bart Millard in 2001).
Thus, I found myself singing to Maria some of these songs during the too-long days and nights when she rested in her hospital bed, trying to find a comfortable position or simply trying to deal with her pain. Some nights, she seemed to be enjoying my Dylanesque renditions of these songs, but at other times, she’d hand me her smart phone and ask me to find the new Christian music of Lauren Daigle or Jason Upton or the country music of Carrie Underwood. Finally, some nights, she wanted no music at all, content to enjoy the silence or perhaps her own quiet reverie.
When Maria passed, obviously, I could no longer sing to comfort her. Instead, I sang to comfort myself. At first, I reverted again to the songs from my youth. Though many of these songs were actually break-up songs, their sad lyrics were fittingly appropriate because my Maria had, indeed, left me. Though I had not regularly heard the music of Gerry and the Pacemakers in over 50 years, their lyrics rose up in my brain and in my heart as I pondered Maria’s passing.
“Your heart may be broken tonight, but tomorrow in the morning light, don’t let the sun catch you crying. Don’t let the sun catch you crying, oh no. Oh. Oh. Oh” (“Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” written by Gerry Marsden in 1964).
The daytime hours, of course, could not prevent me from crying. I cried often — and everywhere — as I drove around town past the schools Maria attended, the tennis courts where she practiced her backhand, and the bakery and the coffee shop where she worked part-time. I cried, and, I remembered another song, this one recorded by Dionne Warwick in 1967.
“There’s always something there to remind me I was born to love you, and I will never be free. You’ll always be a part of me. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa” (“There’s Always Something There to Remind Me,” music by Burt Bachrach with lyrics by Hal David, 1967).
During most of Maria’s hospital stay, my wife, Barbara, and I were hopeful and optimistic. We assumed once the doctors discovered the problem, they would also prescribe a plan of treatment, and Maria would walk through it and survive. Barbara herself is a cancer survivor, so we had witnessed and experienced the healing powers of modern medicine. In Maria’s case, however, the previously undetected breast cancer had spread to her brain, and Maria left us, even though she herself had proclaimed, “But I am too young to die.”
Since Maria’s passing came quickly and shocked us, we took our time planning her memorial service. We didn’t want to rush, and we wanted to make sure most of our relatives could attend. As a result, we had three weeks to plan the music, and we chose some of Maria’s favorites and also songs that would comfort us.
We began with three worship songs: “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (written by Thomas Chisholm with music by William Runyan in 1923), “Bless the Lord, Oh My Soul” (written by Matt Redman and Jonas Myrin in 2012), and “Jesus Paid It All” (written by Kristian Stanfill in 2006). Later in the service, we listened to a song I had requested, “Pomp and Circumstance” (written by Sir Edward Elgar in 1901), a song I had played as a boy taking piano lessons and later listened to annually at the graduation ceremonies for the students in my high-school and college English classes. I wanted this particular song because Maria, too, was a teacher, and her memorial service celebrated her final graduation, a journey from this life into the loving arms of her eternal Creator, Jesus Christ.
Finally, the service closed with a hymn written in 1873 by Horatio Spafford called “It Is Well with My Soul” (with music by Philip Bliss). Spafford, a Chicago lawyer and businessman, wrote this song after his four daughters had drowned following a collision at sea on a journey from America to Europe: “When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrow like sea billows roll, Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.”
When Maria was alive and we sang this song in church, we were both amazed that this man could still praise God, just as Job did, in the midst of such suffering. Yet, these days, I, too, sing those same lyrics. Though I miss my Maria terribly, the haunting music and faithful words have helped me to remember that Maria is no longer suffering. Instead, she has fulfilled her destiny, the one that God had planned for her all along when He knit her bones together in her mother’s womb over 30 years ago.
And I? I go on with Barbara and Katrina, and we remember our beautiful little girl: “Maria, say it loud, and there’s music playing; say it soft, and it’s almost like praying. Maria, I will never stop saying Maria” (“Maria,” music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, 1956).