Amen – a fugue story.

This past fall I rejoined the Marshall University Choral Union, a choir open to the public and comprised of an eclectic mix of college students participating for credit, retirees, and a smattering of musically-interested folks in the ages between. We sang Handel’s Messiah, which I had sung with Choral Union years before. But this semester was with a different conductor, and we were singing some different pieces, so it was a welcome mixture of familiar and new. Instead of ending with the Part II, concluding with the famed Hallelujah Chorus, our conductor picked various movements throughout and concluded with the true end – Part III – Amen.

The Amen fugue is a difficult, rambling piece in the best of conditions. Add to that the fact that we practiced all semester in a classroom, but were performing in an old soaring church sanctuary with different acoustics, seating arrangements, and alongside the symphony orchestra and we were a mess. Dress rehearsal was a disaster. The night of the performance we arrived early to warm up and review some of the more difficult parts of the work, including the Amen fugue. It was passable, but we were still having difficulty hearing ourselves and finding some notes. I sang at a whisper for much of the piece.

Between rehearsal and the concert we were all gathered in a back room chatting about holiday plans. The conductor, Dr. Wray, came in to give us some practical instructions, and then addressed Amen. “You have practiced this all semester, and have done the work you need to prepare. So now you have to relax and just enjoy the performance. Is it going to be perfect? No! Will there be mistakes? Absolutely! So know that you are going to mess up and just have fun. Don’t hold your score with white knuckles, nervous about making a mistake – that will only make things worse. We will make mistakes. So just have a good time.”

We took a collective sigh of relief. He was right, of course, in so many ways. Don’t we all white-knuckle things that we have absolutely no control over? Of course we should plan and prepare and do our very best work. But when our “very best” effort makes the final product worse because of hand-wringing, what do we accomplish? A tight-throated performance devoid of joy, that’s what. (Literally, in this case, and figuratively otherwise).

It was not perfect. But it was significantly better than our ramshackle rehearsal. And we finished smiling.

Just a little cancer.

In late summer 2013, my mom was experiencing some symptoms that sent her to her doctor to be examined. He was concerned, so scheduled her for some tests, including a biopsy. So one afternoon while strolling the aisle of Target, my phone rings. My mom had just finished her follow-up appointment.

“How’d it go?” I asked.
Mom: “It went well.”
“What did the doctor say?”
Mom: “Well, he referred me to an oncologist.”
Mom: “I just have a little cancer. My doctor is very optimistic and thinks we caught it early enough that it should be easy to treat. He isn’t worried at all, so I’m not either.”

At this point I am trying to choke back tears in the toilet paper aisle. My mom wasn’t crying, and I didn’t want to make her upset, so after a few more questions I told her I loved her, that I would call later, and we said goodbye. It might be helpful to know that this is not at all out of character for my mom. She is not, by nature, a worrier. “She wouldn’t care if it snowed oats” comes to mind. She is consistently optimistic, always quick to laugh, and is generally not rattled. I am the opposite of all of these things.

I pushed the cart slowly down the aisle with my mind in a fog and trying to hold back the inevitable stream of tears. Providentially, I turned the corner and nearly ran smack into my dear friend Amy. She hugged me and asked how I was and I blurted out, “My mom has cancer!” and explained the call I had just received, among a stream of tears. She then said she was going to hug me again and gracefully let me spill it all by the display of t-shirts she was browsing. I am certain if she hadn’t been there I would have mindlessly wandered the aisles of Target spilling tears like Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs.

After a visit to the oncologist, my mom was scheduled for a hysterectomy. It was endometrial cancer. An if-you-have-cancer-it’s-the-kind-you-want cancer. Because the uterus is functionally a container, it often does a good job of containing cancer.

In mid-October, the night before her surgery, my brother and sister-in-law, Melody, brought over a piñata Melody had made. It was in the shape of a uterus. They hung it up on the porch and mom took a stick and beat the piñata with all her strength, laughing mightily. She was symbolically beating cancer. We were all praying that to be literally the case as well.

The surgery went well. We took turns staying with her throughout her recovery. The cancer appeared not to have spread, but the doctor sent several lymph nodes in to pathology to be sure.

A few weeks later mom called. The pathology report was clear – she was officially cancer-free. She said she cried when she got the news. Which seems about right – the only time she cried the cancer were tears of gratitude when it was over.

May we all be as brave as my mom – full of grace and infectious laughter and faith and gratitude. And I will forever be grateful to Melody for reminding us to have fun in the midst of uncertainty. Because truly, we are all in the midst of uncertainty.