Haute Dish The Arts & Literature Magazine of Metropolitan State University Icicles
Spring 2005


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Amazing Grace
By Jeanne Burns

Morphine for the pain and Ativan, which didn’t help at all, for the nausea and vomiting, kept me well sedated for those seven weeks in the hospital. Because of the drugs and perhaps the pain, I remember nothing from the bone marrow transplant except the singing.

I would hear them before I was fully awake, the high notes teasing me out of my stupor. I’d open my eyes and see them clad in t-shirts pleading for peace in Palestine or justice for Mumia, dusty jeans that were repaired in the most worn places and thick rubber-soled sandals. Their smell of sweat and suntan lotion was a welcome respite from disinfectant. The songs they sang had lines like, “Love, like the yellow daffodil that’s coming through the snow,” and “More love, the heavens are blessing, the angels are sighing oh Zion more love,” and even “We sit down to have a chat, it’s F-word this and F-word that. I can’t control how you young people talk to one another, but I don’t want to hear you use that F-word with your mother.”

They were from my Quaker Meeting and had volunteered to support me through the leukemia treatment by providing visits, scheduling other visitors and being my advocates when I wasn’t able to advocate for myself. Jane, one of the people on my committee, says that my breathing got easier, my heart rate slowed down and I became calm when they would sing to me.

Jane was just over six feet tall, with curly red hair like a waterfall of fire. Her laugh often shook the walls and embarrassed those who didn’t know her and even some who did. One day that fall, after the bone marrow transplant, I was in Jane’s kitchen while she was cooking. Herbs were simmering in an old cast iron skillet and the air was infused with basil and garlic. I thought that I couldn’t have dreamed up a better friend.

Then she invited me to Nightingales.

“They meet three weekends a year to sing on family farms across Minnesota and Wisconsin”, she explained. She turned her focus from the skillet to the greens and her knife beat in time to “Alleluia, the great storm is over, lift up your wings and fly,” before she pled "You'll be well enough to go to the gathering in Madison in April. Please come."

Jane was hard to say no to. But I insisted, “I don’t sing.” I explained that it was fifth grade when I learned the awful truth about myself. I was lying on my mother’s bed, my chin in my hands and my feet bouncing up and down up and down as she changed her clothes. I saw her scowl in the mirror and knew that my news was going to cheer her up.

“I made the choir, mommy,” I exclaimed, grinning.

My heart sank when she turned to me and said in a southern drawl, “You’ve got to be kidding. You cain’t sing,” as she laughed. Then she added as her frown deepened, “I won’t go see you perform because I would be so ashamed to see you up there on stage.”

Afterwards, I was lying on my own bed and added her new judgment of me to the list in my head, right below, “Why can’t you be more like Debbie, more charming and happy?” and “You cain’t do anything right, can you?” and “You’re such a pig, you eat anything that’s put in front of you, don’t you?”

She wasn’t at my bedside during the transplant because I didn’t want her judgment. I needed healing, not her criticisms. I am a lot like my mother and I wonder if, when I was a child, my mother saw herself in me. I wonder if I was a mirror of my mother’s shame of herself.

“I never sang after that,” I told Jane.

She wrapped me in her arms in a way that only mothers know how to do and whispered, “That doesn’t matter with Nightingales. We love you just the way you are.”

Jane released me, returned to stirring her sauce and continued, “Come with us tomorrow night to sing to Jean. You remember how wonderful it was to be sung to, don’t you?”

I did and wanted to give back some of what I got, so I went. Jean, a member of our Quaker Meeting, had been found unconscious on her kitchen floor three days after she’d had a stroke. Her family was going to take her off life support and we were going to sing to her.

My voice was barely a whisper among the eight or so who gathered around Jean’s sterile bed. I sang like I go through a red light at three in the morning—hoping and praying that I don’t get caught. Jean’s family hovered just outside her doorway, unsure of who this queer group of people singing their beloved into death were. Our singing was tentative at first but we built up to a crescendo with “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see…” and “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand…” Jean’s family slowly migrated to her bedside and began crying out their grief. My tears and sobs were not only grief for Jean but gratitude for how far I had already come with the help of these people who could both chase death away and walk you to its door.

Jane spent the next few months pestering me to go to Nightingales because she could see that I was touched when we sang to Jean. I relented the following spring and went to my first Nightingales event.

I was intimidated by people who not only could sing, but know about a million songs off the top of their heads. There’s Janet who had a four inch three ring binder filled with songs. And Judith who could just sing any part she pleases without looking at a single note. There is Tim, an eleven year old, who left his skateboard and friends behind for the weekend to sing. I think that I could never be good enough to be part of this group.

Until we sang Amazing Grace, that is. There was a woman singing the highest harmony to that song and I flinched when she slid off key. I looked around but no one seemed to have noticed. I heard my mother’s voice in my head saying, “How can they stand to sing with her? She sounds awful!” I stilled my voice and mouthed the words again, afraid of singing the wrong notes.

We crowded into the living room of this cavernous Madison farmhouse. Flesh touched flesh as we squeezed each person into this space and our closeness makes the room seem tiny. I watched people in between songs sharing their lives with each other, sharing new found music, or just being quiet. We moved into song after song and then moved into silence as if that is what we really came here for.

In the quiet, a book got pulled out, and everyone settled in for this ritual. Hans Christian Anderson's The Nightingale was passed around the circle and read. I watched each reader intently. For some it was easy but others of us donned glasses or brought the book a little closer to see the words. Some read confidently and some heard whispers of encouragement as their confidence faltered. I fingered the tattered book cover that felt like well-worn jeans while I read aloud.

When I passed it to the next person, I realized that I’m like the people in this story who became disenchanted with the Nightingale’s song when a mechanical one was made that reproduced the bird’s song more precisely than she herself can sing. I realized too that I wanted a more mechanical, perfect mother.

Over several years I gained more confidence and settled into singing with the Nightingales. I eventually sang in a gospel choir.

I didn’t tell my mother that I sing until one month before I perform with the choir. We were on the on-ramp to I-95, headed south to I don’t know where.

"Um, I'm performing next month with them, mom. I'm in the tenor section."

“You cain’t sing, can you?” she asked, surprised. These five words were said and was a child again. I was no longer blind to the mirror that my mother was for me, however. At that moment, I was released from my desire to sing perfectly because I was able to forgive her. I knew then that I wouldn’t tell her that I’d forgiven her because I realized that my forgiveness of her wasn’t for her, it was for me. Holding on to my old wounds was only hurting me.

I am in remission from leukemia as I write this. When I look up the word “remission” in the dictionary, I discover that one definition is “forgiveness of sins or transgressions,” and comes from the French word meaning “to let go”. The transplant wasn’t easy and forgiveness wasn’t easy. But singing is, so I sing as much as I can. It helps me let go of my pain and find the grace that the most famous of hymns talks about.

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