By Barb Arland-Fye
Tom was sleeping, wearing the familiar gray stocking cap over his bald head, as members of his parish choir, the choir he sang in with such dedication, lifted him up in song in his hospice suite. His wife Janice sat in a chair beside him, stroking his shoulder beneath the colorful quilt that covered him.
We watched him breathe in and out as we sang; his light snoring transitioned to a different sound, as if Tom were singing along with us! One of Tom’s favorite hymns is “Beyond the Moon and Stars.” I sang with a deeper appreciation for the message the lyrics convey. “… The sparrow finds her home, beneath your wing. So may we come to rest where angels sing.”
Janice, tears streaming down her face, recorded us on her smart phone. Tom’s ordeal with cancer began so suddenly and with such ferocity late last fall. A lean, youthful looking 60-year-old with curly blond hair, Tom appeared thin but otherwise healthy when he sang with us at the Christmas Eve Mass at Our Lady of the River Church in LeClaire.
At the hospice house, our close-knit choir shared our “Tom” memories between songs and prayers. Tom took a leap of faith in learning to cantor, even taking a college class (a gift from Janice) to further develop his skills. He played CDs of the responsorial psalms repeatedly in his car. Even Janice, who doesn’t sing in the choir, has those sung psalms practically memorized.
On Ash Wednesday Tom, looking weak and much older, sat beside Janice in a back pew at church. Walking down the center aisle to receive ashes, choir members exchanged a quick hug or hand shake with Tom. Janice said that display of love and affection made Tom appear 10 years younger.
Some of us visited with him after the Mass. I joked with Tom that I was waiting to take another spin with him in his Nissan Z Car. He’d been pestering me to test-drive the sports car he refurbished because it has a manual transition, like my Volkswagen Beetle. When I finally got behind the wheel of the Nissan after Mass a few months ago, Tom was disappointed at how little oomph I put into the drive. I protested that the low driver’s seat made it tough for me to see over the steering wheel!
Tom’s steadfast faith became more apparent during his illness. But he still wondered about God’s purpose for him on this arduous journey. I shared my opinion with Tom during a visit to his hospital room on Saturday, hours before he entered the Clarissa C. Cook Hospice House in Bettendorf. “Your faith has been an inspiration to me and others,” I said. “It’s made me think about my own faith, what I believe and how I live it and demonstrate it.”
The next morning, our choir arrived at the hospice house to thank Tom in song for the gift he has been for all of us. We ended with another of his favorite songs, “Surely the Presence of the Lord is in this place.” Tom enjoyed hard rock as well as hymns. But our repertoire didn’t include anything from Van Halen. So now I’m listening to Van Halen’s “Jump” and thanking God for the privilege of being a companion on Tom’s journey of faith.
(Editor Barb Arland-Fye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)