When I stood in my assigned space in the alto section of the choir loft, across from the organ, it was Michael’s tenor voice that I heard behind me. The choir at St. John’s-Grace was an eclectic combination of people: old, young, gay, straight, questioning, sober, never sober, dignified, unkempt, and ever changing. Most of the people were in the choir because they were in the church and liked to sing. I was in the church because I was in the choir, and I got paid to sing. To clarify, I was paid very little, and sometimes I was not paid at all. But, the job I had been recruited to do, whether paid or voluntary, was to sing and to teach the alto members of our choir their respective parts. That duty kept me coming back week after week, even though I didn’t necessarily consider myself a worshipper. I am reliable and social, a true Gemini-Dog in Western and Eastern astrological assignment. My voice and body were there every week. My spirit still wandered.
Michael, who stood and sang tenor behind me, was there to worship not only with his voice but with his whole spirit.
Choir is a good place to get to know people. I knew that Michael was gay, and that there was some unrequited love with another person in our musical group. This I learned when I asked why he seemed so sullen at our early choir gatherings. But, time passed and Michael fell in love with another wonderful man, Kim, and the two of them created delightful conversation and a life together that was a joy to behold. We celebrated their union and committed some well meaning deviance by openly blessing their union years before the Episcopal church sanctioned…or even allowed…these decent, human and divine blessings. Our priest, nearing retirement, had decided not to ask permission and in this case, found it unacceptable to ask forgiveness. He and the church took heat for this, and being the rebellious and non-aligned person I was, I took delight in the whole thing. I attended the ceremony, sang, and danced at their reception, and I felt true joy in my spirit.
Each week during the service, I turned at the passing of the peace and hugged Michael. He was always thin, but seemed to be getting thinner and frail. His gentle spirit began to show signs of being worn and weary. He didn’t openly discuss his HIV status, because the early 1990’s were a difficult and challenging time for HIV positive people. I knew that familiar story, and that disease progression, all too well from both my personal and professional life. One Sunday, I hugged Michael at the peace and he held me just a little closer, a little longer. He felt like skin and bones. He smiled, but his gaze seemed far away. By our mid-week choir practice, Michael had ended his life. I knew from the first moment I heard, and I felt to my core of my being, that his suicide was not an act of hopelessness. It was an enancted choice in when and how to move from this world to the next.
Michael’s funeral was a time of great sadness, and great joy. We wept and people wondered “Why?” Some tried to judge or question, which made me angry. Who among us felt they had the right to question or to judge? It was an emotional, raw and authentically human memorial service. Again, we held a ceremony. We held a reception. We embraced Kim and wished we could still embrace Michael. Kim invited us to dance. And, we did. Before the night closed, Kim also produced several cases of bubbles: little jars of soap bubbles with a wand inside. He asked each of us to take one with us, to live our lives and travel to beautiful places. To blow bubbles while we were there, and to think of Michael when we set each bubble off on its journey, knowing he would be with us and delight with us in those moments. I still have bubbles with me in my sketch bag, which comes with me to beautiful places where I travel. And I still blow bubbles and think of Michael.
But, the bubbles are not the only point of light in this story. As I said, I knew in my spirit from moment one exactly why Michael left when he did, as he did. At first, I kept it to myself because I simply thought it was my way of coping. In retrospect, he and I had shared several end-of-life conversations. He knew I had lost people I loved to AIDS. He was a pharmacist, and had extensive medical training. He knew. But the next few Sundays at the passing of the peace, when I would viscerally miss the embrace of my friend, my own internal sense of knowing would grow as well. It couldn’t be silenced. I just didn’t know how to give it voice.
Then, one choir practice evening, a member of the choir made a disparaging remark when our director told us that Michael’s ashes were going to be placed in the columbarium at the entrance to the church, and we were invited to join in a final prayer of committal. Someone made a dogmatic statement about suicide being an unforgivable sin and questioned the sanctity of church burial. As happens when I get righteously angry, words trapped inside tend to find their way out very quickly. My eyes flared, my voice shook and I spoke with some authority that wasn’t entirely my own about Michael’s choices, his perhaps desperate…but not selfish, heartbreaking…but entirely realistic, desire to keep control of his living and his dying. The debate went on for entirely too long. But, in the end, consensus was reached to lovingly commit Michael’s remains within our church walls. I went to the committal, and I prayed. Shortly after, life took me away from that choir and that church, but our parting was with peace and love and understanding.
Several days after Michael’s remains were committed, I had a vivid dream. I dreamed that I turned around in my choir stall and Michael was there. He was radiant, and filled with light that reflected divine love from within and from beyond. He smiled his gentle smile, and embraced me. I felt his embrace and his body, flesh and bones, as I whispered “peace be with you” and then, in my dream, he became a dove that flew away into the light. I awoke in the night, the light bringing me sharply into full consciousness. That dream has remained vivid even after many years.
Sometimes, even now, I see a dove, or I hear its coo, and I return to that dream image of light. Other times, I release a soap bubble and watch its iridescent radiance grow, and shrink, and drift, and float away, finally dissipating into the air.
And, I think of my friend. And I feel peace and faith and love.
And there is light.