The rag tag choir or The road to Hell

Do you remember, way back, that three elderly ladies full of vim and spirit came to visit my mother as she lay dying, to bring her comfort and friendship. The nurse had said that the last thing to go was a person’s hearing, and as we she was almost in a coma, we had nothing we could discuss with her. There was no conversation to be had.

And so it came about that my two sisters, Heather and Lizbet, and the three ladies decided to sing hymns that my mother was so fond of. We all knew them. They had been the stock of Sunday School and childhood. We were a little hazy, these many years after, on some of the words, but we found two hymnals in Mother’s room and that supported our valiant efforts to surround Mother with spiritual songs.

This Sunday, just yesterday, was the last Sunday of the Church calendar. I had not known that before. Advent at the beginning of December is also the beginning of the Church calendar, the beginning of Christ’s life. The week before that is, de facto, the end of the Church calendar and the souls from the congregation who have departed this earth are honoured in a special ceremony.
All my siblings were invited to come this service where one of the family members comes and lights a candle at the altar.

Heather and Lizbet live too far away to come for this service and Lizbet needed to be at work the next day, so they didn’t come. Otto had been committed to being Santa Claus at a festival and so, being double booked, so as to speak, on his calendar, he relegated the task to me. So it was that I represented the family at the church service,

I gathered a pocketful of handkerchiefs. I don’t do well at church services at the best of times and the last time I was at church with Heather in Sechelt, the benediction was “Go thou in peace”, the round that we sang at Mother’s bedside. I couldn’t stop the tears welling up and spilling over. If I was the only representative of the family, I didn’t want to do that again in front of a whole congregation.

I arrived early which was a miracle. I had left all my clothing ready the night before, set the alarm, and got up with an hour to get myself out of the house and on the road. It takes an hour at the best of times to come from my new home to our church in Burnaby. With only an hour to get there, I was still dawdling around the house. I looked at the time and bolted. But being Sunday, the traffic was sparse and there were no delays. My normal one hour and twenty drive took me only forty minutes today, for which I was very thankful. I would have been mortified to have been late.

When I got there, Louise, one of Mom’s favourite people, a friend from her University days and a member of the church, was just extracting herself from her car. She too was early. It was her turn to prepare the after-service coffee in the meeting rooms in the basement of the church.

She welcomed me with a hug and the broadest smile.
“I’m so glad you are here!” she exclaimed. “I was prepared to light the candle if no one came. We weren’t sure you were coming.” I rapidly searched in the back of my mind. Had I never acknowledged the invitation? Had acknowledged it and been wishy-washy about my acceptance? Had I said yes and been uncertain about the other three siblings?

“I’m here.” I stated firmly. “Sorry if I wasn’t clear about it. Did you find some things amongst the clothing I brought you?” I asked. When bringing out things for the Thrift Shop, I had retained two large green plastic bags of Mom’s favourite clothes for her friend Rose and for Louise.

” Yes! I can tell you, but don’t let on to anyone else. They won’t know. I’m wearing her suit today. You’ll see. You are the only one who will recognize it.”
I looked at her. She was wearing a red plaid suit; looking very smart in it, too. I didn’t recognize it. I could remember a plaid jacket but there was no skirt to it. Was my mind playing tricks on me?

Soon I was sitting in the front pew, waiting for the service to begin. I leafed through the bulletin with its order of service and its announcements. I read the list of souls being honoured.

“Oh, no! I gasped. There was Ethel’s name. She had passed away in September. September 18th, to be exact. That did it.

I tried to explain to the elderly person sitting beside me, but either she didn’t hear or she simply did not get the import of my words. Ethel. Rough, loud, and boisterous Ethel. Ethel full of fun and jokes. A party girl. Ethel, stricken with kidney failure, going for dialysis three times a week. Ethel, frustrated by her wheelchair. Ethel angry with her fate. Ethel who could belt out a hymn as if her audience was God and she had to reach him in the uppermost back row of Theatre under the Stars. Ethel was gone.

And where was I when she was dying? Where was I with my promises to visit? Where was I with my phone calls to keep in touch? I simply hadn’t, with all my other things going on, with my moving and arranging, with emptying out Mom’s house, and with all my visitors.

Tears welled up and I fished for my handkerchiefs. At least I’d thought to bring some.

I remembered Mom at Father’s memorial service. I was awash in tears of grief that I couldn’t stop. Every time I managed to control them, someone would speak to me and say something comforting and I would redissolve into tears. Why couldn’t they talk about the weather?

“Get a grip on yourself!” Mother said sharply. “It’s not appropriate to bring your tears in here.” It didn’t make a difference. I just went further away from her view and continued to cry.

And now, I was determined to face the congregation without tears. So I “bucked up” and dabbed the tears away. Poor Ethel.

I lit Mother’s candle and sat back in my pew. The service rattled on about rejoicing and renewal. We sang a few hymns, contributed our collections, rose and sat back down again accordingly. The Benediction was one I did not know and I was thankful for it.

Afterwards, at the tea down in the meeting room, several friends of either Dad or Mom came and spoke to me. The flowers from the alter had been wrapped in a bouquet and presented to me and another woman who had come to light a candle. The men did not get bouquets.
Just before I left, I sought out Louise. There she was, dressed in what had been my mother’s black and white herring bone jacket and black skirt. She winked at me.

” Nobody knows,”‘ she said in something less than a whisper. “It fits perfectly. We were just the same size. Everything that you sent along – I’ve kept everything. We were friends from Engineer’s Wives as well as the church, you know. Having these things makes me feel close to her still. I think of her so often.”

“I thought you were in a red plaid suit?” I said, perplexed.

“Oh that was my coat” she replied. We talked a while then we hugged. I gave her rouged and powdered cheek a small kiss and I said my good-bye. While I was in town, I was going to go see Mom’s friends from the Residence, the faithful three, the rag-tag choir. I picked up a healthy lunch on the way – a good strong coffee and a thick slice of banana bread.

At the reception of the Residence, it was Emma on duty. She’s a sympathetic gal. I’ve always liked dealing with her. So I commiserated with her about Ethel.

“She went fast,” she told me. “She was at the hospital for dialysis and she went into a coma. She never came out of it.”

“Well, is little Ethel around?”

“Down there, playing Sunday Bingo.” She pointed to where I should be able to see her.

From forty feet away, I could see her precious, impish face concentrating on her Bingo card along with about thirty other residents. I’d just wait, I thought, until the Bingo was over and not take her away from one of her favorite pastimes.

“How about Dorothy, then? Is she in this afternoon or has she gone out with her daughter?”

“Too late. She’s gone.” she replied with a sad grimace. “She passed away two days ago. When she started to go downhill two weeks ago, she went really fast. Didn’t wait around, that one,” she said in commiseration.

Sookie, one of the care aids, brought me a cup of coffee and a peanut butter cookie while I waited for Little Ethel. It gave me time to think. Rambunctious Big Ethel and Dorothy. Both gone. It was a shock. Two out of three who had been there with Mom at the end, gone. Euphemistically, passed on. I hated that phrase. It seemed to gloss over a whole life as if it had never existed. I was truly sad. And I could hardly believe about Dorothy. She was the most vigorous of all three, the clearest of mind, out and about with her daughter and forever reconnecting with the yacht club and the tennis club for lunches and dinners. You could tell she had been authoritative in her life; she seemed as if she had commanded those around her with a surety of vision. She knew how thing should be and upheld them with pride and tenacity. She had a heart of gold. It was she who had given me hugs and pep talks to keep my spirits up when Mom was having her most difficult struggles.

And so it was with thankfulness that Bingo ended and I went to have afternoon tea with Little Ethel.

“Oh, it’s you!” she said joyously. “It’s so wonderful to see you. So wonderful to have a visitor.” She had not changed. She was sweet and happy like an aged fairy-imp. Her face lit up from inside; her head, wreathed in her soft white curls like a halo, nodded gently as she spoke.

I saw Ruth, not so far away and brought her to the table as well.

“Shall I go away so that you can visit?” asked Ethel, always so thoughtful of others.

“No, stay,” I said. I’ll just repeat all my news and give you a test afterwards.”

Ruth came to join us. She too was glowing with her joyfulness. They lifted my spirits; we said a few kind words about those who had gone; and then we enjoyed our little pear tarts and tea.

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