Last August, my beloved father, Dr. Tom Braithwaite, died after an eleven-year journey through cancer. Dad loved to sing.
It was a passion he shared with his brother. They regularly sang as a quartet at church, and after Dad’s death, my uncle commissioned a musical piece for the quartet. He did not seek to memorialize or honor Dad, but rather, the message Dad lived and the gifts from God he shared. Timothy Takach, founding member of Cantus, would write the music.
Last December, my uncle came to Fort Wayne to sing for my daughter, Eden’s, baptism. During his visit, he shared with me the secret of his musical commission. “I know you’re still not getting any sleep,” he said, “and I want you to think and pray about it, knowing I am truly fine either way,” he continued. “But, I wondered if you’d be willing to write the text, the poetry, for the piece.” Overcome with both the gift of this piece and the opportunity to have a part in it, I immediately agreed.
“The timing is perfect,” I said, as I knew I’d be headed to South Carolina in January for a week with my writing group.
Little did I know what was in store. The night before our 7:00 a.m. departure, my phone rang and on it was an automated message from US Airways. “Your flight has been cancelled,” said the fake voice. That was only the beginning. The next day would consist of sitting on the tarmac for two and a half hours waiting for a de-icing machine, two turbulent flights through which Eden howled (simply expressing aloud what we were all feeling), clothes drenched in spit-up, a missed connection, another delayed flight, standing on the middle of the tarmac in rain and wind waiting for a stroller in Charlotte, and lost luggage upon arrival in Charleston. The frosting on the cake was the delivery of my suitcase at 3:30 a.m. with the handle broken off, a fitting image for the start of the week.
Eden’s reflux fiercely flared, and I had next to no time to write as I needed to care for my sweet baby in pain.
It was Wednesday afternoon and Eden was blessedly asleep. God and I had a talk.
“How can I possibly write this piece, God? The week’s halfway done and I haven’t written a thing.”
“Buns on the chair,” God said.
I started roaming the beach house for the perfect place to write as I knew I needed ultimate inspiration for my limited time. I went to the porch, then the living room, then back to the porch, then upstairs.
“Buns on the chair,” God said again. I finally settled at the table near the kitchen and pulled out my laptop. I knew I had half an hour, maybe an hour. I stared at the white screen, the blinking cursor, and exhaled.
A quiet miracle happened. Memories, Scripture verses, poetry, music – they flooded my heart in one big wave like the ocean outside the door and rippled from my fingers onto the page. In 45 minutes, the piece was done. I was a formless mess that week, but the Spirit sat down at Her pottery wheel and said, “I can work with that.” My weary surrender coupled with Holy Hands produced the piece.
My writing group heard and held the piece. They heard and held me.
Upon returning home, I sent the poetry as well as my explanation of the piece off to the composer. For the last few months, he worked hard and was able to complete it in time for the weekend this spring when we interred my father’s ashes. The piece debuted at my home church, First Presbyterian Church in Sioux Falls, on April 12th, and was sung by the quartet of which my Dad was a part.
The poetry and its explanation are here, as well as a link to the video of the quartet singing.
“Ash and Starlight”
On waves where trembling feet
sink and dance there rises
between my toes a peace
Where heaven and earth embrace,
Where the ash in my mouth, the starlight in my bones
Weave together in wholeness.
Carried on a strength beyond me,
Feet raging against soil I did not choose.
My eyes turn upward,
And through the grit, the tears, the joy
Long to glimpse the land of the living.
Adding my voice to the universal chorus.
Turning my song from a plea for deliverance
To a chord of gratitude
Unfurling my hands in aching yes
and clasp the holy gift, which is this day, which is enough.
Another chance to live
– to burn with grace.
In this piece, I sought to speak – to pray – from my Dad’s perspective. I wanted to bring together some of the beautiful, enduring lessons Dad both learned and passed on to those around him. I reference favorite Scripture passages, pieces of music, memories, particular passions, and qualities of my Dad.
The first stanza begins with reference to the Gospel story from Matthew 14:22-33 where Peter walks upon the water to Jesus. This was a very meaningful story to my Dad and especially resonated with him in the last year of his life. Dad recognized that Peter’s (and his own) walk to Christ wasn’t a steady one. It included fearful moments of sinking as well as faith-filled ones of hope. One of the most powerful memories I hold of those final days with Dad is the deep peace he felt, even as death was near. Dad had such a security in his heart, and he sought to impart that same peace to us. He lived in the “thin place” where heaven and earth embrace. The “ash” and “starlight” also correlate with this weaving of heaven and earth. In the Genesis account of creation, we remember God created us from ash/dust. We and the earth are one. And yet, we are God-breathed creatures, fashioned in the image of our Creator who also made the stars beyond us. A personal story from the day after Dad died involves the earliest hours of the following morning. My Mom went out very early (probably 4:30 a.m.) to the hot tub in the backyard. As she sat in the dark and looked up to the sky, she recounted how all at once, the stars began to twinkle and sparkle. She immediately felt it was a sign and gift from Dad, now among the angelic choir above.
Following the first stanza, I use some of Dad’s God-given passions to structure the rest of the piece. Dad was an avid runner. He often referenced his journey with cancer to running a race, and drew deeply upon the metaphors of perseverance and stamina. A favorite Scripture of his was, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. I have kept the faith” from 2 Timothy. Especially in his later Caring Bridge posts, Dad would sign them, “upward and onward.” He focused on keeping his eyes ahead, and as the illness raged on, grew more and more honest in expressing the range of feelings he had toward God and the world. God embraces our rage as well as thanksgiving. The reference to the “land of the living” comes from Psalm 27 – a favorite of my Dad’s. It was the place toward which he kept “running.”
Stanza three builds from Dad’s love of singing – something he did from a young age. He sang in numerous groups, from the South Dakota Symphony chorus to church choir to family sessions with his son, brother and myself at the living room baby grand piano. Dad’s singing was a true offering of worship. He loved to sing for church, sang at many funerals, offered music as part of the “Doctor’s in Recital” concert to benefit the Children’s Care Hospital and School, and more. It was a gift he stewarded so beautifully. Using the metaphor of “song” for his life and faith, I wanted to express how Dad’s prayer changed throughout his 11-year illness. At the beginning, Dad had a “battle” mentality. The disease was something to fight at all costs, and his prayers centered on deliverance from the illness and struggle. In the last years of Dad’s life, particularly those final months, Dad’s main focus was pleasure in and holy gratitude for the present moment – that one shouldn’t get wrapped up in the future or making plans for what’s to come, but rather, cherish God’s gift of today.
This is a theme I then carry forward into the final stanza. One of the main lessons I hold from Dad’s life is that of love. As painfully hard as his life was at the end, he accepted his circumstances with fortitude and grace – an “aching yes.” This is also a connection with one of Dad’s favorite poems – e.e. cummings “I Thank you God for this Most Amazing” and its lifting of all that is “yes.” Dad relished the day, and often spoke of how this gift was enough.
The last line about burning with grace harkens to the refining fire of which Scripture often speaks – that while our trials do not come from God’s hands, they are opportunities for incredible transformation. It also echoes some of the lines of T.S. Eliot’s Little Gidding and the themes of fire. The flame is powerful and holds a ring of eternity. Our life in God carries from this world to the next in a seamless strand.
I wanted the last word of the piece to be “grace” as God’s grace is what sustains us and makes transformation possible. God’s grace undergirds our lives and opens us to love. I believe my Dad’s parting message was that all of life is both grace and gift – take it in, breathe it out, and thank our Creator.
Watch the video of the debut performance here – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79iTSIdG7Xw