My Shepherd Will Supply My Need--acknowledging a season of grief
In this case, the song bound up my sense of the treasure in traditional music with the death of Charles Guy Whiteside, who was my brother-in-law in 1990 when he died. I've spoken to audiences many times on what a wonderful, kind man Charlie was. His sister Christine sewed this line from the hymn on Charlie's panel of the AIDS quilt:
Not as a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.
My remembrance of grief at the loss of Charlie was tied up with my grief at the loss of contact with the entire Whiteside family at the dissolution of my first marriage (except for occasions of family celebration around my daughter, in which my new family and I have always felt welcomed and loved by the Whitesides). Losing Charlie was my first experience (and I know how fortunate I am in being able to say this) with this kind of loss and grief as an adult.
Prior to last Thursday, I had just been to the funeral of my Aunt Julie Wuhan, the last of my father's generation in his family, who outlived all her siblings and died at the age of 91. I had driven two days to be in time for the viewing at the funeral home, accepted the gracious welcome of my cousins and my aunt's church, and for the first time got to see my aunt's photo of my grandfather and his parents, my grandfather in the Tsar's military uniform which he abandoned in his escape to America. I also got to see some of my aunt's poetry, set in rhyme and meter. She wrote in one about the school that sheltered her, and I know enough about my family's turbulent history to understand a little about what it sheltered her from. I helped sing her on and bury her next to her beloved husband the next day, and got in the car after lunch to drive home.
I began to realize how much I had lost when I left Michigan, even though it's clear that leaving Michigan was the best thing I could do for my survival and growth. I also realized that my grieving for my father, Jack Franke, with whom I had had a complex relationship, was not done, but that I had understandably postponed much of it as I built a new marriage with Joan, and helped her through the loss of her father, Jack Sherman.
I worked through my grief at the death of my colleague Freyda Epstein by writing two songs, Collateral Damage and Day of the Dead , and finally by hearing a song by my friend the Rev. Robert Jones of Detroit which opened at least the possibility of forgiveness for her killer in recalling Jesus' forgiveness on the Cross.
I understand very well that dealing with grief is part and parcel of this stage of my life. You live this long, and you need to pay attention to not only the loved ones that need to be mourned, but also to the many roads not taken that themselves need to be mourned so we can continue on the roads we have chosen. What amazes me is how powerful and how useful songs can be in cutting though our resistance and helping us to pay this needed attention. Taking part in the creation of such songs is taking on the vocation of a healer. It's good work, no matter what the pay. Our culture badly needs songs that deal with this stage of life as well as with younger ones. I guess that's why I'm still doing this, and why I admire so much those colleagues of my generation and older generations who are still active in spite of the corporate music industry. It's worth writing about the truth that confronts us as we explore the territory of aging, for our own sakes as well as for those who will follow us on this path. I'm grateful to Virgil Thomson for his help.