I’ve been reticent to post about this, largely because I was so wildly embarrassed. This story unfolded over the course of several months, starting in September when I joined the Second Presbyterian Church choir.
I’m not particularly musically inclined, which became apparent to everyone in my first rehearsal. Our choir director later told me that at our first rehearsal, I spent more time frantically looking at my neighbors’ sheet music trying to figure out where we were than actually singing. He knew I was struggling, so he suggested I sit next to a strong alto to follow along. I sat next to a wonderfully kind older woman named Joan and over the next several months I developed a friendship with my new “alto buddy.” We’d chat about life during rehearsals and I’d make self-deprecating jokes about my musical inabilities. When I’d come in for Wednesday rehearsals, I’d immediately seek her out and plop down next to her. I appreciated both her willingness to sit next to someone who was constantly singing the wrong notes and her patience in helping me find my way when I was totally lost.
A few months later, she stopped coming to rehearsal. For the first few weeks I simply searched somewhat desperately for another alto to follow around. A few more weeks went by and I began to worry about my alto buddy.
Fast-forward to Christmas Eve. Because of terrible weather through Atlanta, I was unable to fly home to South Carolina for Christmas with my family. I was heartbroken; I hadn’t gotten to be with my family on Christmas morning the previous year either. Though the Second Pres Christmas Eve service was beautiful, I wanted to make reindeer food with my young siblings. I sang with the choir, but because I hadn’t been planning on singing I hadn’t even rehearsed the music. Not that knowing the music would have made a difference; I was crying through most of the service anyway. I was really, really missing home.
The choir lined up in the aisle two-by-two to walk to the front of the sanctuary to receive communion. We were about to begin the procession when I glanced over and saw Joan walking, albeit much more slowly than normal, toward me. It had been over two months since I had seen her. Seeing Joan walk toward me gave me the joy I’d been pretending to have that Christmas Eve. I told her how much I missed her as we embraced and asked how she had been. She simply replied, “Not well. Can I walk with you?” Leaning on me for support, arm-in-arm, we walked with each other to the front of the sanctuary and took communion together. I believe trusting God means knowing you are exactly where you need to be in a particular moment. I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be that Christmas Eve, even though it was entirely different than I had intended.
Fast-forward a few more weeks. In mid-January, the choir received an email informing us that Jean Ann Morris had entered hospice care. Though the name was different, I somehow became certain that this was actually Joan. My mind raced through a series of rationalizations about how this could be my alto buddy. Maybe they misspelled the name; Jean and Joan are similar after all. Maybe it’s spelled Jean but actually pronounced Joan. Maybe I’ve been calling her the wrong name this entire time and she’s been too sweet to correct me. The email included a middle name, but maybe the person writing the email was just being formal. I also didn’t know her last name. Though there were still several cognitive dissonances, I managed to convince myself that Jean Ann Morris was my Joan. I knew I had to visit her.
The next night, I drove to hospice and asked for Joan. The nurse furrowed her eyebrows for a moment, but somehow she figured out what I was talking about. She led me to a room and I peeked inside. Inside was not Joan, but a woman I had never spoken with before. I had a moment of panic; I said rather nervously to the nurse, “wait, no, that’s not her.” Her son, accompanying her in the room noticed I was outside and asked, “Are you with the Second Pres choir?” I said yes, getting more and more nervous by the minute. “Who are you looking for?” he asked. More timidly and embarrassedly than ever I said, “Joan?” And he replied “You mean Jean Ann Morris?”
Ahh. The email wasn’t wrong.
Following this wildly awkward encounter I stepped inside the room of a dying woman I’ve never spoken with. Understandably I didn’t think she would recognize me, so I was grateful when the nurse asked how we knew each other and I could tell the nurse, as well as Jean Ann, that I was in the choir. The nurse and son left, letting us visit alone. Our conversation was perhaps one of the most unexpectedly joyful conversations I’ve ever had. In a total of ten minutes of speaking with her it was so evident that her life had been filled with love and beauty. She spoke of how much joy she’d experienced in her life and how thankful she was for such nourishing communities like the choir. She laughed mischievously as she said “I’ve planned the memorial service and I have a real workout planned for you all: four anthems and no hymns!”
She died a few days later. The day before her memorial service, several inches of snow fell on Little Rock, effectively shutting the city down. We were trapped in Ferncliff for the weekend and unable to attend the service. The morning after the first snowfall, I hiked Luke, the hill next to our house. Surrounded by unreal beauty, all I could think about was Jean Ann and what it means to live a life filled with love and with beauty, surrounded by communities who support and nourish your soul. I realized this is the life I want and I doubt I would have been able to name this so succinctly had I not visited her. We spent ten minutes of our lives together, yet I still feel her impact.
I couldn’t be more grateful for my mistake.