Several days ago, the world lost one of its more vivacious citizens. Nobody famous. You didn’t hear about it on TMZ. She left the world without much fanfare. Her name was Toni, my brother-in-law’s mother.
Which makes her my…
I’m not sure.
Let’s just call her my adopted grandmother, since all of the lovely women I once called “Grandma” have long since passed.
Back in 2004, Gabby and I had just returned from Guatemala. We were in the midst of touring the country delivering concerts of original songs and stories from our mission year, trying our best to raise money for different charities. As part of this effort, I had produced a CD to sell at our shows. While the album didn’t go platinum, it did flirt with “yet-to-be-recycled aluminum” status, selling tens of dozens of copies. Such was my short-lived career as the lead singer in a pasty-white, solo, Christian ballad-themed boy band.
It’s a niche market.
Somehow Toni had obtained a copy of the aforementioned CD. When our tour came to Nashville, she passed a note through my mother requesting we come over for a visit. I was instructed to bring my guitar. We didn’t know Toni very well at this point, but were happy to spend some time visiting with family.
We arrived at Toni’s place and trudged up her steps. She had anticipated our arrival and rushed to the door with gusto. Toni wasn’t a large woman by any stretch of the imagination, but her personality was huge. Tan skin. Glowing smile. Bright white hair. An unforgettable Italian with a New York accent. Her exuberance kicked her voice up an entire octave. She welcomed us as if we were the Publisher’s Clearing House Prize Patrol.
“Come iiiin! So good to seeeee you!”
She showered us with a variety of kisses, hugs and semi-inappropriate pats. Had she been one more branch removed from our family tree, we may have considered pressing charges. Realizing it was simply a good old-fashioned case of violent endearment, we let it slide.
We all sat down in the living room and she brought us glasses of water. She wanted to know everything about our year as missionaries. Her questions were deep and detailed, the product of a faith that had been well-worn. Like a favorite pair of slippers. As we talked about how we found God in Guatemela, she would punctuate each story with “Fantastic” or “How wonderful,” spoken with a tone that was at the same time curious and all-knowing. As if we were describing a movie she had already seen, but she was enjoying reliving it through the eyes of someone else.
It wasn’t long before she pulled out my CD. I had no idea that we had been lured into the lair of the world’s foremost music junkie.
“Sing something for me, honey.”
It was less a request and more of a demand. But how could I resist? I pulled out the guitar and sang for her. As soon as the first note came out, her eyes disappeared. A smile crossed her face. She began to hum along. Her hands danced in front of her, conducting an imaginary choir. This continued for several songs. At the end of each one, she would shower me with a chorus of “Beautiful’s!” and “Oooooh’s!”
When the private concert was finished, she made me promise to sing for her again sometime. I agreed.
And such was the beginning of our relationship.
Our families would get together for significant birthdays and holidays. Each time, I would bring along my guitar. After the food had been put away and dessert had filled our bellies, we would sit in the living room and conduct a spontaneous jam session at Toni’s request. We were always reluctant to begin, racking our brains to find songs we all knew. Eventually, my dad, brother, sister, brothers-in-law and anyone else would settle on a tune or two and the fun would begin. Toni was always asking for more.
*A family get-together with Toni and the other beautiful women in my life
But time can be cruel. As years went on, Toni’s love for music never faded, but her mind did. Many of you have been along on this journey and know it all too well. It starts with a little forgetfulness. Then repeating stories. Then mild confusion.
We attended my dad’s choir concert with Toni a couple of years ago. She sat in the front row. Humming. Smiling. Hands dancing. But something was different.
When the clapping died down after each number, you would hear Toni’s voice through the silence. “That was beautiful!”
“That one was so loud!”
“I think I’ve heard that one before. Loved it!”
She even came up to one of the singers afterward making kissing noises and saying, “Boy did I like you! Beautiful voice! And good lookin’, too!”
For family members, it can be both heartbreaking and hysterical. Our social conditioning tells us that such unfiltered comments aren’t appropriate. We cringe, hoping that our loved ones don’t say something truly embarrassing. But the glaring honesty brings about a laughter that breaks the tension. Nervous laughter, but laughter nonetheless.
For the past year, the laughter waned. Toni’s unfiltered comments got shorter and shorter. Her eyes wouldn’t quite focus. There was less talking. More forgetting. Details. Faces. Names.
Family members would talk to her. Tell her stories. Ask her questions. Explain what was happening. But her mind was like a broken cup. Words and images would come in for a moment, and then slip through the cracks. They wouldn’t stay long enough for Toni to register them and reply. Confusing. Frustrating.
There was sadness over what was lost. Memories of the exuberant, faithful, grandmother that brought a lively energy to every gathering. But the person Toni had been was now gone. Someone had turned her color film to black and white, a gradual tragedy played out over the course of months and years.
So the relationship moved beyond conversation. Sometimes family would simply sit with her. Be with her. An acceptance that people are more than the memories they have created and the works they can perform. In the absence of shared words and stories, there were lots of hugs. Kisses on the cheek. Whispers of “I love you” in her ear.
In her last months, all I could see was Toni slipping away from us. But I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Imagine losing yourself in the music. Taking off the filter. Saying what you’re feeling without worrying about what others will think. Finding it harder and harder to understand this world that operates under strange rules. So you stop questioning. Give up control. Own the silence. There’s no need for words anymore. Just be. That’s enough.
Slipping away? I don’t think so.
More like she was drawing nearer to God.
Enjoy the choir, Toni. I hear it’s Heavenly.