A Song Before Leaving

Cancer has a way of focusing the mind. Some focus on the fight. Some focus on the perceived unfairness of it all. The pain. Along the way, if you’re wise, you focus on the preparation.

From the Christian viewpoint (my own) all of mortal life prepares us for the life to come. The life after death. And, then, the life after life after death (more about that in later posts).

Life threatening illness brings new urgency to the preparation. Time limits will do that. Questions from the depths bubble up. How have I lived my life? How should I live it now? And given our Faith commitments, other questions. Have I pleased my loving God? How may I do so now?

Briefly, for Susan and I, questions of why. They were mostly analytical.

Doesn’t make sense, we said. Doesn’t fit the profile for this type of cancer. Ovarian.

Our oncologist confidently asserted: “we really don’t know.”

But through it all our Faith sustained us. Susan and I lived this way. Since her passing, I’ve continued to live that way. Imperfectly. But God met us where we were, and continues graciously to lead me along the way. If I continue to discipline myself and take the time to turn to the source of life.

And see the Big Picture.


Sometimes we need to be down on our knees squinting at tiny things. To find the tiny thing that discloses the Big Picture. Do we see it? Are we on our knees? Of course, at other times no squinting required. The vision comes rushing in like Niagara. Like when you stand gobsmacked on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. You’d have to be dead, inanimate, not to notice.

Here’s a vision that trumps the Grand Canyon. Both tiny and with Big Picture written all over it.

Gramma Sue & Reagan (still tired from the move)

Have you ever seen a more joy-filled grateful grandmother. I haven’t. Statistical analysis (Susan was a data analyst) suggested only 18 months at diagnosis. Two years too soon for Gramma Sue to hold this package of bundle light. But the deadlines were breached, and Susan held her grand-baby close. And then for two more years she nurtured a love that will never end.


Before getting to the sign I promised you in my last post, first the backstory. A story about a mother.

Both of Susan’s parents passed during the 6 1/2 years between diagnosis and death. Walt and June were in their 90’s. Their baby girl was particularly troubled over the thought of putting her mother through the agony of seeing her youngest die. “This is going to kill her,” she said.

But Mom went first.

I knew I would be reading scripture at the mass, but I wanted to do more to help my family, my wife, in their grief.

So what did I do? I rearranged the Liturgy of the funeral Mass. Slightly. Mr. Non-Catholic.

Growing up a Protestant of the low-church variety I could always claim ignorance. Right? But that wouldn’t have been true. I knew. I had experienced the thoughtful rituals of the Mass and learned to love them. The readings. The silence. The ancient rhythms. Confession. Creed. Prayer. The shapes. The colors. The gestures. The standing and kneeling. I attended a Catholic Church for seven years with Susan.

St Catherine of Siena

I was something of a congregational curiosity, I suspect. Always kneeling before the altar with crossed arms at my chest, receiving a blessing. But unlike my wife, no Body or Blood.

A Time For Grace & Blessing

Our priests respected my commitments. I respected the reason for the exclusion. And submitted to it. I viewed it as a spiritual discipline. A part of the fasting that goes with a future feasting, when one day it will be natural and right for all those who name the name of Jesus to share the fruits of the Lord’s Table together. United. One day.

Our Spot
Under Station 11 “Jesus Is Nailed To The Cross”
A Time For Prayer

So no, I couldn’t claim ignorance. I knew the patterns, the history.


A year earlier, I did get clearance from the Polish Priest in Utica to embellish my reading at the funeral mass of Susan’s father with an a cappella rendition of the first verse and chorus of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” After which I read the prescribed text. Following the Mass, the Priest thanked me and then sweetly tried to recruit me for the Church choir. But I assured him my commute from Raleigh NC to Utica NY would be prohibitive. A friendly word of advice to Parish Priests: Be careful when giving a low-church Protestant liturgical legroom. He might lap the sanctuary on his next go round. 🙂

A year later when Susan’s mother passed, and it came my time to read, what did I do?

I lapped the sanctuary.

Figuratively. I made an aural loop around the congregation in hopes of gathering them in. Like a dear mother bringing comfort, and a sense of the protective care of God. Like June had done for so many years. Like the Big Picture of Gramma Sue and Reagan above.

True. Close attention to the established Liturgy did as much. But I felt led to add a personal touch, and so took my low-church liberties, humbly invoking the Holy Ghost to brood with warm breast over our broken family. I altered the established pattern with pastoral counsel in word and song before my prescribed reading. Here is some of it.

“One Day.
All who believe.
Those who are members of the Family.
Will be changed.
No more disease.
No more dying.
No more brokenness.
(We’re all broke you know,
even this adorable lady.)

But on that Day,
Wholeness of Life.
Fullness of Heart.
True Freedom
Home at last.

How? Why?
Because we will see Him,
The King of Glory.
The world’s True Lord
Face to face.
The Beauty and Purity of that Vision
Will change you

Don’t you want to see it?
With mom? Grandma Junee?
Don’t you want to be changed?

I do!”

Then I sang, without musical accompaniment, for my family. For my wife.

Followed by a reading from the first letter of Saint John:

Beloved. See what love the Father has bestowed upon us that we might be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like Him, for we will see Him as He is.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.


The response I got, especially from my wife, who was deeply moved, confirmed my aim was true. Happily, the Priest was gracious too. I was so glad to help my family during our time of grief. Most especially my sweet Susie.

For she had preparations to make.

Now to my sign.


I knew the day would be emotional for me.  Not as emotional as the Christmas Eve service. (First time without Susan) Or All Saints Sunday when for Protestants the liturgy is clustered around the theme of the dearly departed and God’s loving care of them. Some of their names are read out loud. This year All Saints came only three short weeks after Susan’s passing. I made a weekend visit to Church of The Good Shepherd (Episcopal/Lutheran) my new Church home in the mountains. Susan’s name was read. And I was unprepared for the seven car pileup I became.

But now ten months later, and back in Raleigh, things would go more smoothly. Fewer ragged edges. July 21 would be the last Sunday of my regular attendance at St Catherine’s, our Church home the past seven years. Called away by the mountains and retirement. Still, leaving this sacred space, the place that had meant so much to us, a place where husband and wife had bonded and fought the good fight of faith, would be emotional.

A Place of Healing
A Time For Singing

Sign One

For only the second time in all our years at St. Catherine’s the hymn “Be Thou My Vision” was chosen, on this day, July 21, as the offertory hymn. Why was that choice significant?

“Vision” was the song I was asked to sing at the wedding of a good friend in Nashville many years ago. A song not normally sung at weddings but it worked. And I fell in love with it. It became a theme song for me.

Be Thou my vision, oh Lord of my heart.
Nought be all else to me, save that Thou art.
Thou my best thought, by day or by night.
Waking or sleeping Thy Presence my light.

“Vision” was also the same song I sang at my mother-in-law’s funeral mass (mentioned above). Dovetailing nicely with the reading from Saint John’s first letter. The beautiful Irish melody and the moment moved my wife and family to tears.

Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise 
Thou mine inheritance, now and always
Thou and Thou only, first in my heart
High King of Heaven, my treasure Thou art.

And lastly, “Vision” was the same and only song I sang to my dying wife in her final hour as she slipped away….

High King of Heaven, my victory won.
May I reach Heaven’s joy, O’ bright Heaven’s sun.
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall.
Still be my vision, O’ Ruler of all.

Singing that hymn at her mother’s funeral moved my wife so deeply that I was certain it would bring her comfort now. In these final moments. A comforting point of contact with her dear mother who awaited the arrival of her baby girl on the other side. The comfort of coming together. Reuniting two lovers who should never have been torn apart.

But mostly I knew, as surely as I am known, that at this dark hour, that song would echo the gathering of my Susie’s soul into the light filled, loving embrace of her incomparable Lord.


Now I ask you. My friends. How it could be that a song so meaningful to me, that had played such a vital role in the life of our family, the last song my wife would hear before leaving, would be the song, rarely sung, yet chosen, on this my final Sabbath as a regular member of St. Catherines?

I suppose if you believed that everything from quarks to atoms, and proteins to amoebas up to penguins and polar bears, and upwards still to every human accomplishment, every human delight, delights that scale the heights and plumb the depths of Beauty and Love, if you believed that all that developed by chance over the misty eons of time you could, I suppose, confidently chock this moment up to sheer coincidence.

I don’t.


I can’t tell you how moving it was to feel God reaching out to me. Like a loving parent. Gathering me in. I think I spilled over into the offering plate as it passed by and I dropped in the preprinted envelope that for several months now said only “Mr. Daniel..” and not what I longed to see “Mr. & Mrs. Daniel..” The comfort was palpable. The message was clear to this child in transition; “I see you, my son. I am near. Protecting Susan and you. Now, wherever you go, see Me.”

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.


Upcoming post: Sign Two, An Angel

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Email: blog@blueridgemountain.life


I recently signed up to participate in the Gail Parkins Memorial Ovarian Cancer Walk & 5K Run.  Also, I created a Team called:

Susan’s Soldiers (This is War!)

Contribute if you can to this worthy cause.