I know what Christians are supposed to believe about the afterlife, but I want the full arc feeling about this life, writes Ottawa-area author Deborah Phillips.
When my friend Hannah posted on Facebook about the upcoming performance of Dan Forrest’s Requiem for the Living I was carrying the weight of two sudden deaths – my friend and priest Canon Brent Stiller and my sister Karen Beaudoin.
Gloom hung since December as we prayed for Brent. I joined a 24-hour prayer chain in which people signed up for each hour to pray. His successful kidney transplant had gone bad a year after the immune-suppressing drugs opened the door to cancer and allowed the growth of seven cancer lesions on his brain. None of us knew what we were up against. Chemo didn’t work.
Who knew immune-suppressing drugs meant to protect you after a transplant could cause such havoc?
Author Amy Silverstein wrote about a similar experience for the New York Times just before her death. After two transplants she knew she would die from cancer, not the failure of the second transplant. A toxic triad of immunosuppressive medicines taken daily can cause secondary diseases like cancer and an immune system completely suppressed can open the door to catastrophe.
My sister’s death happened two weeks later. A migraine gone fatal.
“Karen died,” my niece Julie told me over the phone. She couldn’t pronounce the words my mother died.
I had the same problem with the passing of my two mothers – Betty and Mary. Mothers are a complicated loss.
Wasn’t January 2023 supposed to be the year of the new normal, sans masks, your choice, travel restrictions lifted and a whole lot of expectations about the way forward? More grief and tears were unwelcome.
I knew I had to go
When I saw the post for the afternoon of choral music, I hit the star icon going. Not that I possess a repertoire of knowledge of this genre, but the fact that Dan Forrest is a living composer drew me in. (He’s a former professor in South Carolina.)
His website includes audio excerpts, a complete choir-and-orchestra performance video, and a link to a podcast where he talks about the process of writing a Requiem for the Living there is a Wikipedia entry about the piece.
The Ottawa performance was in a downtown church on an unusually warm Sunday in March. When I walked into the sanctuary of mostly seniors, there were two seats left, both at the back near the entrance. I’m the youngest one here, I told myself sarcastically. Limping towards my own requiem, I do not carry a positive perspective on aging.
I’ve had my turn with breast cancer. The metal plate in my shoulder after a skating fall, reminds me other parts of the body can splinter any time. I found out this year I have cataracts. According to my oncologist, I have the bones of an 80-year-old.
“I don’t even know where I want to be buried,” I’ve said to my husband. Places that come to mind are Deep Cove, B.C., Mount Pleasant in Vancouver, Mont Tremblant – places where I lived, places with trees such as tall flowering chestnuts, magnolias, oaks, birch, firs and pines. Glen thinks his ashes belong with his parents in a sacred space in Point Grey in Vancouver, but we’d have to become members of the church where his parents belonged.
Maybe the Requiem for the Living will help.
A requiem at its core is a prayer for rest for the deceased. However, the five movements of Dan Forrest’s requiem are just as much for the living and their own struggle with pain and sorrow. I knew nothing about the movements of requiems, but I was familiar with loss, grief and pain.
This requiem began with the kyrie, a mix of traditional music sung to pour out grief and to face pain head-on. Dan Forrest’s themes were mostly drawn from the Book of Job. The character of Job is a rich and personal one for all who wonder why innocent people suffer. He keeps asking why.
I remembered turning to the Book of Job in some past painful years, crying, complaining and wondering if I could trust again. And here was Job again through music this time, as I mourned over the loss of Brent at the age of 59. It was not the first time a friend of mine had died of cancer despite countless hours of prayer. People die, but the ones I’ve known were in midlife, their best years. Six in all in the past two years.
Remembering Canon Brent Stiller
I met Brent at St. Peter & St. Paul’s, a 150-year-old church in downtown Ottawa five blocks from Parliament Hill. On a cold bleak winter day I showed up for a Friday healing service with about six people, a massive reno mess, dusty pews and no heat in the building. We shivered with our coats on through a prayer service and a holy presence that seemed to warm and welcome.
My shoulder was shattered from a skating fall. I had an overwhelming fatigue with preachers and an equal longing for holding space with God. You don’t cover flaws or doubts or emotions with Brent a man present without judgment.
My last conversation with Brent took place at an event with local artist Mariam Aitken. Alongside cheese and fruit appetizers, we chatted about balancing his time, his plans to teach in the new seminary in Newfoundland in the summer, his early return to work after major surgery.
“I worried about you,” I told him. Brent was a listener, a man who excelled at gathering you into those deeper places you didn’t know you needed to talk about. Never would he let a conversation be entirely about him. So naturally the conversation turned to me. Saturday afternoon could not have been better.
Remembering my sister Karen Beaudoin
The next musical movement was meant to take us to a confrontation with suffering and pain, the cause for so many to lose or give up on faith. It takes us through a spin that expounds on the vanity of vanities from the Book of Ecclesiastes, a response narrative of bitterness and anger.
I sat in the metal chair by the door in self-examination as I scanned the memories blocking me from a meaningful relationship with my sister Karen. I must have stuffed things deep about our family life because I couldn’t remember the events that caused her to dislike me. I imagined the crumbling brick walls we were never going to break through, so I could dwell on who she was as a person. While I was busy moving all these years, she never left Ottawa after the age of 20. Karen wanted deep roots in one place with her family including our parents, dogs, horses and God. So why did she feel she had to compete with me for our parents’ affirmation?
Job’s grief led to questions. God’s response to his questions came through more than 43 questions, 43 in a row. Have you considered God’s glory? Can you bind the beautiful Pleiades? Can you loosen the cords of Orion? Can you bring forth the constellations in their seasons? And the list of creation’s wonders continues.
Dan Forrest wrote this portion of movement through the lens and inspiration of the Hubble Space Telescope – star gazing, galaxy sightings and watching earthlings emanating urban energy. Job and I sat between the actual and the praiseworthy.
The last portion of the requiem included a tenor soloist singing Come Unto Me for Rest, in English, not Latin. How do you describe rest? In the Scriptures it is one of those words with multiple connotations – all good – but I’m stuck on the rest in peace of permanent death. Brent+ and my sister Karen left this earth with unfinished lives.
Like children who die before they’ve grown up or my teenage niece who was killed by a drunk driver, I fear the unfinished life. I know what I am supposed to believe about the afterlife, but I want the full arc feeling about this life. I’d like things to add up to something.
The poet Mary Oliver writes:
Tell me, what it is you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Today I’d say, Mary, I’m a woman who strives/to understand the ecology of grace, to know what it is about the created order that says all is well. To walk in the reality of mission. I am slow to consider that maybe looking and listening is the real calling.
A month later I listened to Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms, a series of hymns – a mysterious 33-minute piece written in seven movements. “An argument I’m having with myself about beliefs,” he says. At the age of 81 the American pop singer and songwriter is not sure he’s ready for death.
I drove through one of the village backroads in Mont Tremblant dotted with pines, firs, ranches, cottages and designer homes, paying attention to “the path I slip and slide on” as Paul Simon sings it.
God the engineer, forgiveness, the moon, the stars, a forest, and more unresolved phrases about life with no resolution.
“Belief is a scary word,” writes the American author Kathleen Norris. “At its Greek root, to believe simply means to give one's heart to."
Gratitude and grief continue to flow in the hearts of those who knew Brent Stiller. Gratitude for the vision he left his church community and the friendships he formed outside the walls of the church. Gratitude in knowing someone who helped to keep you faithful to what you give your heart to. Grief because we miss him and always will.
Deborah A.M. Phillips of Mont Tremblant, Que., is author of Argonauta, a portrait of a family torn apart by their own crisis of separation and identity during the 1970s October Crisis in Quebec (DeborahAMPhillips.com). Opening photo is a screenshot from YouTube of a 2013 performance by Bel Canto (conducted by Dr. Bill Young) in Raleigh, N.C.