Every song has a story. But sometimes you don’t know the full story until the song itself shows you. Even if you wrote the song yourself.

Long plagued by stage fright when it comes to singing, I was preparing to do so for the first time in front of an audience for an evening of my own songs and stories. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of speaking to an audience; I love that part. It’s the singing that makes me feel vulnerable.

As I practiced and prepared, I kept picturing myself as the American Idol contestant who warbles embarrassingly off-key as the judges fidget. Every vulnerability I’d ever felt seemed to be right on the surface of my skin. Yet, as I was fending off my inner demons, I found a song forming in my mind that became a lifeline out of the turmoil. Actually, it felt more like a secret mantra; a mere five lines that gave me enormous comfort and calm.

One of my closest friends, who knew me well enough to realize how challenging this first public singing performance would feel for me, asked if she could fly out from her home in Boston to mine in Minneapolis to attend. “If it makes you more nervous, I won’t come,” she said. “Please come,” I replied.

The morning of the performance, I sang this new song for her. Simple, a capella. It was much too new to add to my set list, but I truly believed it had come to me so that I’d feel the confidence and courage I needed in order to sing for people that evening. What I didn’t know yet was that it would be several more years before I would realize the song’s true purpose: it was meant to be a lullaby for my friend.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer for a second time, we all assumed she would undergo treatment and put the disease behind her again. The day after she learned the diagnosis was terminal, she told me she’d had a sleepless night. She lay awake, she said, and envisioned every possible outcome— from the one where she would defy the odds and live to be 100 to the one where I would sing “Where the Angels Live” at her memorial service.

I came to see her when she returned home from the hospital for the last time and began hospice care. The time between her diagnosis and this visit was shorter than any of us would have liked. And that’s the biggest understatement I’ve ever made. But the time was also filled with heart-rending moments of grace, of touching poignancy, of riotous laughter, of honesty and, most of all, love.

She told me a few months before she died that she was “banking memories” for herself and for everyone she loved, consciously making time for moments together that would sustain her and the rest of us through her passing. She was filling the well, she said.

I did sing for her at her memorial service. And I brought my oldest child, her goddaughter, to sing with me. The song deserved harmonies. My ukulele was the simple accompaniment, though I was fairly certain that the people in the back of the church might not even hear it. The important part, I knew, was the voices.

I told the overflowing crowd of her family, friends and colleagues that we all had a job to do together. And then I shared the promise that I had made to her. The night before I left her for the last time, she had wanted to discuss her memorial service. I promised her again that I would sing, but told her that I also planned to ask everyone sing with me. In singing together, I’d said, we’d not only help ourselves begin to heal but our voices in unison would lift the song to the high heavens as a lullaby for her.

On a fall day that began with rain and ended with the sun peeking out from the clouds, in a quaint New England church, I kept my promise to my friend. And, in doing so, I realized the true purpose of my song. I felt it in my bones. I knew it in my heart. I heard it in all the voices that joined together to sing with my daughter and me. The well is deep; there is no limit to love.

∞ ∞ ∞

Where the Angels Live

Can you feel the space between heartbeat and breath?

Can you hear the pause between dying and death?

In the gentle silence between blessing and prayer

In the whispered sound between wind and air

That’s where the angels live

 | Lucy Mathews Heegaard © 2009 |

 Angels

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Click this link for the audio version of the narrative, if you’d like to hear the story told, rather than read it.

Though I recorded a version of “Where the Angels Live” in studio with full piano and guitar accompaniment, I felt it was important to also create the simple, spare lullaby version that my daughter and I sang at my friend’s memorial service. Recorded at home, I paired the song with nature photographs by J. Marion Brown in a video to honor the memory of my dear friend.

The Elizabeth Alling Sewall Endowment Fund was established at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute to support research to help find a cure for breast cancer. If you’d like to learn more about this worthy cause, please visit this site, which also tells more about Elizabeth’s life.

 

A lucky moment, I caught Wangari’s smile while photographing a meeting at UNEP in 1987.

Environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai is being eulogized by presidents and prime ministers. She died in Nairobi on Sunday at the age of 71. Yet, to me, the most impressive testament to her legacy is the list of condolences from names you wouldn’t recognize. In a multitude of languages, these condolences are being posted in record numbers to her Greenbelt Movement website by regular folks around the world whose lives she touched with her warmth and genuine kindness as much as with her brilliance and her passionate dedication to protecting the environment and human rights. I am one of the many “regular folks” who share a fond remembrance of Wangari Maathai and mourn her loss.

Fresh out of college, I landed in Nairobi, Kenya in 1987 to work for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).  I staffed a committee of women who were advising UNEP’s Executive Director. Professor Maathai was one of those women and a mentor to me in those months I spent in Kenya. In my journal, I marveled at her ability to translate her wisdom into messages that compelled people to action. Her ideas, I wrote then, “come through in her writing very clearly–down to earth and to the point, yet reflecting the depth and breadth of her training as a biologist. She captures thoughts and creates solutions that are often downright brilliant in their simplicity.”

Beyond what I learned from her writing, I received the enormous gift of her friendship during my stay in Kenya.  She always greeted me with a smile.  Her joyful laughter infused our work with the best of energy.  She gave me rides in her big Greenbelt Movement van, amused, I’m sure, by a wide-eyed, young American woman off on a Kenyan adventure. She also gave me one of the nicest compliments I have ever received.  At my going away dinner, she said, “I like Lucy because she has such an innocent face– a face that wishes all the good things in the world, and to which all the good things come.” I can still hear the cadence of her voice as she said it. The thought brings warmth to my heart and a smile to my face even now.  I have been trying to live up to that compliment ever since.

My life intersected with Wangari Maathai’s for only a short blip in time.  I never saw her again in person after my stint in Kenya more than two decades ago.  And yet I have carried her presence with me for all these years because of the depth of her kindness.  The wealth of condolence notes on her website from “regular folks” like me lets me know that I am not alone in this experience of her.  Surely there should be some kind of prize– even bigger than the Nobel, I think– for people like her who can touch, move and inspire us in the short time our lives intersect and change us for the better for the rest of our lives.

Rest in peace, Wangari Maathai.

To read more about Professor Maathai’s work at The Greenbelt Movement, visit www.greenbeltmovement.org

To hear Wangari’s voice and read another beautiful tribute to her, visit the Being Blog at  http://blog.onbeing.org/post/10684547786/wangari-maathai-dies-but-spirit-lives-on-in-song

In 2002, one of my dearest friends was diagnosed with breast cancer. In her late thirties, with a wonderful spouse and two young sons, I watched as she navigated surgery, chemo and radiation, as so many women do. Beyond the grueling aspects of treatment itself, there was the enormous heart space to travel: How do you talk to your kids about having cancer? How do you maintain your closest relationships when you are going through something most of those around you can’t understand first-hand? Bigger, yet, how do you face your own mortality?

My friend and I live more than 1,000 miles apart.  When you’re that far away, you can’t pitch in to do the things that are most tangible– picking up the kids from school, running errands, making dinners.  Yet, I desperately wanted to give her my support and love.  So I went to the archive of our past history together– old letters I had saved from our decades of friendship, beginning in high school, spanning through college and our early years in the work world, to getting married and having children.

Each week, I sent her a package containing one year’s worth of her letters to me, beginning in 1980 and ending in 2000. I marveled that we had traded letters in every single one of those years. I was awestruck by the depth of what we shared with one another. I lamented the fact that we slowly stopped writing real letters with the advent of email and arrival of our children. I copied each letter (no, i didn’t part with the originals!) and wrote commentaries in the margins about our escapades. I laughed and cried as I revisited memories and hoped that they would be a good distraction for her after each weekly chemo treatment.

My tiny window into her world during that year made a huge impression on me. Since then, so many more of my friends have been diagnosed. Gradually, I have become more and more involved in the cause to help find a cure for breast cancer and support women going through it.

I always knew that someday I wanted to tell the story I had witnessed.  Yet, often, the stories that are closest to our heart are the most difficult to express. It wasn’t until I saw a neighbor of mine– newly diagnosed and on a walk after chemo– that the words to this story came tumbling out. Though it is written specifically about women and breast cancer, the message applies to any major life challenge. Every picture and every journal entry is from a woman who has been through it. More than 30 women shared their private moments and thoughts to offer comfort to those currently on the path. . . one step, one true step, at a time.

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