My big blue 8 year-old eyes looked up at mom in the candlelight. The sounds of instruments and choir voices filled the walls from the front to the back of the church. Well, I assumed it did. I didn’t know anything about the back of the church. I actually knew nothing other than the front pew, first seat. It would be mine for 11 years at least.
I watched as a tear flowed down her cheek. And then another. “Mommy, why are you crying?” I whispered quietly, just loud enough for her to hear me, but not too loud to interupt the flute 6 feet away.
Her light blue eyes reached down to me, held me for a moment and then answered. “Because the music is so beautiful,” she whispered back with a gentleness that made me feel in that moment that I may cry too.
The music. The voice of the soloist was piercing. It was mom’s favorite Christmas song. And to this day when I hear it, I can’t often hold back the tears.
Mom always made sure she was in that front pew by 9:30 every Christmas Eve so she wouldn’t miss the music. I didn’t understand what was so special about it, I mean, it was only instruments and people singing, often in other languages. I couldn’t really understand what they were saying which made it harder for me to connect. But I sat there, quietly, listening. Watching as mom would cry every year. I would reach out and hold her hand, thinking that at least I could console her somehow. When I was 8, tears meant sadness. I needed to just hold her hand.
Mom and I had a ritual. When it came time for the sermon, I would lean over into her left arm and she would run her fingernails over my arms to tickle them while we listened to dad talk. It wasn’t odd for me to listen to dad talk, and often I wasn’t sure at 8 years old really what he was talking about so I just enjoyed the time mom would spend rubbing my arms. Dad’s words were often as powerful as the music and the voices. When I would see a tear on mom’s cheek, I knew it must have been a good one… whatever he was talking about. I would reach out and hold her hand. She would squeeze it back.
The second part of our ritual was after the sermon and the prayers and before communion. It was the Lord’s Prayer. That was our time. When I was really young and learning how to read, I would kneel in front of her and she would run my finger over the words in the prayer book so I could follow along. Some days my finger would almost burn from all the words we rubbed my finger across because we would do all the prayers that way. Other days it was just the Lord’s Prayer. After a while when I was older, she would reach out and hold my hand instead. For years, we held hands during the Lord’s Prayer. Even after I turned 30. No matter where I was in relation to her in the pew, or even in the pew behind her… she would turn and look for me and reach out her hand. That was our time. The connection I had with mom during the Lord’s Prayer is something that to this day I acknowledge. Tonight, I held my own hand. And just like after every time, we would squeeze each other’s hand and whisper “I love you” at the end. I hope somehow it was enough and maybe tonight she heard me. There has never been a time after saying the Lords Prayer that I don’t whisper to my mom.
I drove to Reading tonight to sit in the back pew and listen to Dad. I went early to make sure I was there for the music. I sat at the end of the pew. First seat. As the procession started to the classic first song on Christmas Eve, O Come all Ye Faithful, I stood and sang in the pew alone. As the cross and the choir passed, Dad would bring up the rear. As he got to where I was sitting, he reached out his hand to squeeze mine on his way by. I squeezed back. A tear flowed down my cheek as I whispered “I love you.”
I sat and listened to the music. I felt all of it. I listened to Dad’s sermon. The tears flowed. No arm rubs or hand squeezes. No pew so packed with family that we had to spill into the two behind us. No laughing so hard that the floor would shake. A totally different experience as life changes year by year. A quiet solitude that brought introspection and a deep love for all that I miss.
As I drove home, I listened to Christmas music. I looked at all the Christmas lights I passed and the beautiful luminaries that some streets had lit. And then, when I was five miles away, it came on the radio. That song. Mom’s favorite Christmas song. One of my favorite renditions of course. Josh Groban singing O, Holy Night. I sang with him. And through the tears i could see mom’s eyes looking back at me. And for a moment I felt peace.
Because the music is so beautiful.
I get it now.
“I love you.”