Do you ever get so emotional that you can’t sing? I mean, really choked up. Big ole lump in your throat, and eyes brimming with tears that you hope don’t conspicuously spill over and cause everyone around you to think “Yes, just as I suspected. Mentally disturbed! Unstable!”
Well, it happens to me every so often. Almost every time I hear my favorite hymn “Lift High the Cross” I get that cramp in my throat so big that I can’t even hum along, so I have to stand there in silence, bathing in the beauty of the words and the lilt of the music, loving every minute, and wishing that there were 15 or 20 verses, so I could enjoy it for a long, long time. Some tunes just have that effect on me, and I’m not sure why.
I never have been particularly fond of “How Great Thou Art,” even though I know the words by heart. It’s not sung very often in Catholic Churches, so it may be years between the singings. But we sang it a couple of Sundays ago. Correction; everybody else sang it. I couldn’t. I was having an unexpected “mute-ation,” which I will here clinically define as an inability to sing due to overwhelming emotion. This mute-ation was entirely unforeseen. Why would “How Great Thou Art” bring on such an episode?
Way back in my childhood, some thirty years ago, every Wednesday night a group from Sherwood Church would visit the nursing home. After a few hymns and a short meditation, old Mr. Fisher would bellow out his request for “How Great Thou Art” from his brown leatherette recliner. We all knew it was coming, every Wednesday night. “How Great Thou Art.” Usually reserved in his singing of all the other hymns, old Mr. Fisher would take the lead with his froggish voice, singing out of the side of his crooked mouth, outpacing everybody else by a half a note with Aunt Tissie at the piano. Just as reliable as Mr. Fisher, Tissie would be on the piano, and we’d all join Mr. Fisher on his musical joyride every Wednesday night.
There are some people you can always count on. Mr. Fisher, for one. And Tissie, for another. My favorite aunt! White hair. Dark eyebrows. Red lips. Stern, but loving. Always expecting me to do well in school, and always checking up on my progress. Tissie even came to my graduation from college. I don’t know that I’ll be so thoughtful when it comes to my nephews and nieces. Oh, I’d like to go and support them, but thinking about it and actually doing it are two very different things. Tissie actually came to my graduation. Of all the things in the world that she could have been doing at that time on that day, she was there to see me cross the stage. I’ve not forgotten that very vivid show of support. She’s always been interested in education. She’s always been a teacher, and though I’ve never been a pupil in one of her classes, I know how she runs her classroom. I can imagine her at her desk, encouraging and nurturing students but holding them to high standards and expectations. She could seem a bit impatient at times if you weren’t giving your best effort, but her compliments were all the motivation you’d need. You might think that Donna is Tissie’s only child, but you’d be wrong. In a teaching career that spanned several decades, she was a mother to hundreds and hundreds of children who have long since grown up and disappeared into the noisy world. But how they turned out was partially the result of their experience with my Aunt Tissie. I’m sure she taught them more than just subjects in books. She taught them manners and discipline and to take pride in good work and to give their best effort. That’s what she taught me.
She taught me how to ride a bicycle, too. My first bike was a lumbering wide-tired blue and white monster with a loose rear fender that rattled over every ripple in the white sand ruts of Tissie’s driveway. It was a lady’s bike, with the step-through frame, but that was okay with me because when she taught me how to ride, I was too short to even sit on the seat. Trying to learn on a boy’s bike at that age would certainly have “barred” me from later fathering children of my own. It might have been easier to pedal on a smaller bike, but Tissie kept encouraging me and running alongside me, steadying me until I got the hang of it myself. She did that for many people, not just those who were learning to ride a bike.
All through my life, I always knew that if I ever needed (or even wanted) anything, all I would have to do is ask my Aunt Tissie. I know she would give whatever I might ask. It is a wonderful feeling to know you have someone you can count on no matter what. And someone who keeps up with you and continues to care about you deeply across the years and miles. I’ve grown up and become a teacher myself. I hope I’m as good at it as Tissie. I hope I have the same positive influence as she’s had on her students. I hope I have the patience to run alongside and scoop up my students when they tumble. We can all learn something from Tissie.
We’re still learning from Tissie. For the last two years, she’s battled cancer. She’s been determined. Fierce, even, though it appears the cancer will prevail over Tissie’s body. But not her spirit, not her determination. Though she’s very weak now, she continues to amaze us with her resilience. She’s lifting her cross high. She’s learning how to die now, and we can be sure that God is running alongside her, ready to scoop her up when she tumbles. With those big loving powerful hands, which made the world and the stars, how great Thou art!
“Oh Lord my God,
when I in awesome wonder,
consider all the worlds thy hands have made,
I see the stars,
I hear the rolling thunder.
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, my savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.”
G.R. Davis, Jr.
November 15, 1999