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It was a lazy Monday morning, Memorial Day, to be specific. I enjoyed a morning cup of coffee with my wife, my brother Dan and his wife, Petrina.
We were on the deck at their home in the Ozarks, overlooking the boat dock and water in the cove. We watched the fish and turtles in the water, coming near the banks to catch their breakfast.
Petrina went into the house for a refill of coffee. My wife pointed out my pasty white skin with a smile, suggesting I should wear shorts to catch some sun - maybe get a little color. I questioned her thought process as we were sitting in a heavily shaded area.
Heeding her advice and being somewhat of a prankster, I dropped my pajama pants to the deck and sat back in my chair, wearing my boxer shorts, a TOM-FM t-shirt, and a grin that went from ear to ear. "Is this better?" I asked of her. She rolled her eyes.
Petrina came out, laughing at my attire, while my wife demanded I pull my pajama pants back up. And so, following her instruction, I did. But, little did she know, I was seizing the opportunity to set the stage for my next display of obnoxious Tomfoolery.
Grabbing the elastic waistband of my flannel pajama pants, I pulled them up. All the way up, past my waistline, over my belly, stretching and pulling them up to my chest as high as possible, covering most of my t-shirt. Taking a deep breath, sucking in as much air as my lungs could hold, I then pushed my stomach out as far as possible.
I call this my Old Man Pants look. My wife, who finds it less than flattering, made some comments, expressing shame and embarrassment on my behalf. "Oh my gosh!" Petrina blurted out, "Dan does that all the time, pulling his pants up to his armpits, then struts around."
Hmm. I thought I was the only one who did this. But, of course, Dan is my brother; maybe it's genetic. I should have applied for a patent or copyright when I originated this look.
Although it was fun acting silly on the deck, it's essential to remember the solemnity and purpose of Memorial Day - paying tribute to those who gave their lives for our country, to whom I am grateful.
Memorial Day is also a time when I reflect on those who have passed before me, specifically, people who positively impacted my life. I am thankful for them doing so. One such person was a lady named Linda Akers.
Linda Akers was the organist at St. Patrick's Church. She accompanied me on several occasions when I was singing for a wedding or funeral. Linda often inquired, "When are you going to become a cantor at mass?"
"It makes me nervous," I'd tell her.
"You're a radioman; you should be used to talking in front of people," she reasoned.
"Linda, there's a difference between talking into a microphone in a room where people aren't watching me and talking in front of many people staring at me," I reasoned. "Besides, cantors don't talk; they sing."
Linda wasn't going to give up. "So tell me," she said, "what's the difference between singing in front of a church full of people at a wedding and a church full of people on Sunday morning?"
"Okay," I gave in, "I will in a few weeks when I get done with..." I always found a reason.
I've always enjoyed singing, so I don't know why I kept putting her off. I guess the idea made me nervous. The weeks turned to months, the months to years.
One day, the phone rang. "Are you in town this weekend?"
Not recognizing the voice on the other end of the line, I replied, "Yes, I am. What's up?"
"My cantor for the ten a.m. mass can't make it. Can you fill in for him?" Then, suddenly, I recognized the voice.
She had me cornered. I had already told her I was going to be in town. Backpedaling, I said, "I might have to do something else." I was trying to wiggle free.
"Why don't you do that in the afternoon and sing for me at ten?" It seemed she had all exits blocked; I had nowhere to run. "We can practice Wednesday at four?"
"Okay, I'll see you then," I told her. Then, after I hung up the phone, I asked myself, "What did you just do?"
Many people fear public speaking; fortunately, I do not – but this is different; I would be singing. What if I mess up? People will laugh at me. I would be embarrassed, possibly humiliated, to the point I would never be able to show my face in public again. Would I be forced to leave town to start a new life with a new identity in a faraway land? Like most fears, mine was unrealistic and unwarranted.
During practice, Linda assured me if I made a mistake, it would be no problem. "Just keep singing. No one will say anything about it." She assured me. "If you make a mistake, which you won't, but if you do, and anyone says anything to you, hand them the cantor's book and say, 'If you think you can do better, have at it.'" We shared a good laugh about that.
Sunday came, and I sang. I enjoyed singing at mass. Not only was it fun, but I also found it very rewarding. Why had I put this off for so long? I came up with so many excuses all those years, but never good reasons. I was on Linda's regular rotation schedule for the next fourteen years.
One day, Linda decided she needed to lighten her schedule. She would only play for the five p.m. mass on Saturdays; someone else would play the organ on Sunday mornings. After so many years, it was different singing with other accompanists.
Not long after this change, I sold my radio stations. My wife and I planned to move to Minnesota. For weeks I said I wanted to sing with Linda at least one more time before our move, a move that was coming soon. I could sing with Linda the next week, or maybe the first of next month. I would ask Linda to schedule me to sing on a Saturday night.
I finally called Linda to tell her I wanted to sing with her again before we moved. She told me she had not been feeling well, but we would do it when she was feeling better. "I would like that," she assured, "We'll have fun."
A week or so later, Linda wasn't feeling any better and went to the Emergency room. They took her from the hospital to the Hospice House. She didn't even know she had cancer, but Linda's cancer had grown and spread so rapidly that there was nothing the doctors could do for her.
When I heard the news, I went right out to visit her. Linda was resting peacefully. Her husband, Frank and daughter, Molly, were in the room with her. We chatted for a while; they caught me up on her medical situation.
They told me how Linda enjoyed playing the organ so much. "She just loved playing at mass." Frank added, "She loved playing for weddings and funerals too." Frank said, "Do you know she never took money for playing a wedding or funeral? They always offered, but she wouldn't take it. She just liked to play."
It got me when Frank said, "She especially liked playing when you would sing. She enjoyed that." I turned away a bit as Frank was sitting to my right, but Molly was seated to my left. I looked straight forward, acting like I had something in my eye to avoid getting caught as I brushed a tear away.
No matter who was singing, Linda always made them feel special. "I truly enjoyed singing with her, too," I said.
Linda didn't go back to her house. Instead, she went home.
I just wanted to sing with her one more time before we moved. That didn't seem like too much to ask. How was I to know that she would move on before I did?
We don't know. We never know what today will bring. Still, things get put off until tomorrow, as if there is no limit to the time available.
Along with several other cantors, I sang for Linda one more time. I was one of several soloists that sing at her funeral. Honestly, I was a bit nervous, but didn't worry too much. Instead, I smiled as I recalled Lind's advice; If I should make a mistake, I'll just keep singing. If anyone says anything about it, I'll hand them the cantor's book saying, "If you think you can do better, have at it."
I spent a lot of time on Memorial Day weekend thinking about Linda Akers, a beautiful soul who impacted my life.
I never got to tell her in person, but thank you, Linda, for recognizing a gift within me that I didn't see myself. Thank you for being persistent until you finally convinced me to share that gift. Thank you for encouraging me.
One Sunday morning after we moved, I climbed the stairs to the choir loft. First, I introduced myself. Then, with the courage Linda instilled in me, I asked Lana if she could add me to the rotation of cantors at St. Mary's Church in Silver Bay. She did, and to this day I still enjoy singing at Mass.
As for Linda, I know she continues to play. Now she plays as a chorus of angels sing along. (She's that good.)