brave and strong

Around this exact time last week, my Uncle Ely passed away. On Saturday, I left my husband behind and took a 4-hour train to Vancouver. Then my family and I drove up 18 hours to attend his funeral and be with our other grieving relatives. Today was his wake, and I was asked by my family to sing a few songs. This is partly to encourage a bit of quiet in the church, but also because music is such a big part of how we pray as Filipinos.

To say the least, I was unprepared both logistically and emotionally. I already knew that I was meant to sing for the funeral tomorrow, and I wasn’t even sure I could handle that, so I was hoping I could at least have the viewing to get all the crying out of my system. This wasn’t going to happen, because the longer people stayed in the church, the noisier they got.

I was nervous like crazy. I didn’t have any music sheets and I haven’t accompanied myself on the piano for over a year. But something inside me just told me to get up there and do it, to give dignity and solemnity to the evening and to help ease the suffering of those he left behind.

So I did it. I got behind the piano, played some songs and sang. My hands were like ice cubes and I was shaking like a leaf, the whole time fighting back tears and trying to swallow my emotions. I don’t know how I got through it, how I remembered the chords to play, how I knew the words to sing, but I did it. Pretty soon, the noise in the church subsided. Finally, after nearly breaking down and crying in the middle of a song, there was a hush in the room, which remained and covered us until the night was done.

When I got up to put the equipment away, my tears finally broke free. Then, for whatever reason, people started clapping as if I was supposed to turn around and bow or smile and blow kisses. But this wasn’t a show, and I didn’t get up there to be congratulated. I walked out the side of the church, not wanting to have to shake anyone’s hands or receive any compliments. Then I was met by my Uncle’s widow, Auntie Fely.

With tears flowing down her face, she embraced me so tightly, and she said, “I don’t know how you can do that, to sing so beautifully at a time like this. You are so brave and strong. Thank you.”

I couldn’t say anything back. I just held her and gave her a kiss. Here is a woman who just lost the love of her life. She has just had to say goodbye to the one man she has loved and shared her whole life with for the past 50 years. Now she remains to live out the rest of her days with the mere memory of this great love. And she was calling me brave and strong.

What I did tonight was tough, but it is nothing in comparison to the courage and hope that my Auntie displays in the face of what is likely the biggest loss of her life. The talent of singing is not something I earned or deserved; it’s something I was born with, and tonight I only did what I was born to do. I’m not saying it was easy, or that it was meaningless or of small value. I’m humbled that for a moment, I was able to honor my Uncle, and to bring beauty to his wake. But I’m infinitely humbled to witness my Auntie’s faith and courage. If with my singing I gave her comfort for a moment, she with her witness has given me inspiration for a lifetime. She has taught me that the human heart can love fully, be broken fully, but still be able to love fully and remain hopeful. She has shown me that sadness, not even so great as this, can ever be great enough to overpower or overcome us. She is living proof that we can lose it all in the blink of an eye, yet we have no reason to fear because something stronger than us is in control.

You could say that in a song, but it’s much more powerful to say it with your life. So tonight, the applause is not for me. I am brave and I am strong, but it is because I have the benefit of being among those who are far braver and far stronger than me. And for that – for my Uncle Ely, my Auntie Fely, and all those who have been touched by this incredible passing – I am infinitely blessed, humbled, and grateful.

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