I was just 12 when my beloved piano teacher Bernice died of brain cancer. Since the fifties were years when children were kept from the traumas of life, I felt shut off from telling her I loved her, even saying goodbye. I remember one rainy Sunday afternoon waiting in our parked car in Seattle at Virginia Mason while my parents left my brothers and me to visit Bernice. When they returned sober-faced, we stopped at St. James Cathedral to pray—unusual practice for us American Baptists. Awed by the space, the silence, the candles, I was drawn to prayer. I missed Bernice at our lessons and was frightened for her. And when she did lose her life, my parents would not take me to her memorial.
In a family much given to seriousness and not a little fear of doing the wrong thing, Bernice brought me laughter and joy, not to mention piano technique. Her vivaciousness prompted smiles even in my dad. When she and her husband Jim visited our home, making an uproarious entrance, it was usually Saturday night. We shared our pancakes. Mom scrounged for the coffee pot (my parents drank only tea) so that the fragrance of coffee accompanied the boisterous laughter in our kitchen—a wondrous visitation.
One of the four great truths is that there is suffering in life. And since most of us at my age are dealing with this reality every day, we need to help one another cope with the losses that come, rather than feeling singled out or badly treated, or that God is looking the other way. Quaker Parker Palmer comments, “The good news is that suffering can be transformed into something that brings life, not death.” Jesus said, “I come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” Jn 10.10
For years after I had become a competent pianist and organist, each time I began to play I dedicated my music to Bernice, not so much to my mother, a soloist whom I spent hours accompanying as she sang at memorials and teas and worship services. I had not heard all of Bernice’s music. Her song was cut off. I felt more bonded with her who championed my growing musicianship and my inner need for appreciation. Of course my talents were to be offered to God through others. But my parents saw to it that the gifts were given without having acknowledged the musician.
Whenever I remember Bernice, she is perched at my right hand on a small chair with one hand on the page of my music. I was eight then, warmed by her joy and inspired by her faith to live with hope in spite of the losses to come. In place of the darkness of her absence, she brought me delight that lasts to this day.