(#86 in Unitarian-Universalist hymnal Singing the Living Tradition)
Today, November 14, 2021, would have been my sister Sally’s 70th birthday. She died a bit more than 13 months shy of it. For the final few years of her life, she was a sometime attendee at a UU fellowship in Gettysburg, PA, about a 20 mile commute from her rural Maryland farm. For the final several months of her life, once the covid pandemic started causing shutdowns and panic, Sal phoned me regularly on Sunday evenings. We’d catch up on the week’s events, and reassure each other that both of us were still alive. We didn’t discuss religion much. Sal did say that the Gettysburg church was not an ideal match for her, but the closest connection she’d found for her evolving beliefs. Both of us had been raised primarily in an Episcopal congregation. We relished many of its ceremonies and much of its music, if not always its doctrines.
I did not attend Sal’s memorial service, held at her White Rose Farm on a beautiful autumn day. The timing coincided with the first day of early voting in North Carolina, where I then lived and participated as an election official. I was pretty sure Sally would forgive me for prioritizing election work in an exceedingly fraught year. Family members who were at the service said they were pretty sure that some of the Gettysburg UU’s showed up, and that several had been regular volunteers for the agricultural education project that Sal ran a couple of days a week.
The pandemic was hard on Sal, both financially and emotionally. It cut off much of the income she’d derived from renting out an auxiliary house on the farm as an airbnb retreat. It made conducting her educational events both less income-producing and more stressful—requiring sanitizing protocols, masking, and distancing beyond what would have been the case pre-pandemic.
The Sunday before Sally died, she phoned earlier in the evening than typical and didn’t sound well. My husband and I were in the car, returning home after getting that year’s flu shots (a covid vaccine was still several months into the future).
“I’ve been through a rough patch,” Sal said without elaboration, “but I think I’m getting better.”
“Do you want me to come up?” I said, somewhat grudgingly making mental notes of how I’d arrange an interstate trip during a pandemic and how I’d get hubby primed to take care of himself solo for several days.
“No,” she said. “Talk with you next week.”
Next Sunday was too late. A friend of hers, an alternative medicine practitioner with whom she’d made an appointment she didn’t keep, found Sally dead in the living room of her farmhouse that Friday afternoon. As best we can tell, she suffered a fatal heart attack or stroke sometime during the night of Thursday-Friday or early on Friday morning.
It took a while this morning before I picked out what I hope is an appropriate “hymn for Sally.” It was composed by one of the few UU musicians I’ve had a chance to meet in person—Shelley Jackson Denham. I thought I’d heard somewhere that Jackson Denham had died too early as well. It took several rounds of internet sleuthing to validate that this hymn writer and musician born in 1950, a year before my sister, had indeed left us physically. Shelley had succumbed to a fatal heart attack in 2013, several months after the sudden death of her husband. It must have been shortly before then that I’d attended a music workshop where Shelley was a co-presenter. Several singers from our choir had carpooled to The Mountain, a UU conference center in western North Carolina. We’d spent most of a week singing and reveling in the community-building power of music, which seemed also to be a tenet of Shelley’s faith.
I like to think of both Shelley and Sally participating in a celestial choir somewhere and creating community with this Shelley hymn:
“Blessed Spirit of my life, give me strength through stress and strife,
Help me live with dignity; let me know serenity.
Fill me with a vision, clear my mind of fear and confusion.
When my thoughts flow restlessly, let peace find a home in me.
Spirit of great mystery, hear the still, small voice in me.
Help me live my wordless creed as I comfort those in need.
Fill me with compassion, be the source of my intuition.
Then, when life is done for me, let love be my legacy.”
May you both rest well, Shelley and Sally, and may we honor and live up to your legacies.