Mind Matters — Gracias A La Vida: And So We Sing

“Thanks to life that has given me so much … laughter … and tears so I can tell happiness from grief. … The two things my song is made of .. the song of you … my own song.”

These are the final lyrics, translated from Spanish, of Gracias a la Vida, “Thanks to Life.” Violeta Parra was its Chilean composer who sadly committed suicide in 1967.

Perhaps it is the irony of her death in light of these hopeful words that makes them all the more poignant. The song is fresh in my mind, having sung it in the Anna Crusis choir in Philadelphia last weekend.

Actually, the past months have been a burst of sounds, images, thoughts, and feelings that parallel the lyrics’ message. My Boston friends go to St. John Virgin Islands to get away from it all. While they are savoring the beauty and the quiet, a vacationing Delaware family on the same island have been poisoned—and paralyzed—by an exterminating company’s flagrant misuse of a banned pesticide. A passenger train derails in Philadelphia; eight people die; emergency teams, Red Cross responds: I witness families bereft. We attend my son-in-law’s master’s graduation ceremonies, cheering him on. My daughter announces her pregnancy. The weave of life-death-life, happiness and grief meet and mingle. Joy is not about saccharin happy: it is about the profound connection of delight and darkness.

Most recent, I attend my husband’s fiftieth alumni reunion at MIT. To do this, I boarded the train at quarter to midnight, after a long concert rehearsal. I wonder when the train will curve past the area of the accident and send prayerful thoughts as wheels turn. I arrive in Cambridge, passing by the Memorial to Officer Sean Collier, slain by the Boston Marathon bomber, in time to raise a toast to my spouse as he and his class of 1965 lead the graduation procession. A fraternity brother, groomsman at our wedding forty-five years ago, died suddenly just a week before. More life-death-life dance.

Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States, part of President Obama’s inner circle of advisors, gives the convocation and her theme is “heart.” She invokes the heart of MIT as being about inclusivity, collaborations, service, teamwork. Her words are indeed about the life of heart that is connection with and care of others.

I laugh and eat and drink with friends and family at the festivities after commencement. Needing to get back to sing in two Anna Crusis concerts, I catch the early morning train the next day—the day of Beau Biden’s funeral. Life-Death-Life again. I silently study my music, breaking away to watch the harbors, the ferries, ospreys, eagles, swoosh by my window. Is this another song?

Coming into Philly, the train rides the curve of tragedy. I pause. Once in Wilmington, I drive to Archmere Academy for an alumni reception for Beau Biden. My connection is tangential but my son attended Archmere as did the Biden family. Life-death-life again. Beau noted for kindness and service, dies too young. I converse with an Archmere officer whom I recognize. He says “losing a child is tragic.” I say, yes, “it’s staggering.” He says, yes, “my daughter who was eighteen died in her sleep ten months ago.” We embrace a moment. Yet here he stands considering the grief of others from his own experience. Life-death-life. My cousin posts a photo from downstate Delaware about Beau’s memorials. Her daughter died suddenly not two years ago. She connects her grief to her compassion here too. Life-death-life.

On to Philly again: to sing Gracias a la Vida. Anna Crusis sings in heartfelt union: may our grief know joy and may we be grateful for life. Of course, choir and audience are warp and woof of the weave of life too. A child yells towards the stage, “Mommy, I’m here!” A singer remembers her husband, who died of ALS only a year ago. Friends of mine are in the audience—they too know loss, of a son. Life-death-life stories are our constant.

Gracias a la vida!