My Cousin Jim

In remembrance

Once again as an extended family we find ourselves gathered together in this place to celebrate and remember the life of a loved one: my cousin Jim.

Jim passed away a year and a week after the death of his beloved spouse Diana, and nearly a year after the passing of his mother, our Aunt Jean. That year, I’m sure, was a difficult one for Jim. Not only did he continue to work in his profession as a dentist; he also continued to receive treatments for his cancer, which had spread to his bones. At the same time I’m certain that he entered a period of extended mourning. Such milestones are not easy for any human being to bear.

We exchanged several e-mails over the course of this past year. In one I asked Jim how he managed to keep himself together. I recall his reply: “by deep faith.” In the end it was his faith that got him through.

As I read through Jim’s obituary, one line stood out. “Many of his patients, family and friends knew and loved him for his gentleness and compassion.” That one line brought a smile to my face.

In a telephone conversation this past week, my mother related to me how my cousin Jim provided dental care for my Aunt Poll and Uncle Skip over the course of the 29 years that he practiced general dentistry. Jim refused to accept any monetary payment from them, although he welcomed my Aunt Poll’s apple pies as a token of appreciation for services rendered. I also learned that Jim provided pro bono dental care to countless children whose families were too poor to afford it.

My cousin Jim suffered quite a bit in his life, particularly over the course of these past several years. But it seems as though he succeeded in spinning his suffering into a tapestry of sorts: a tapestry of gentleness and compassion for his patients, his family and his friends.

My cousin Jim took upon himself the yoke of a wounded healer. He used his pain and suffering to create and disseminate a little bit of goodness and love in this world.

That, to me, will be my cousin Jim’s legacy.

A tapestry of song

My life has been a tapestry of rich and royal hue
An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view
A wondrous woven magic in bits of blue and gold
A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.

—Carole King, Tapestry

When we arrived home from the Tapestry Singers annual Valentine’s Day cabaret concert, I counted up the musical numbers listed in the program. There were exactly twenty — a full musical score.

The songs ranged from Broadway hits to country ballads, patriotic medleys to spiritual worship songs. For two hours we were treated to poignant arrangements of pieces like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Enya’s “Only Time,” Jerry Herman’s “Ribbons Down My Back” and Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better,” Mark Hayes’ “Consecration” and Marie Barnett’s “Breathe.” For the grand finale there was a special rendition of “Over the Rainbow.”

This annual event was the brainchild of Jana Pivácek-Cole, a talented vocalist and voice teacher, who succumbed to cancer at the close of last year. Since 1998, Jana’s Tapestry Singers, composed of former voice students of all ages,  has offered public performances to raise financial support for the Kateri Medical Clinic in the Kaduna province of northern Nigeria.

Without the benefit of Kateri Medical Clinic, thousands of Nigerians who reside in the region would have no access to medical care. Last year over 14,000 people received care at Kateri for the amazingly low cost of $5 per encounter.

As I sat through this moving musical repertoire, I reflected on our medical mission to Nigeria last summer. We saw nearly 6,000 patients in a 2-week stretch. Many more were unable to access care during our stay; although the needs were great, the workers were relatively few.

When my eyes began to water, I wasn’t entirely certain why. It might have been the poignant pieces of music I heard — or perhaps the memories of those Nigerian patients I had seen. Both sets of voices were certainly present, and together they sounded sweet and low in my ear.

In a Paris Review interview literary critic George Steiner opined:

The next Copernicus may have something to tell us about what music does inside us and how it is created. Above all, music illustrates for me that order of meaning that you can’t translate, can’t paraphrase, can’t put in any other terms, and yet which is intensely meaningful.

Some say that music can heal the heart; I know it can heal the soul. Perhaps it is even capable of moving beyond the borders of space and time to touch the lives of others in need, continents away.