Memory of Cousin Bill’s glorious voice

The day the first Coronavirus restrictions were announced was the day we buried my Cousin Bill.
Our mothers were sisters. He was almost five years my senior, but we grew up together, on the same street, just two houses apart. His presence was a solid rock of my childhood.
When I was six and almost died from scarlet fever, he built a little wagon for me from an orange crate, with roller skate wheels and a broomstick handle. He knew which window I’d be looking out from, looking for him, when I was finally allowed to get out of bed. On the ground below that window, he parked his handiwork; when at last I was able to come downstairs and outside, he took me riding in it.
His funeral was surreal. Our little group — maybe 10 as permitted, plus the rabbi — trekked through the mud of many days’ rain on the way to the small tent awaiting us. The newly dug grave yawned raw and open next to the marker for Pat, Bill’s beloved wife who had preceded him in death. Two smartly-dressed soldiers played taps, folded an American flag and handed it to my cousin’s daughter — his only child — then disappeared. This military honor was followed by eulogies in which Bill’s distinguished service to our country — first in the Army, then with the CIA, finally at the State Department — was recounted. I fingered the pink pearl necklace he had sent me from Japan for my Confirmation. But I couldn’t concentrate on anyone’s words because in my head, I was hearing music…
Bill always had a beautiful voice. For some years, we walked together to our little neighborhood shul for religious school. But after a while, our principal suggested that he could do something better with his time. “We know you are a good student,” she said. “You’ve learned much. But now, instead of coming here, you should spend your Sunday mornings at Mary S. Brown Memorial Methodist Church” – which was just around the corner, only two short blocks away. “You can sing in its choir,” she said, “and they will pay you!” And so, he did. And so, they did…
Our high school’s choir was the best of all such groups in the city. Miss Emma Steiner ruled it with her will of iron. Standing front and center, her ample back to the auditorium audience, she would hiss at the singing students before her who looked like angels in their robes, their hands tucked away in flowing sleeves. Nobody carried music; Miss Steiner demanded memory. “Smile, damn you,” she would hiss at them, but quietly. They sang like the music-makers they resembled must sing in heaven. My Cousin Bill was among them.
Miss Steiner had chosen as the choir’s signature song an ancient Latin hymn, a haunting plea to God in many-part harmony: “Emitte Spiritum Tuum” – “Send Forth Thy Spirit.” I could always hear Cousin Bill’s glorious voice above all the others, somehow apart from them yet still very much with them, so necessary to the harmony. And I swear today that as his plain wood coffin descended into his final resting place, as clods of damp earth fell upon it with loud thunking sounds from shovels wielded by our little crowd, the only ones permitted on that sad day to perform for him this final mitzvah, I could hear him again, singing a prayer for all of us now, a plea to God to spare us from the plague he had himself escaped through the absolute finality found only in death.
At my high school class’ 50-year reunion, the choir sang for us. Miss Steiner was long gone, but her “Emitte Spiritum” lived on. I could still recall Cousin Bill’s beautiful voice, standing apart from the others, yet somehow blending with them. And I hear him now, begging God to send forth what our whole world needs today. As he rests, may his plea be heard…

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