Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Snow White Passion

In August of 2009, four days before my wedding, one of the most influential and beautiful persons in my life learned that she had very aggressive cancer.  Connie Schneweis continued this battle until last Friday.  She quoted J.S. Bach as to what she wished to be said in her funeral homily: "To God be the Glory".

Bach wrote oratorios based on the biblical stories of Jesus' death called "Passions".  It so happens that I am preparing a production of a modern "passion" called "The Little Match Girl Passion" based on the fairy tale.  So, in the same, I would like for you to know about my friend and our experiences and my sorrow.  Given her name, this Snow White Passion contains several stories as flashbacks separated by short poems taken from the Book of Matthew, Picander, and Hans Christian Anderson used in the Match Girl passion.

Snow White Passion

"Come, daughter
Help me, daughter
Help me cry
Guiltless daughter
Patient daughter
Gone"

I walked up to the house along the drive, making sure to not walk through the grass.  Holding on to my red canvas bag with black cloth handles, filled with piano music, I hesitantly enter the front door and sit as quietly as I can on the couch waiting for a student to finish playing their piano piece.  The student ends and packs up their things.  Turning around on a black swivel chair next to the piano bench, she smiles and calmly says, "Bryan!".  I walk past the Christmas Tree, smell dinner being cooked in the neighboring kitchen, and sit on the piano bench upon which lies a white thinly-padded cushion.  We talk about the problems that being a mature fifth grader brings; I play through an arrangement of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" memorized...barely.  I need more practice - opening my note book, she writes "S M T W T F S"; below it, my prescription for what I should practice in the coming week.  It is time to go, and at the front door, with a huge loving smile, she says almost musically, "goodbye, Bryan"...I know her inflection so well, speaking on the pitches of B flat, rising to E flat, and settling on C.

"Penance and remorse
Tear my sinful heart in two
My teardrops
May they fall down like rain

Here, daughter, here I am
I should be bound as you were bound
All that I deserve is 
What you have endured"

I learned much from her. Music - Kindermusik lessons, the glockenspiel, bouncing basketballs in the Parochial School hall.  Admiration - sitting patiently while I destroy Beethoven on the piano  Joy - cantoring mass, cantoring Christmas Eve mass especially, watching her teach her children's choir.  Dedication - going with her to conventions in Chicago and Indianapolis, playing songs that I composed for us, the large nativity set she gave me, encouraging me to do music even after I quit piano lessons in 8th grade.  Pride - being my confirmation sponsor, awarding me my first college scholarship, playing a piano/organ duet of Bach/Gounod's "Ave Maria" (her favorite version) with me at church after I started lessons again, playing a piano duet with me on a recital.  Love - traveling to see me in a choir concert, in an opera; myself traveling back home from college on Mondays to rehearse for Christmas Eve mass; sending me old pictures of us, fully appreciating every moment together.  THE LOVE OF LIVING - fighting cancer

"Patience"

On the day that the new microphones were set up in the sanctuary, I got to test them out.  I was only 13, and had a great urge to be ornery.  "This is God!", I said in the lowest part of my male-soprano voice - echoing throughout the sanctuary.  She was not amused...in fact she was really upset.  "At least father didn't hear", she whispered with stress.  Not many got to see that side of her...I was lucky - lucky, that she hates being angry.

"Dearest heart
What did you do that was so wrong?
Why is your sentence so hard?"

A phone call can usher a storm of pain.  As if she were the calm mother in Forrest Gump, I hear the weakness of her voice, the sadness, and the serenity that life has changed.  She has cancer, and cannot play "Thaxted" at the wedding.  Surgery is imminent.  There is no time to mourn, she must act.  She is tired and sick, but there is hope.  She chose to speak to me - not a message - but in her own voice, to tell me the news of what life has dealt her, taking courage to make sure I was calm and emotionally understanding of the situation, apologizing for my sake as if she were taking the guilt...never mentioning a selfish thought of which most of us would wail, "why me?"

"My eyes are crying.
My heart is crying.
See my tears fall."

Many do not know my past, my troubles, my pranks, my joys.  Through all the happy and sad times, I nearly never cry.  I just haven't had to - I never fight to hold it back; it just didn't happen.  After a double overtime loss in a football game in 1998, I cried.  I cried while throwing-up a couple of years ago.  I have teared up twice too - seeing my bride walk down the aisle and holding my puppy on the last night at home before I moved to college.  But in the last 14 years that was it, until the lonely drive back from Dallas last weekend, until hugging Father Warren walking into the church for the vigil, until approaching her, until hugging her family, until exhaustively relaxing after cantoring the vigil in the arms of my wife, until listening to "Thaxted" at the funeral (which was a wonderful gift), until her children's choir sang "How Can I Keep from Singing".  It was great relief.

"We sit and cry
And call to you
Rest soft, daughter, rest soft

You closed your eyes.
I closed my eyes.

Rest soft"

I sent a letter to her to tell her what I have been up to - and what she has inspired me to be - including things that no one knows about still (unless she bragged about it to someone!).  I received a phone call.  She was so proud.  There are only a few people on earth in which it is always ok to brag to.  For me, she was one of the few - I was proud that she inspired me to keep going.  She knew it, and I knew that these proud moments made her happy.  I was always happy for her and her stories and her family as well - she always shared about them.  She taught me that it is ok to live your passion passionately.  And of course, being passionate people, we had a great time being happy - especially when it comes to music.  She told me calmly that she was planning for her funeral and asked me to cantor her services.  "It makes me sick to think about that", I said very nervously.  She said not to worry, that she was at peace with it all and quickly reminded me that she couldn't help but plan the music.  She asked me if I thought I would be able to make it when the time came - still not knowing how far in the future it may be.  I quickly replied, "There is no greater honor.  I would go to the end of the Earth to be there, do not worry about that...I owe everything to you it seems, it's so great to be able to live what I love to do."  She said, "We are fortunate; we ARE the luckiest people on earth after all!"

Sensing the end of the phone call, I casually went through the normal cadence, assuring her that I would be back in town after the opera in March and that I would see her soon.  I didn't get that opportunity, but I did get the greatest memory of her.  I said "I love you" as if I were to end the phone call on a sharp, happy note.  There was a pause.  She very slowly said, "Bryan"..."I love you, Bryan".  Those words said in a perfectly calming inflection - musically, first on B flat, rising to E flat, and settling on C.  Calm and beautiful.

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I will miss Connie very much.  I hope that I can be as influential as she has been.  Hundreds attended her funeral.  It was beautiful.



("Thaxted" is the name of the Chorale in the middle of this piece)

2 comments:

  1. WOW BRYAN!! That was just BEAUTIFUL!!! And YES she bragged so much about you!! And RIGHTFULLY SO! She was SOOOOOOOOOOO proud of you!! Again.....rightfully so! I just wanted you to know that you took the pain away during the vigil and funeral with your beautiful voice! I could hear both GOD and CONNIE coming through your voice! And THANK YOU for giving her the gift of your voice as she rose up to Heaven!! KEEP ON KEEPIN' ON!! And we will follow you on here so we can be proud of you (for her) here on earth along with her BEAMING up in Heaven!! Good luck to you!!

    Melissa, Troy and Maddie Schneweis

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  2. Wow, Bryan. Wow. What a tribute. She spoke of you often- you have to know that-with pride literally SPARKLING in her eyes. We are all proud of your gift and what you are doing with it. I am so thankful we got to do one more Mass together with Father Warren for her- just like so many years ago. You were her star, Bryan. Keep shining.

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