The Song I Cannot Sing

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Scene One

The story of her birth is a raucous family tale that begins with her arrival into the world on December 19. Her parents named her Joy. She was the youngest in a line of eight children, and every one of them could tell a story, so a person couldn’t breathe for laughing. One or another of them would string this story up over the family dinner table each year — rushing to tell it, piling on top of each other’s words. And then they would sit back in their chairs as the room pealed with laughter like big, singing bells.

Their father went to fetch their mother and the new baby from the hospital on Christmas Eve. For an unaccountable reason, he left the family station wagon in the driveway and loaded the other seven kids up in the back of an old, secondhand Provo City truck. The words Provo City Sanitation still faintly showed through the new green paint. In those days before seatbelts, nobody noticed a bunch of kids tumbling around in the bed of a pickup truck.

They pulled up to the curb at the hospital, and a nurse wheeled their mother out, holding the tiny baby wrapped like a stocking. Both the mother and the nurse looked aghast at the mode of transportation he had chosen. The truck? All the kids in the truck? Hike up her skirt and climb into the cab after just giving birth? He sheepishly smiled. She climbed in. The nurse handed her the baby, and they all drove home like the Joads.

I’ve always believed Christmas is for coming home. For a noisy, but complete family. For forgiving his ridiculous choice. For not falling out of the truck. For tucking everyone in bed — warm and safe. For gifts to be spread out on the stairs while we were sleeping. For knowing Joy is in the house.

Scene Two

I arrived in Finland in the middle of December 1984. The city of Tampere was in a deep freeze. Bitterly, bitingly cold that winter, the temperature hovered between -32 and -36 for almost three weeks. I remember the dim winter rooms lit by a single bulb or possibly a candle where I first taught “Christ is Our Cornerstone” to papery widows who still had the war on their faces. The arctic ice hung heavy in our clothing, and while we sat for awhile on a couch or a stale chair, it thawed around us in puddles. Hyacinths poked up from pots on the coffee tables, letting out their heavy scent into the dark rooms. I wished so many times to know the secrets of thawing or letting out perfume.

The Lindgren family invited us for Christmas Eve. Their big table was heavy with the ham and prunes, the beet salad, the rye pies, and the fruit soup. I couldn’t understand the conversation rushing and flowing around me. I smiled until my face was creased and aching. Their mother played the piano, and I mumbled through unfamiliar carols as the night grew late. Then we pressed into their car so they could drive us back to our small apartment. I was nodding and drowsy when they pulled into the cemetery, and we all jumbled out into the car park.

The cold air smacked my cheeks. My eyelashes frosted over in ice. I walked arm in arm with Sister Lindgren, who chatted earnestly to me, trying to explain something that was lost in mystery to me. We trudged up a steep path salted with pea gravel under our boots. An organ played hymns from the Lutheran chapel at the top of the hill. She and I slipped and slid until we crested the hill, and then I sucked in a breath, which made me cough.

Spread below us as far as the eye could see were small flickering candles set on the gravestones. Acres and acres of twinkling lights. Snowballs piled around the candles made a kind of ice lantern. It was breathtaking in its contrasts: warm and cold, bright and dark, alive and dead. The Lindgren daughter saw my wondering expression and explained in English: “For Christmas. To wish our dead families Merry Christmas. To show we do not forget them. Because of Jesus, their bodies will rise up. We will have each other again. Alive in Christ.”

Christmas is for the dead. It is for the hope that cold markers in the snow are not the ultimate end of us. It is for dead relationships, dead hopes, dead dreams, dead children that are promised to be restored.

Scene Three

This December, Joy is the mother coming home from the hospital. Her sister or sometimes her husband drives her back from the infusion center and walks her gingerly into the house. She gets online late at night and orders Christmas gifts, trying to stay on top of the pain from the tumors breaking her back and stiffening her lungs. She and her husband will spread out a Los Angeles Christmas on the stairs for their two little girls. There may be many more or there may be no more Christmases together. Nobody knows that answer. Why does a non-smoking, 38-year-old mother of little girls have lung cancer? I don’t know. Nothing about it can be right. I rabidly stare down anyone who starts talking to me about meaning in the trial. There isn’t one.

The grief of her leaving rips and unravels things. It cries out and soughs through the nights. It creates a white space and a white noise. The pain is a blizzard, making unrecognizable humps out of my life. It turns me cynical and sneering when other people are stringing up lights over their tables and telling stories. I try to pretend it hasn’t happened. I close my eyes and shut my ears so I can hear the siblings in their red elf hats singing “Joy to the World” to their new baby sister, giggling and nudging each other knowingly at the pun. Joy to the world, the Lord is come. But my pretending does nothing to stop the white noise from raging on.

Into this endless, white wasteland, one day a man did come wading through the hip-deep snow. I could see him from a long way off and, God help me, I wished he wouldn’t. I didn’t have the emotional energy to deal with him. Undeterred by what I wanted, he patiently climbed over my frozen fences and beat a new track through the arctic yard. I barely greeted him though our eyes met. We knew each other well. I was angry and he knew it. Well — since he had insisted on coming – what would he do now? Fix things. That’s what he did, right? Melt the whole damned world to spring.

Ignoring my outburst, he simply sat down. We didn’t talk. He didn’t probe for an emotional baring of my soul. We spent a silent night. And in the days afterward, wherever I went, he simply followed and sat down next to me. After quite a bit of this, I noticed he was taking the windy side, keeping me between the storm and the wall.

Christmas is for grief. The grief of why and how and when. The grief of things that cannot be changed, no matter how much wanting or faith. I know that now.

It’s much easier to love Jesus as a little baby in the hay. But that just gets us to climb up into the truck. First and foremost, Jesus Christ is a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. Rather than remain the sweet baby asleep on the hay, he accepted to be the man bearing all the messiness of our mortality. Jesus of the garden, the cross, and the tomb is harder to worship, but he also gives more in return. He rebukes the white noise that is stealing little bits of my soul. He sits on the storm side and puts me by the wall. He holds back the greedy, sighing night and gives me space to catch a breath. The chastisement of my peace is upon Him, and with His stripes I am healed.

I absolutely cannot sing “Joy to the World.” Not this year and maybe not any year. But I also in all honesty cannot forget the December when the Man acquainted with grief had me prove the wonders of His love. This Christmas turned out to be for the song I cannot sing.

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About Sharon Eubank

Sharon Eubank for many years owned a toy store in Provo, Utah, and spent endless hours advising Santa Claus on the coolest stuff for kids who had been good. She is currently the director of LDS Charities, the humanitarian organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

9 thoughts on “The Song I Cannot Sing

  1. Dear Sharon,
    I just read your story/article in Mormon Interpreter.
    I have a very close friend, diagnosed recently with lung cancer, and now secondary cancers associated with this. She has never smoked in her life either.
    I resonated with your line ‘the white noise that is stealing little bits if my soul’.
    I realise I recognise the ‘proving of his love’.
    I’ve done this before when my first husband passed away with cancer prior to Christmas 18 years ago – when I was 36 years old with four young children.
    I had hoped I would never have to experience that kind of grief again.
    Thank you for reminding someone like me, that the quiet ‘silent nights’ were and can be the ‘space and time to catch ones breath’ as we ‘spend time’ with Him, who is acquainted with grief.
    With appreciation,
    Anita
    (Sydney, Australia)

  2. I can relate to the words and feelings expressed in this article. The first Christmas after our 12 1/2 year old daughter died was difficult. Chrissa Lee was always our “Chris-miss”, the angelic child that her older brothers had to kiss on her cheeks before entering the room with the surprise presents. Our lives were so different after her death so we needed Christmas to be different. We went to Arizona to stay with my sister and family in Mesa and to my husbands brother and family in Tucson. There we could watch families enjoying the holidays and we didn’t have to initiate anything, just participate nwhen we felt up to it. We were still too broken hearted to give any more than our presence. Our extended family showed concern the best that anyone could. Our cups were empty and needed filling. We laid in the sun, swam in the pools, slept, let our children hang out with their cousins with the idea of taking a recess from the sadness. Joy and gratitude were theoretical concepts but not applied that year. Even music was difficult to enjoy. This was a time of healing and coming closer to our Father in Heaven and the Saviour by accepting other people’s service for us. In future years, old traditions came back, joy and gratitude were felt and shared. A deeper understanding of our Saviors life and mission helped us, no longer ethereal concepts, but absolute life-lines in accessing the Infinite Atonement.

  3. Sisar Eubank,
    How grateful I am to have read this! Thank you for sharing this and your wonderfully expressed thoughts and feelings. I don’t know if you will remember, but you were my MTC teacher. I was with Veli Mellen and Veli Hutchings. I remember your stories, teachings, and testimony like it was yesterday. You were a caring and kind teacher. You greatly enriched my experience as a missionary. I served in Finland with my all, following your example, and I remain a faithful Latter-day Saint. I sincerely send you my heart, my prayers, and my faith!

    Love,
    Veli Clint Hubler
    Orem Utah

  4. Sis. Eubank, It’s wonderful to hear from you. That night in Finland was magical for me too. We spent the evening with members in Oulu. My wife and I ran into your folks in Hawaii a few years back. I asked about you. Take care.

    Elder Cheney

  5. Sisar Eubank,
    Thank you for sharing these stories, and thank you for being one who “took the windy side of the storm” for me in the MTC, as I was still working through the grief and loss of my best friend. As time has passed and life experiences have accumulated, I too have come to know that the Savior “gives more in return”. You’re still one of my hero’s!

  6. Wow!
    I don’t often use the words ‘tender’ and ‘powerful’ in the same sentence, but I believe this inspired piece was both tender and powerful.
    I like using the word ‘piece’ to describe this writing, because the words we read are only a ‘piece’ of the depths of Sister Eubank’s grief. It took courage to face those depths, and after many days try to learn from it.
    A former Bishop and I worked with a family where the teenage son had committed suicide. My Bishop had attended the University of Washington Medical School, where the school offers courses to help doctors learn how to counsel patients who are suffering from untold grief. It’s a class where the professor teaches medical students about the various stages of grief, and encourages them to develop the skill of helpful counseling in the grief process.
    My Bishop mentioned that the professor teaches the theory of grief. Truth be told, exquisite grief is not a theory where learned experts can extrapolate its basic elements, so it can be ‘fixed’ and then skip on to the next ‘case.’
    Grief is personal. It needs to be respected. It can become sacred and refining.
    One person grieves differently than another. Sometimes the person who is emotionally and spiritually and mentally frozen to numbness by intense grief needs to be left alone. Sometimes he or she needs a hug. Or a pat on the back. Or a ‘thinking of you’ note. There is no one pat answer, for all persons and all types of grief.
    Sister Eubank’s moving piece is so tender and powerful in illustrating that grief can even affect how you celebrate Christmas or sing a hymn.
    My Bishop likened the depths of true grief to those unfortunate persons who become patients in any major hospital’s burn unit. There are grieving patients who are barely alive, today, in burn units in major hospitals, where a runaway fire has consumed 70% or more of their flesh. Doctors believe that few levels of pain are greater than those suffered by burn patients.
    The human body is a masterpiece of nerve networks imbedded in our skin and around our organs, keeping everything functioning and also serving as a watchman’s network for danger, which is signaled by pain molecules. Burn patients have layers of skin sizzled away, where millions upon millions of nerve endings are exposed – and each of these are blaring their pain warnings off the top of their meter. Even heavy doses of morphine don’t reach all of this pain.

    The human heart and soul is a masterpiece of nerve networks, where we learn to love. If we love deeply, sooner or later we are going to be hurt deeply. If we don’t care about someone, it doesn’t hurt so much if they are injured. The deeper the love, the deeper the hurt – burn unit deep.
    At the University of Washington Medical Center, one of the most expensive pieces of medical equipment is the burn unit air bath. I’m not using the correct medical terms for it, but it is a multi-million dollar bed where severe burn patients are allowed to rest on a carefully designed cushion of air.
    This amazing machine fires jets off air upward, and the patient rests on a ‘bed’ of tiny ceramic balls. The steady force of the air is great enough to keep the ceramic balls up in the air, and yet the balls move ever so slightly so that wisps of air slip upward to the patient, cooling the millions of nerve endings and keep the weight of the body off the hospital bed.
    If you or one of your loved ones is a burn patient like this, even laying in a regular hospital bed is painful. The weight of your limbs and torso will press down on whatever part of you was burned, and press the wound against the bed. Even dressing such wounds is extremely difficult.
    Doctors have figured out that a bed of air, with small ceramic balls floating steadily and yet able to bounce barely away from flesh and nerve endings, is actually one of the best medical treatments anyone has devised to help burn patients heal. It is a slow process. Before this device was invented and perfected, many severe patients died because there wounds never healed and the excruciating pain was nonstop 24 hours a day. The human body can only take so much.
    When Sister Eubank powerfully described her grief from witnessing Joy suffer with lung cancer, I thought of the burn unit air bed, and the fact that even the best medical solution cannot be rushed into, and it simply takes time.
    Each human heart is unique. It is deep. When it is injured, it takes whatever time it takes, for it to be ready to heal. If the person’s grief is like a severe burn patient who only has a regular bed to sleep on, very little healing will take place. It may never heal.
    The beauty of the Gospel of Christ is that it is a Gospel of redemption. No matter how great the injury to heart, mind and soul, the Savior has descended below all. Sister Eubank’s piece powerfully and tenderly brought to my mind the scripture ‘cast thy burden upon the Lord, and He shall ever save thee’ – except with a twist.
    Because He is patient and because He already knows the depth of despair and grieving that come with all of the horrible tests He has tailor-made for each of His children, He is patient. He does not order us to cast our burdens on Him within 24 hours of the tragedy, or else we ‘lose our place in line.’
    I’m sure that each person who is touched by this ‘piece of Sister Eubank’s heart’ will have our own specific thoughts, especially if we have already experienced unforgettable grief. We’ll all see and take away different things from her sharing part of her soul this way, reflecting our own depth.
    I believe the better interpretation of that scripture is ‘case your burden upon the Lord when you are ready to seek His healing.’
    Whenever I am touched by tenderness, my mind and heart tend to race and I ‘free associate’ a lot, sifting through my own experiences or experiences of family and friends. My mind rested upon the Devotional talk on ‘Timing’ from Elder Dallin H. Oaks to the BYU students in January 2002:
    https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/dallin-h-oaks_timing/
    Sister Eubank described the various impressions of her heart during her testing, as she gradually worked through things enough to be ready to receive the Lord’s help. The important thing is that He was patiently waiting for her, to work through things, to be ready to ask for help. He didn’t force His help.
    I firmly believe that we cannot even begin to get a handle of exquisite grief if we do not factor in the Lord’s timing, for all of the many trials He designs for us. Sister Eubank showed us that it takes time for a heart to be ready to heal.
    In the Book of Job, Job’s three ‘comforters’ were no comfort at all. Depending upon how you read their tone of voice, they seemed glib.
    Like the professor who was an expert in the theory of the stages of grief, they had quickly extrapolated all of the causes of Job’s suffering – or so they thought – and continually hammered him with their glib answers. It only made Job’s suffering worse.
    How many times do we do the same to those who suffer around us? How many times do we extrapolate from our own experiences (that are different from the sufferer’s experience so much as to be irrelevant), and do so recklessly?
    Yet, overarching all trials by a kind Heavenly Father who actually knows when a dove falls from a branch, He is patiently waiting for the person immersed in grief to work through things on their own if need be, to reach a point where they might seek the curative power of a burn unit air bed, so the healing can begin.
    If Lucifer had won the war in heaven, if he offered comfort during times of grief, my bet is that heh would have a robot schedule on this ‘relief,’ that no matter how much you grieve in so great a cause, you are ordered to stop sniveling and ‘cast your burden’ on this fearsome god by noon tomorrow. Since all men and women will grieve, that tyrannical master – by not having patience and open-ended timing, waiting for us to call upon Him for help – would turn us into robots.
    We may be impatient for our severe burns to heal. He is patient, because He is filled with genuine love for us in our infirmities. He is not a theoretical God, but one who knows our infirmities because He descended below all to experience them.
    If the burn unit is the most expensive equipment in major hospitals, the most expensive purchase in human history is when the Savior shed precious blood for each of us, and in the midst of his terrible purchase somehow called to mind each of our faces and knowing what trials He would necessarily allow each of us to face, so that we would genuinely humble ourselves and call on Him as the only One who can save.
    The Apostle Paul said it best:
    For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s. (1 Cor. 6:20).
    That price was so high, because our love is so deep. That means when it’s time for our love to be tested, that our grief will be equally deep, under the law of opposition in all things. The joys of the celestial world are a victory, where we finally learned to trust and fully depend upon the Lord. Once we learn that down to our bones, we might then qualify to enter into His rest.

    Thank you, Sister Eubank.

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