At sixty-eight years old, Thomas Michaels decided his life was over. Sure others lived for a long time beyond the sixties and well into the eighties, but what was the quality of their lives? Tom was retired. He retired early at sixty-two when his wife, Doris, heard her diagnosis: cancer of the stomach. He wanted to be there with her everyday and he was, right up until she took her last breath two years later. Standing there with his daughter and sister in law, they flew in from Cheyenne and Chicago respectively and arrived in time to be there for the administration of the last rites. His daughter, Theresa, was a surgeon in Wyoming. She looked just like her mother and everyone considered her a tribute to Tom and Doris. Thomas would say that was his wife’s doing. His daughter always reminded him that he influenced her as much. Especially since she had his carpentry skills, the career he lived and taught her.
Theresa built the bed and a chair for her grad school apartment at Stanford, few doctors or as she was at the time future doctors could claim that skill.
No longer the personality he was when Doris was alive, Tom lived alone and remained mostly to himself. Together, before the diagnosis, they went to parties and took cruises on their vacations. They also loved to visit one of the Island resorts off the coast of Cancun, Mexico. Once she died, he fell into the quiet rut of going daily to the library and reading the magazines and daily newspapers. She was the city librarian and it was his way to try to keep her alive, walking where she walked at home and at her former work.
It was when he was not going out one day due to a severe Autumn rain that attacked New England, he went down to the cellar and began to clean out the mess stored there. Sure they were memories, but they were messing up his house and his cellar. He started to look over the toys his children played with that had turned to dust covered remnants of the past. Old clothes that had long since stopped being fashionable or even of the correct size he planned to donate to the poor and other items stored in the home. It long stopped being the clean home Doris and he moved into when they returned from their honeymoon in New York after their wedding during Mayor Lindsay’s administration.
He began moving old bins and his daughter’s toy box when he found Doris’ guitar. The strings were still on it, steel strings. He sneezed as he brushed off six years of collected dust that fell on the neck and base.
Immediately, he saw his wife, who loved the instrument, playing it in the house, at church, even in the park on Sunday afternoons when they would picnic there.She loved playing that instrument. She even played at folk masses in Church.
“Play ‘Sons of God.” Tom would ask.
They would be sitting in the park on the lawn in front of the museums there, where others as well would picnic, eat lunch and sing.
“You know, Tom” she would often start as she placed her hands on the guitar, you are the only one who likes that song.
“That may explain why you are the only one who plays it for me.” He would respond.
She would begin and they both would sing. Sometimes others would come over and there would be a group of strangers united around Doris and her guitar and all sang every song they knew.
Several weeks after her diagnosis, she did not pick it up and actually never did again.
Tom studied the dusty guitar and decided to bring it upstairs and clean it so that it was just as she had it.
He looked it over and even strummed a bit. More memories came back of his wonderful wife, her beautiful voice and her love of the instrument. He wished those days never left.
Theresa Michaels laughed to hear her father found the guitar. “Gosh, Dad, I haven’t seen that thing since I left for graduate school, I think.” Her smile came through over the telephone call from the east to plains. Happy to receive her father’s call between surgeries, if for no other reason it is that she knew he was alright. He could lie when she called to see how he was, but when he called with good or at least interesting news, she knew he was well. “Mom loved it, why did she put it down?”
“I don’t know,” he said.. “It was not long after she was diagnosed.”
“The folks at mass loved her playing.” Theresa remembered watching her mother and the folk choir singing the entrance hymn, the alleluia, even the Holy Holy in those early days of Vatican II when ‘guitar masses’ were common. “Remember when they cancelled the folk music when that new pastor came in. What was his name?”
“Oh Father Jack something. Gosh, he hated the guitar, was not too fond of the piano either.” Thomas was making coffee while he spoke to his daughter. The landline phone secured between his head and his shoulder. Doris’ guitar sat next to the kitchen table all shined up. “I think I might learn to play it, if I am not too old.”
“Dad,” she said. “You are never too old. Go ahead see what you can do.”
“She taught me the basics, if it is like riding a bicycle I could play a few chords.”
His daughter noticed that slight step in his voice, as if he finally realized his life was not over.
“Give it a try, I hear there are even videos on Youtube that will help you learn the basics again.” she encouraged him further into his positive mood.
“I do not see youtube often, but I will see what I can find.”
The conversation continued for a few minutes longer when Theresa had to prepare for another surgery. She hung up hopeful that finally her father was starting to move on. It was almost as if her mother was showing him an alternative to living in mourning.
Thomas hung up the phone and went over to his computer. He opened his browser and typed in YouTube.com. In the search bar he typed beginning guitar.
It was a month since he found the guitar and, knowing the basics, he actually could play it fairly well, basic simple tunes. His wife never took a lesson, she learned on her own and taught him how to do the same. He would sit sometimes for a couple hours looking over songs he loved and practicing the chords. He hated barre chords and so did she. Each strum brought back every happy memory of Doris.
It was not practice per se, it was just trying to play some tunes well, the ones she played. He learned her favorite songs and as he played, those memories came back of when he watched her, sang with her as she serenaded him. Maybe it was when she led the folk group at mass and he resounded with great joy as she led the congregation in the Alleluia. That was when Father Johnson was there, he was open to those kinds of things. Father Jack, who succeeded him believed in organ music at mass and nothing else. He ended the folk mass one month after he arrived to the parish. Everyone was sad, Tom was angrier than Doris, but she calmed him down.
“What is important is the Mass, Tom, and not the instrument.” she told him.
The memories became almost real as he sang in the knotty pine living room they shared for so long. The TV was off for the first time since after the funeral and he just played one note after another, one chord after another and each time he saw her smiling and wished she was still with him.
“Dad that is wonderful!” Theresa spoke from Cheyenne. “How many songs do you know?”
“Well, I have a long way to go before I can play as well or as many songs as your mother, but I would say about ten.” He was filled with energy and excitement. “I love doing it, and I know your mother would be happy.”
“I am coming home at Easter, I already told the unit secretary no surgeries for the Triduum, I want to hear you play.” she signaled to a nurse that she would be in the operating room momentarily.
“I can’t wait.” He smiled and looked over to his wife’s guitar case leaning against the wall.
Father Jack had long since left the parish. He was there only a year before he moved on, many said that his changes made the parish unpopular. Some stopped attending mass at St. Cecilia’s, but others stopped attending mass anywhere. The new priest who was now there almost ten years did not like folk masses, but believed in using the guitar along other instruments in mass. After all, he explained, the guitar is the oldest liturgical instrument. King David used one of its ancestors: the strings in praising God before the Ark of the Covenant.
Tom remembered how much his wife loved Sing Alleluia to the Lord on the guitar and he purposely learned it soon after he mastered the chords. Little did he know it was easy: Am, G, Em, F and C. F is a barre chord which took great practice to master a little and even then he was not that good. He was good enough to sing it to himself. Millie Jackson, Doris’ best friend at church and a member of the old choir heard that he was learning the tune.
“Will you play it for us?” she dropped over for coffee. Actually she came to recruit Tom. There was a rumor that for Easter the 'new' pastor may allow the choir to sing “Sing Alleluia” with the guitar.
“I am not that good, Millie.” Tom hesitated as he poured her cup with a little cream and sugar, just as she always liked it. He remembered from the days when Doris and Millie with their respective husbands visited the local doughnut shop after the choir mass.
“You are good enough, and our voices can hide your newness to the skill.” she thanked Tom as he placed the mocha colored coffee in the blue mug in front of Millie.
“Ok,” he responded. “I will, but if it is not any good, please do not ask me again. I will only do this to honor Doris.”
Millie smiled from ear to ear. She was a joyful woman who was the backbone behind the original choir. She was the one who encouraged Doris to join. “Everyone will be so excited. We still practice every Wednesday right up into holy week. Seven o’clock. You will be there, right?”
Tom, a little hesitant for that commitment, ultimately agreed. “If it will honor Doris, how could I say no?”
The practices went fairly well and in time Tom and the choir got Sing Alleluia to the Lord to the level at which it was when Doris played. All were filled with anticipation at what would happen at Easter.
“I am so excited to see you.” Theresa hugged Tom at the baggage claim area of Boston’s Logan Airport, terminal B. He came to pick her up for her Easter vacation.
“Oh same here,” he smiled as he walked over to get her bag. It was a Christmas gift for her from her mother and father. Tom recognized it immediately. “Wow, what do you have in here, an operating room?” he smiled as he picked up the bag from the slowly moving belt.
“Well, I am going to be here until the middle of next week.” she smiled. “How are you?”
“Everyone is excited to sing with the guitar on Sunday, of course it will be the first time we sing Alleluia since Mardi Gras and the first time we do Sing Alleluia to the Lord since Father Jack got rid of the folk group."
“I can’t wait to hear it. I am sure Mom would be proud,” she let her father carry the bag, for she knew he would not allow it any way else. He seemed more cheerful than last year, when neighbors called her and others wrote; they were worried about him. But now, the guitar seemed to change him completely. He was almost like his old self, before Doris died.
The ride home was short to Quincy. They talked about her work and life in Campbell County Wyoming, not far from the Montana border. She lived in Gillette along Interstate 90, the same road that ended in Boston on the East Coast and Seattle on the west.Theresa used to tell people the directions to drive to Boston, go a half a mile south to I-90 turn left and go straight two thousand twenty-nine miles until you arrive at the other Gillette®.
Tom drove through Boston traffic, under the harbor and between neighborhoods of the South End and South Boston on route 93, finally coming to Quincy Shore Drive along Wollaston Beach. It was at the far end that the parish began.
Theresa told him about surgery and her life in the Cowboy State and, no, there was no boyfriend, she was too busy as a surgeon. Yes, all was going well there, and she had become highly respected in her field.
Tom listened and showed his pride to his successful daughter and all she had done with her life. He told her about the guitar, about practice, about the excitement and he could not wait to show her his new skill. The following day was Good Friday and two days later was Easter Sunday and his mass debut with the choir as all would sing that powerful song that Doris loved so much.
Good Friday morning he cooked his daughter a big breakfast of eggs and pancakes, no sausage. A Catholic ritual day where eating little was emphasized and there was no meat. Tom did not always adhere to the rule, but his wife did. She insisted on it at home.
He promised to show her his work on the guitar after they ate.
“It is beautiful, just as I remember it.” Theresa said as she looked over her mother’s instrument. “It’s like new!”
“I polished it up, and shined the tuning knobs, but it is the same instrument your mother used, even the strings are the same.” He was so excited as he strummed the strings and tuned it up a bit, using an electronic tuner he bought at the local guitar store. “I never thought I would be so affected by a guitar, or even learn to play it.” Tom put the guitar down, leaning it against the coffee table in the living room. Then they went to the kitchen to wash dishes.
“The choir has been rehearsing every Wednesday, and Millie even taught us Resucitó” Tom said, emphasizing the final O as the hispanics always did. He still could not roll his R’s. He was drying the frying pan and putting it in the dish rack.
“Thump” a strange noise came from the living room and both Tom and Theresa looked at each other wondering what it was.
They walked to see the guitar had slid from its place leaned against the coffee table. It lay on the floor, the neck broken. It was not a clean break, the tuning platform split from the rest of the guitar like a broken limb struck from a tree.
Tom was frozen as he looked to the floor. Theresa was quiet standing there next to her father looking to him and then to the guitar and back. She dared not move toward the instrument. She saw her father’s eyes water up as tears began to flow down his cheeks. The guitar was beyond repair. He could not hold in his great shock and sadness.
Tom tried to pick it up. It was clearly unplayable as the tuning platform just hung by the strings from the neck. At the top of the neck, the wood was shaped like the shadow of a crown, jagged and split. It is obvious that it was unrepairable. Tom held the guitar in his arms, stooped down picking it up from the floor and holding it almost like he held his own wife when she was ill. He said nothing, but cried. Theresa rubbed his back, but he was too deep in emotion to feel it.
“I can’t believe this, she’s gone.” He said. “She’s really gone. This was her guitar, she made her music with it and now she is gone. She is really gone.”
“But we can get it repaired, Dad, I can take it too George’s guitar store.” Theresa tried to comfort him.
“No, it is not a clean break. Besides I need it for Sunday, Easter Sunday, and here it is Good Friday Morning, it cannot be repaired by then. She’s gone. I will have to call Millie.”
“No Dad, I will call her. You rest. I will clean up the kitchen too.”
“She’s gone. She’s really gone.” He no longer could hold back the tears as they fell upon the guitar one by one, more and more.
It was well after three o’clock when Theresa finally got a hold of Millie, and told her the horrible news. She was devastated, but insisted that Tom still come. “We can make do.” she said.
Tom sat alone in his chair for hours. It was not the way it was supposed to be. Easter Sunday was to be a great a mass and the guitar was part of those plans, now it was gone. Millie told Theresa that just being there would honor Doris, it would mean so much to her that her husband still joined the choir at Easter Mass.
He sat down in silence in the living room, like he was before he found the guitar. It was not the same, again.
Sunday morning was still Easter and he still chose to still go to mass as he still did every Sunday. It was with no excitement that he picked out his best suit and shined shoes, which he prepared for himself a week earlier in preparation for that day that was to be so special. He could not smile and Theresa had to get him to eat both Saturday and Sunday morning long before the eleven o’clock Easter mass.
She escorted him to the choir loft, it was about an hour before mass. Most of the choir was there, including Millie. Theresa decided she was going to stay with him, even though she was not going to sing.
Millie welcomed Tom with a hug and thanked him profusely for coming. “Happy Easter!” She said. “Happy Easter he forced out, trying not to look in mourning.
More footsteps came up the choir loft stairs as they prepared to sing, without Doris’ guitar. Tom did not want to sing a note.
“Tom?” It was George Knowles, from the music store, He one month older than Tom and a childhood friend of Doris. She was actually his first girlfriend and he joked with Tom about what a good catch he had in her.“I heard about the guitar.”
Tom acknowledged his words, as if he was at a wake.
George continued. "Do you know where she got it?"
“Wasn’t it at your store?” he said.
“Yes, Tom, it was at my music store. She came to buy one, it was around your third anniversary and she thought it would be a great surprise.”
“So you sold it to her?” Tom really did not care, but he wanted to respect George.
“Not exactly,” George continued. “I actually built it for her.
Tom looked surprised.
“There is no brand on that guitar inside or out, I built it.”
Tom remembered, that yes, it had no brand. “So it was unique?” his eyes started to water.
“Well, in one sense, but in another not at all. I make them all the time and build each one for each person.” He signaled to his wife waiting at the top of the stairs.
“That was Doris’ guitar, I built it for her, but that was for her to use for you.”
His wife carried a guitar case, and handed it to George, he opened it up and pulled out what looked like the identical guitar.
“She told me when she got sick, that she wanted you to have one by me to remind you of her love for you. She told me not to give it to you until the time was right and that I would know when that time was. That time has come. This is literally her gift to you.” He handed Tom the guitar.
There Tom looked it over and could hardly tell the difference, with one exception. On the black guard below the sound hole he saw in her hand-writing “I love you, Tom and am waiting for you with Jesus--Doris”
Tom froze. He was speechless and again the tears started to flow, but they were different. It was the first time he realized what Easter was all about, they could share their love, even without being present to each other, because she was present through the Christ whose resurrection they celebrated that very day. Silent, he picked up the guitar and began to strum it. It sounded and felt exactly the same as the other.
Everyone was silent as Tom remained almost in his own thoughts as he looked it over, strummed it and ran his fingers over the engraving touching each word. “I love you, Tom and am waiting for you with Jesus--Doris” The tears fell from his face, he looked up as the choir and his daughter looked with kind holiness as Tom absorbed the scene.
He put the guitar in place, wrapping the strap around his neck and began to play Am, G, Em, Am, C and began ever so weakly “Sing Alleluia to the Lord” Millie joined in and one by one the whole choir joined in to a crescendo of love as they sang with more energy and power like never before. They were ready to celebrate Easter, just as they planned. They sang powerfully at mass and celebrated the great reality that is Easter.
The new priest spoke on St. Paul’s words to not lose heart about those who had gone before us because Jesus is risen from the dead as a sign so will we if we continue to stay faithful. At the end of mass, he thanked the choir for making Easter so special. Tom smiled from ear to ear, for indeed, it was the most special of Easters, the day he learned what St. Paul had taught, not to lose heart over those who had gone before us. For Jesus gave us hope for eternal life in love.
Comment: I was on retreat in Tampa Florida and brought my guitar to play in my room and on my own. Wednesday night, I leaned the instrument against the wall on the porch outside while myself and two other priests were talking. The guitar fell and broke as described in the story. Obviously, I was sad.
This was the guitar I bought along US route 20 in Springfield, Massachusetts when I decided to give it a try after not having picked one up since my teenage years. I realized that "like riding a bicycle" I actually could remember many chords and was able to learn new songs rather quickly. There it was unfixable in two parts with the strings holding the tuning platform to the rest of the guitar. Its picture is above.
I used the experience to create this story. After the retreat, I had to go to Atlanta. Hating to fly, I drove up the coast from Tampa and bought a new Epiphone at Guitar Center. That is what I play now daily. During the following week, I put this story together. For the record: This is a work of fiction any similarity to any other person living or dead is purely coincidental.
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