Recently an acquaintance of mine died, ridiculously young.
I met Kirstin Paisley at the Bishop’s Ranch, an Episcopal retreat outside Healdsburg that has been the site for a long time of an annual practice retreat for V’s Scottish country dance performance team, Dunsmuir Scottish Dancers. I was along for the weekend, and Saturday night after supper, a bit of singing broke out at my table. Before you know it, I was doing the ringleader thing, teaching songs and rounds to those who had gathered round.
One who gathered round was Kirstin, a ranch staff member. Before you know it, she’d run to the chapel to grab an armful of hymnals that we could use. We had just enough Lutherans and Episcopalians around the table for a hymn sing, and that’s exactly what broke out.
A few songs later, our little group broke up and scattered to the four winds. Most of the dancers were reconvening in the Swing Pavilion for a ceilidh, and several had to hurry and get changed into costumes for their skits. I was in no such hurry and wasn’t even sure I’d be attending the ceilidh, so I stayed behind and chatted over another cup of tea with Kirstin, who by now had introduced herself.
She wanted to know how I did it. How had I gotten a whole table of shy people to start singing, in public, enthusiastically? How had I managed to teach them several songs? Was I a pastor? A choral conductor?
I chuckled. An agnostic who generally avoids singing in public myself, I’m an unlikely leader of a hymn sing, but it keeps happening. She had wide eyes and a wider smile as I tried to make sense of it. She had a reason for asking, of course—she was in the seminary and wanted to know how to do that kind of leadership herself someday. She was shy about singing and said she didn’t know much about music but loved singing in groups like that. I tried to give her some encouragement.
We talked more. She mentioned hiking out to see the treehouse, and I gave her a puzzled look. “What treehouse?”
“You’ve never been to the treehouse? It’s just past the…”
I’d never hiked anywhere at the Ranch. I’d always spent the retreat weekends in the chapel, taking advantage of the acoustics and the hours of free time to practice horn and tuba.
And that was that. I had to see the treehouse. We bussed our dinner dishes and set off. It was dark by now, and we lost the trail several times. Several times that meant I was up to my ankles in cold, cold puddles (it was January) and the rest of the time my steps had a splooshing sound.
We reached the treehouse, climbed up into it, and stood looking out over the pastures and up at the constellations just twinkling into focus as the darkness grew complete.
She mumbled something about being glad to be here another day, that time was precious for her.
She drew my attention to her misshapen left earlobe.
Metastasizing here and there. Radiation. Chemo. Secondary this and secondary that.
She was in seminary, taking the minimum number of courses semester after semester despite feeling like total crap most of the time, because her status as a student is how she had health insurance she could afford.
We became Facebook friends, and I watched the last several years as her status updates and blog posts told a grimmer and grimmer story and an increasingly serene attitude about living until the last and then starting what comes next.
Her memorial service is on Saturday. Despite not knowing her well, I wanted to try to show up and play Kaddish for her. I’m pretty sure I don’t know anyone else who will be there, but it felt like something I should do for Kirstin—something Kirstin would appreciate.
Then a gig came up, and that’s where I’m going to be on Saturday. But my thoughts will be with Kristin and her families both biological and logical.
Kirstin, this kaddish is for you, in all its ecumenical glory. Mira’s recitation of the ancient Aramaic/Hebrew prayer, and my playing on Wagnertube a modern “Kaddish” by Lev Kogan while thinking about singing Lutheran hymns with you at the Episcopal retreat.