I have been singing a strange tune. Twice a month I play the harp in a large sunlit room in the locked down Memory Care Unit for Alzheimer and Dementia patients up the street from my home. They are a kind and appreciative audience, especially when my toddler daughter twirls and spins to the music, claps, and opens her mouth to sing joyfully along. I haven’t been feeling joyful this month. The toddler has been sick and clinging close for weeks on end, kicking me wildly during long and restless nights. On the opposite end of the age spectrum, the elderly neighbor for whom I am caretaker and de facto nurse fell ill with pneumonia just before Christmas, and has just returned from an extended stint in the hospital and in Rehab. My responsibility to the young and the old has left me feeling unusually drained and weary, and as though I have little left to give.
So I am singing a lullaby. I’ve been learning lots of lullabies on the harp lately, as the toddler and the elderly audience are equally appreciative of them. When my daughter was born my mother gave me a beautiful illustrated book of lullabies from all over the world, and I’ve slowly been discovering new and beautiful songs. The one I stumbled across yesterday and have been singing ever since is from Scotland. It’s a strange little song, with a raw honesty to the lyrics and a bit of a bleat of despair in the melody that struck a chord in me. Here are the lyrics:
O Can Ye Sew Curtains
O Can Ye Sew Cushions? And can ye sew sheets?
And can ye sing ballooloo when the bairn greets?
And hee and haw birdie, and hee and haw lamb;
And hee and haw, birdie, my bonnie wee lamb!
Hey-o, way-o, what will I do wi’ ye?
Black’s the life that I lead wi’ ye;
Many o’ ye, Little for to gie ye.
Hey-o, way-o, what will I do wi’ you?
Now hush a baw lammie, and hush a baw dear,
Now hush a baw lammie, thy minnie is here.
The wild wind is ravin’, thy minnie’s heart sair,
The wild wind is ravin’, but ye dinna care.
Somehow, singing this song is a great relief. It seems to lessen the weight of the toddler who is even now clinging to my neck. All of this has made me think about my father and the stone. Unlike many men his age, my father is not retired and living a peaceful life with the prospect of grandchildren to brighten his days. Instead, he is a full time farmer tilling the soil and toiling to turn organic produce into profits. With two children still in high school, a rotating cast of twentysomethings camping out in the attic, and two elderly people living in the back rooms the big white farmhouse is still bursting at the seams. Still, I know that my father is grateful for his life- for his good work, his land, his home, perhaps especially his wife. I asked him over Christmas if he was grateful for his children as well. He hesitated. and said “My children are a stone upon my chest.”
I know that my father loves us, but he has a lot in common with the Scottish mother sewing curtains long ago. Raising nine children has always been hard, and doing so on one income is a Herculean feat in this day and age. The prospect of launching nine lives successfully into the world is a daunting one. As my father would tell you, his battle is not finished by any means. He is still carrying that weight. And so, the day before Christmas, I headed down to the barn and pulled up a heavy slab of sandstone. I took it into the house and inscribed a message on the front, and then turned it over and had all of my siblings sign the back. We wrapped it, left it under the tree, and dragged it out to present to my father on Christmas morning.
My father loves that stone. Mom says he lays on the couch now and then with it balanced across his broad chest, just to feel the weight. He says it feels right. I believe that it feels like singing that Scottish lullaby. There is a powerful release in singing out the darkness- and in doing so, there is room for new hope.