Dear Ranola, Ken, and Ms. Lamott,
Thank you for letting me borrow your story. I have tried, but I can’t think of any truer way to say this.
“Knocking on Heaven’s Door”
One of our newer (church) members, a man named Ken Nelson, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating right before our very eyes. He came in a year ago with a Jewish woman who comes every week to be with us, although she does not believe in Jesus. Shortly after the man with AIDS started coming, his partner died of the disease. A few weeks later Ken told us that right after Brandon died, Jesus had slid into the hole in his heart that Brandon’s loss left, and had been there since. Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. He says he would gladly pay any price for what he has now, which is Jesus, and us.
There’s a woman in the choir named Ranola who is large and beautiful and jovial and black and as devout as can be, who has been a little stand offish to Ken. She has always looked at him with confusion, when she looks at him at all. Or she looks at him sideways, as if she wouldn’t have to quite see him if she didn’t look at him head on. She was raised in the South by Baptists who taught her that this way of life- that he- was an abomination. It is hard for her to break through this. I think she and a few other women at church are, on the most visceral level, a little afraid of catching the disease. But Kenny has come to church almost every week for the last year and won almost everyone over. He finally missed a couple of Sundays when he got too weak, and then a month ago he was back, weighing almost no pounds, his face even more lopsided, as if he’d had a stroke. Still, during the prayers of the people, he talked joyously of his life and his decline, of grace and redemption, of how safe and happy he feels these days.
So on this one particular Sunday, for the first hymn, the so-called Morning Hymn, we sang “Jacob’s Ladder,” which goes, “Every rung goes higher, higher,” while ironically Kenny couldn’t even stand up. But he sang away sitting down, with the hymnal in his lap. And when it came time for the second hymn, the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen – only Kenny remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap-and we began to sing, “Why should we be discouraged? Why do the shadows fall?” And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent down to lift him up – lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang. And it pierced me.
I can’t imagine anything but music that could’ve brought about this alchemy. Maybe it’s because music is about as physical as it gets: your essential rhythm is your heartbeat; your essential sound, the breath. We’re walking temples of noise, and when you add tender hearts to this mix, it somehow lets us meet in places we couldn’t get to any other way.
…On that Sunday, Ranola and Ken, of whom she was so afraid, were trying to sing. He looked like a child who was singing simply because small children sing all the time – they haven’t made the separation between speech and music. Then both Ken and Ranola began to cry. Tears were pouring down their faces, as their noses were running like rivers, as she held him up. She suddenly lay her black weeping face against his feverish white one, put her face right against his and let all those spooky fluids mingle with hers…
This is plenty of miracle for me to rest in now.
-Traveling Mercies, 66-67