On a whim, my husband and I went to see the movie Coda the evening before it won the Best Picture Oscar. There have been so many years that I’ve been disappointed with the winner, but this year got it right. What a powerful movie about growing up as the only hearing person in a deaf family.
In our church, we are blessed to have a “coda” (Children of Deaf Adults) in our midst. Not only was she raised with deaf parents, but she is a trained deaf educator. As Georgia sings out with her voice, her hands sign what the soaring music is trying to say. The result is a thing of beauty.
I think it’s fortunate that a person’s voice is one of the last attributes to fade away from memory. How many times do we say, “Oh, if only I could hear his/her voice one more time.” And how many times do we replay it in our hearts.
I’ve been doing that lately, as a dear friend passed away. Although she had had a chronic illness for years, her end was unexpected—the kind of death that knocks you off-kilter. She was over 25 years my senior, but we had worked together on a committee for decades. Her voice—its gentle lilt and rhythm—lingers in my head. We were not the kind of friends who talked every day, yet her place in my life was undeniably important.
Recently I reread Graham Greene’s famous novel, The Power and the Glory. Set in Mexico in the 1930s at a time when Catholicism was outlawed, it is the story of a “whisky priest” – so called because of his weak morals: He drank too much and even fathered a child. The novel tells of the priest’s journey and the people he meets along the way: a lieutenant, a mestizo, a young girl, a boy, an immigrant, a mother, a fellow priest, a dentist, and an outlaw gringo, to name a few. The book’s poignancy lies not in its idealizing or romanticizing the whisky priest. Rather, it shows how many lives we touch, regardless of how flawed, how ordinary we are.
In the 1980s film Terms of Endearment, the best friend Patsy calls Debra Winger’s character Emma “my touchstone.” The actual definition of a touchstone is a “black siliceous stone used to test the purity of gold and silver.” But the word has come to mean something that sets the standard by which all other similar items are measured. In the movie, Patsy uses the word touchstone to mean a standard of friendship: their relationship’s power and pivotal place in her life. For me, there are many touchstones—people who weave their way in and out of my life, challenging, supporting and loving me. As we move through our middle years, it’s only natural that we should experience the death of friends, close and peripheral. But when you close your eyes and can hear their voice with unimaginable clarity, perhaps that’s the ultimate measure of friendship. The richest blessing.
And I can hear my friend Mary Sue’s voice loud and clear. It’s sweet and Southern and tinged with wit. It, she, is one of many touchstones I’ve been gifted.
Yesterday, as I was crossing items off my Saturday to-do list, as I watched the neighbor children playing in the yard, we received word that a dear friend’s daughter had died suddenly, possibly of Covid. For a moment my breath caught, the spring breeze ceased its sway, and the children outside stopped in their tracks. There are simply no words for such a tragedy, and it’s as if the world is divided into two realms: before we heard the news and after.
In the hours that followed, my husband called our three daughters. I knew why, knew he simply wanted to hear their voices. How awesome, how terrifying, that we never know when a conversation will be final. If only we lived—if only we could remember to live—as if all utterances were our last.
What incredible privilege to have touchstones in your life. And to be someone else’s.