A few weeks ago, I received an email from one of the singers who has since graduated and gone to college. With permission, both the email and essay are below.
"Although Josh and I were not close friends, I am good friends with many of the people that love him dearly and the few times that I did hang out with him I was always struck by how kind he was to everyone and in every situation. I regularly read your blog and keep your family in my thoughts. I am now in college, and for my freshman writing seminar my first assignment was to write a personal narrative. There were no constraints to the assignment, and with a lifetime of experiences behind me I did not know what to write about. So I sat down at my computer and just began to write, and the words that followed surprised me. I ended up writing about my experience performing "Prayer of the Children" with South Lakes Singers at SingStrong and your son. I know that the words I chose could never do him justice, and a stranger reading my paper would never understand just how wonderful he is and how much he did for the world, but I decided to share it with you so you would know that he touched and changed the people that were even on the very outskirts of his life."
I remember standing on that stage and experiencing the overwhelming feeling of unity. All of our heartbeats were suddenly one and we felt the steady beat pulsing through our connected fingers. It’s as if we were all tied together by one string; sixteen people who come from completely different places emotionally, mentally, and physically, that were suddenly all the same. We came together for one cause and we made our message clear.
I loved the time of day when I would get to put away my notebooks and binders, stand on the risers and hear the sounds of music circling all around me. There was nothing like singing to make me forget about anything real going on in my life and just let me focus on the intricate details of music. To feel the harmonies and dynamics take me away into a different world so separate from anything going on in my real world was a release I looked forward to each day. During my senior year of high school, my choir started working on a very memorable piece called “Prayer of the Children” by Kurt Bestor. It is so incredible and overpowering, the first time we heard it my teacher played it over the loud speakers in our class room and the music pushed through the whole room, threatening to make the walls expand. The voices jumped out of the speakers towards us, bringing with them the emotion of the whole song. After hearing the piece, I was thrilled to be able to try our hand at performing it, but I didn’t know if we would ever be able to match the intense passion with which the recorded choir sang. We had many excellent performers in my choir, but emotional connection is something we had always struggled with. We were good at singing the correct notes with the correct rhythms, but conveying the emotion and overall message of a song was foreign to most of us. We had never experienced the things that many songs are about like loss, heartbreak, or intense grief and we didn’t know how to find that place within ourselves where we would be able to fabricate those emotions to replay them through the song. Every class our teacher would try to get us to connect and understand what the true meanings of the lyrics we were singing were, but we were never able to reach that point on our own.
During my senior year of high school, a great tragedy struck my community. A beloved, talented, and incredible boy took his life very suddenly. Never in my life have I seen people so open with their emotions. To see football players break down and cry was heartbreaking but very connecting at the same time. This was, and remains, a very sad experience, one of the saddest things I’ve experienced in my life, but I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason and I knew that we would all be able to find a way to learn from it. To see everyone’s grief plainly expressed all over their faces shows how important Josh was to them as a friend and to our community as a whole. Nobody was ashamed to admit that losing Josh was a painful thing, and this reminded us all that even if it is not expressed every day, there are always people in our lives that care about us. He reminded us that even in the deepest and darkest shadows of life, we have to remember that those shadows wouldn’t be there if there was no sunlight to create them.
After Josh passed away, everyone was distraught. He was truly one of the most strikingly kind people I have ever met, and I know that he left a positive impression on everyone. He was an amazing athlete, helping our team score touchdowns every game but more significantly always keeping up a positive attitude in everything he did. To say it was shocking to find out Josh would no longer be flashing his quirky smile in the hallways is an understatement, he is missed every single day. There are clearly things we did not know; things he was aching to be helped with, things he was struggling with so hard internally. Josh’s struggle gives meaning to the lyrics:
“Can you hear the prayer of the children?On bended knee, in the shadow of an unknown roomEmpty eyes with no more tears to cryTurning heavenward toward the light”.
He gave our song a meaning.
The choral program at my high school was awesome and my teacher worked so hard to ensure that we had every opportunity available to us. Because of her efforts we were able to host the East Coast A Cappella summit, an amazing event that invites professional a cappella groups from all over the world to perform and raise money for Alzheimer’s research. Every year there is a high school competition and the winner gets to open the big show on Saturday night. It is very competitive and a huge honor for the winner to be able to stand on the same stage as legendary professional groups. My choir was preparing “The Prayer of the Children” for the summit, but after Josh passed away we questioned whether something as mundane as a choir performance was appropriate during a time of such struggle. We didn’t know if we would be able to get through it, just a week after the passing of someone who was a great friend to many of us. The words are incredibly moving:
“Can you feel the hearts of the children?Aching for home, for something of their very ownReaching hands, with nothing to hold on to,But hope for a better day a better day
and are so central to Josh’s struggle, and for one of the first times we were finding an unavoidable connection between our music and our lives. Even in a time of intense sorrow and emotional pain we understood that maybe our connection to the meaning of the music could be a small way to help us deal with the passing of Josh.
Standing on the stage wearing black with Josh’s number 33 painted across our chests, gave us a physical reminder of what we would never forget: what experience brought meaning to our song. In that moment on that stage I felt like part of something bigger. In light of such a huge and devastating loss that could never be replaced, we were also creating something. A connection among us and with our audience through our music-through the powerful words, the raw emotion, the crisp rise and falls of our voices as they went from loud to soft that made goosebumps rise up on the arms of all sixteen of us singing our hearts out. And that’s literally what we were doing-letting everything go from that terrible week and finding solace in the message of the music. We all felt our voices join in the air with the loss, the anger, the grief, and our need for Josh, but in that air we also found our strength. Together we would be okay by uniting ourselves in the music and for the first time feeling a connection that not only transformed our performance of the song, but brought us together in all of our times of need.
During that performance, we sang ‘Prayer of the Children’ for the first time without a physical conductor standing in front of us guiding us through the piece. We just stood there, sixteen people who come from completely different places emotionally, mentally, and physically, that were suddenly all the same. As we all lined up on the stage and clasped hands we were ready to show what we were learning from the harsh reality we were plunged into and how it gave meaning to the words we had previously sung so mindlessly over and over again. There was no cue to start, we all just knew. We felt the music within each of us because the song was no longer just a song. It was a message, it was a connection, it was Josh.
I am so grateful that Josh's friend took the time to share this with us. Any memory of our beloved Josh is a priceless treasure - stored in my heart forever.