Early on a cold and rainy Christmas morning a few years back, I was busy wrapping presents and making tamales for our traditional family dinner at my mother’s. The telephone rang. “Merry Christmas,” I said, picking up.
“Good morning, Rosa. It’s Angelita.” Angelita was the secretary at our church. “Sorry to bring sad news, especially on Christmas Day,” she said, “but Mr. Jaramillo passed away. Could you sing at the wake tonight?”
My heart went out to the Jaramillo family. I knew what it was like to lose someone during the holidays. My own brother Alfredo had died at Christmastime 18 years ago. He was only 39. The sudden loss left a hole in my life. I hadn’t spent a Christmas since without feeling an underlying sadness. “Of course I’ll sing, Angelita. And I’ll try to find someone to sing with me.” I didn’t like singing alone. How in the world can I find someone on Christmas Day? I wondered.
I opened the church directory to make some calls. I started with my friend Carmen, but her entire family was visiting. I called Rosa, but she was out of town. Angie was already singing with the community choir. Ezequiel was ill, and Alejandra was giving a party. There was no one to help me.
As a last resort, I asked my husband. “Honey, will you sing with me at Mr. Jaramillo’s wake tonight?”
“I can’t carry a tune,” Bernie said. I’d knock you off-key.” He was right and I knew it. And so it was settled. I would be singing all alone, without even an organ to accompany me.
That afternoon Bernie, our two kids and I went to my mother’s house for a traditional Mexican Christmas feast. After dinner we opened presents. As evening grew near, my stomach did somersaults. Dear Lord, I want to praise you properly on this holy day. Let me sing my best to help ease the pain of Mr. Jaramillo’s family and friends. I left my mother’s house, and made my way to the funeral home.
The building was full of people who had gathered to pay their last respects. Not everyone could fit into the small chapel, and some people had to stand in the hallway. This large turnout would be a comfort to the Jaramillo family, I hoped. Yet I remembered how seeing the many people who attended my brother’s wake had not brought me peace. Not when he had died so young. I hadn’t been able to sing songs of praise in his honor. I hoped that I would be able to do it for Mr. Jaramillo.
The crowd fell silent as I stepped up to the podium. “We are gathered here to pray,” I said, “for the soul of José Jaramillo, our brother, and for his family and friends, who mourn his loss.” After the first prayers I began to sing “Ave Maria.” No one joined in. All I could hear was my own too-strident voice. I tried to soften my tone, to sing as perfectly as I possibly could. The Jara-millo family was counting on me. Lord, inspire me.
The words coming out of my mouth became quieter, yet they filled the chapel and echoed into the hallway. My voice took on a tender pitch. I was surprised by its lovely sound. In all my life I’d never sung so well!
I took a deep breath before launching into the next verse. Then . . . wait . . . did I hear other voices singing along with mine? “Ave Maria” filled the room. A choir of angels could not have done better. I thought I heard instruments—a harp, a flute, a trumpet—but where were they coming from?
I looked about the chapel. No one was singing. My voice alone created the music. No instruments played. After each group of prayers I sang another hymn—and a glorious chorus joined me. With every song, my confidence grew. I found my voice. I sang with all my heart, for Mr. Jaramillo and for me. And as I sang, the sadness I always felt this time of year started to fade. There was no longer any room in my heart for it. I was filled with joy.
And I was filled with praise for the loving God who held me in his arms, and held my brother just a little closer.