I attended the funeral service of the great J. Reilly Lewis at Washington National Cathedral with my good friend and former colleague, Melvin Dubee, yesterday. Reilly had not been ill; he had actually been busy preparing to lead a sing-along performance at the cathedral on Sunday, but when he got home last Thursday night, he suffered a massive heart attack and died.
I knew Reilly as the conductor of the Washington Bach Consort whom I met in 2007 when I started working for Senator Rockefeller. The Senator, a Bach enthusiast, served on the Consort's Board of Directors for many years and hosted an annual fundraising event at his home I always assisted with coordinating.
The party swag at one of those events was a CD of one of the Consort's recent performances, so I grabbed one, tossed it in the catch-all mail bowl when I got home and never gave it another thought.--until one day I got in Chip's car and busted him listening to it. I ribbed him a bit and asked him when he had started listening to Bach.
After Chip was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 31, me 35 weeks pregnant with Crosby, and Joe just a few weeks shy of his third birthday, he was, understandably so, often gripped with anger and fear. He was even angry at God which he greatly struggled with, because how do you possibly ask God for help at the same time you are so angry with him? Kristine Johnson, our dear friend, wife of Melvin and at the time, a seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary, began to visit with Chip and me at home and in the hospital. After hearing him out one day, she encouraged Chip to abandon his struggle with God and the church and simply move towards the things where love and light existed for him--in the kids' smiles and laughter, through music, in nature, late night walks--because in those very places, he would find that God dwelled, and he could renew that relationship. Instead of fighting Him, to move towards Him.
So, on that day, Chip told me he had started listening to that CD on his drive to work and found when he listened to Bach, he felt light. He got lost in it and would briefly forget he had cancer. Peace would abound. I was stunned and immediately shared this with the Senator and Reilly. Reilly loved it and over the next two years, would periodically send an encouraging note to Chip and me and more often that not, would include a new Consort CD for Chip.
The day after Chip died, I started to plan his funeral service and immediately knew Bach had to be included in the music selections, so I turned to Senator Rockefeller and asked him to select a few of his favorite pieces to be played. He immediately consulted Reilly. Reilly took this task most seriously, inquired about the organ at the church, wanted to know who our organist was, etc., and Reilly being Reilly, ultimately decided HE needed to be the one to play the organ at Chip's funeral, so the Prelude and Communion music were beautifully delivered by Reilly Lewis that day. I like to think the notes Reilly played brought us all a little closer to feeling that eternal light and peace Chip was already experiencing.
Reilly's funeral was the first I've attended since Chip's. It was poignant and hard and beautiful. I have spent much of the last 24 hours trying to find comfort in the discomfort of it all. I hurt for his widow, Beth, his daughter, Lauren, and I hurt for all those who mourn him. As I said at Chip's funeral, "You end up being the average of the people you spend your life with," so I felt it was important to publicly give thanks for Reilly's great life and to share the story of how his became so interwoven in ours.
As Father's Day fast approaches, please remember, "All life is Thanksgiving." All life--present and eternal--is Thanksgiving!
J. Reilly Lewis, organist, choral director and Bach authority, dies at 71 [Washington Post]
In life’s most joyful moments and in the darkest of hours and seemingly impossible circumstances, there is grace. Abundant grace always abounds if you allow yourself to see it. This I know, and these are my lessons in grace.
Read about what came before Sweetness Follows at TeamKennett.com.