Saturday, February 11, 2012

An anthem for a lifetime of passion

Sunday's Observer column:

Fifty-seven years ago, Harriette Thompson walked up to Eugene Craft, the director of music at Myers Park United Methodist Church, and asked to sing in the choir. Thompson and her husband, Sydnor, had joined the church shortly after moving to Charlotte from New York. She had formal training as a singer and pianist, but Craft told her he had no more paid positions on the choir.

“I’ll sing for free,” she remembers telling him, and so she did. Then she did much more.

Harriette and her husband had noticed a dearth of classical music in their new city, so Harriette went to UNC Charlotte and Sydnor to Davidson, where each helped to start the schools’ public radio stations. They also contributed to arts around Charlotte, not only with money and fundraising but with her talents on the piano, which she played for the Charlotte Symphony and others.

All the while, she sang on Sundays in the choir. For 50-plus years. “She is,” says current music director Jimmy Jones, “a force.”

But two years ago, on a visit to the dentist, Harriette learned that parts of her jawbone had deteriorated. By last year, cancer had spread toward her right ear. “I could tell I was on pitch,” she says, “but I couldn’t tell if I was blending with the other voices.” She told Jones she could no longer sing with the choir.

When Jones couldn’t talk her out of it, he talked instead with choir members about how best to honor her. The choir raised money, and Jones made what he calls a “Hail Mary” phone call to Stephen Paulus, a renowned composer who has written for soloists and symphonies around the world. Paulus, hearing her story, agreed to write Harriette an anthem.

“I don’t deserve this,” Harriette told Jones last October, when he called.

“Yes, you do,” Jones said.

She does, choir members say, not only because of her devotion to their music, or to the arts in Charlotte, but because neither waned with a diagnosis of cancer. Instead, she has taken what life allows her, and then some. An example: This June, at age 89, she’ll fly to San Diego with one of her sons to run in the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon. It’ll be her 14th straight year.

“I come in first every year in my age group,” she says.

A pause. A smile.

“Because I’m the only one.”

This is a choice you make, at some point, on some level. Some hear the word “cancer” and are locked away with the dragon. Some hear the news and decide that the next year or five years or whatever they get will be the best they can make it. So it is with Harriette Thompson. “She’s been an inspiration,” says Jones.

So last Saturday, Harriette sat with Sydnor and their sons and daughters for a private performance of My Help Comes From The Lord, based on Psalm 121 and composed by Paulus, who flew to Charlotte for the debut. The anthem was played again at three Sanctuary services the next day. “It was overwhelming,” she says now. “Beautiful.” And she dabs at her eyes.

Our collective spirit has taken a hard pounding lately. A harsh economy, a competition for resources, and we find ourselves wondering not only where we’re headed, but who we are. This is not an answer, but a reminder: We are capable of kindness that can make you marvel. Not enough to beat cancer, of course, but to share some joy at the edge of its sadness.

That’s what happened last weekend in Charlotte, and again on Friday, when Harriette Thompson signed onto her computer at home to watch a video of the performance.

She wasn’t sure how the replay would sound, but when the organ began, she tilted her good ear toward the screen and nodded. When the choir joined, her heels found a soft rhythm on the carpet. I will lift up my eyes, they sang, and she dabbed at hers again. Her song. Not so much a gift, but a trade. Spirit for spirit.