By Ada Brownell
An Excerpt from Swallowed by Life:
Mysteries of Death, Resurrection and The Eternal
The music was the part that worried me.
When our daughter, Carolyn, suddenly became ill, she kept telling her husband, Michael, about the music.
As a toddler, Carolyn created songs on one of those little toy grand pianos like Schroeder plays in the comic strip Peanuts. She picked out “Jesus Loves Me” when she was three or four years old.
By the time she was five, she was playing her older brother’s piano lessons by ear. When he slid off one end of the bench after practicing the thirty minutes I required, she slid on the other and played all the songs by ear.
Her older brother, Gary, became an excellent musician, too, but he gave up trying to compete with Carolyn on the piano.
She was eager to have piano lessons herself. By the time she was eight or nine she was accompanying Gary when he played his trumpet.
Carolyn played difficult Bach and other great composers’ music when she was in the early elementary school grades. Her only restriction was her tiny hands, which couldn’t reach the span for some of the more advanced music. She not only could read the music, if she heard it, she could copy it.
It was when she was nine years old we learned she had perfect pitch. Not only was she able to identify any note played on a musical instrument or sung, she could tell you the pitch of the vacuum sweeper’s hum or the note that rings from a fine glass.
One time before we knew she had perfect pitch, she embarrassed us considerably when she approached the organist after a church service and informed her she was playing an E-natural where an E-flat should be. It was true!
Sometimes Carolyn would fill bottles with varying amounts of water, then show her smaller brothers and sisters how to play a tune with them.
In her early teens, she accompanied the Damascus Singers, a gospel singing group of which I was a member. Much our music came from recorded albums instead of a book. Carolyn listened to the keyboard accompanist on gospel recordings and exactly copied what the keyboardist played.
In college, she majored in music. The hours of practicing and the hazards of roller-skating, however, set her back when she had a tendon injury to her hand.
Unless she was away at college and until she got married, our home was filled with her music—classical, jazz, and gospel.
Interestingly, she never realized what a special gift she had until she was in her mid-twenties. She didn’t want to be different or noticed because of her great talent. Often when she played a piano solo in church or another performance, she’d bow her head so her long hair would cover most of her face. She also had a deadpan expression on occasion. Once she was playing a whole orchestra of music on a synthesizer with a choir production and everyone kept craning their necks to see who was playing those instruments. They couldn’t even tell she was playing by the look on her face.
The flute was the instrument she played for band. She also had a wonderful soprano voice that could hit a high C with no effort, right on pitch because of her talent and wonderful ear.
After she married Michael Coney, a classmate at Bethany Bible College in Santa Cruz, California, she began playing the organ and was the organist at her church until her illness.
“She’s the only white person I’ve ever known who could really play soul on the organ,” said the church’s black music minister. He had just led the youth choir in a special production and she was the accompanist.
She thought maybe the workout using her feet (yes, both feet) on the pedals might have something to do with the pain in her side. Before the tests were completed that showed she had Burkitt’s lymphoma, her body began to swell from a huge tumor in her abdomen. She was taken to the hospital and when I arrived in California from where we live in Colorado, her normal weight of one hundred ten pounds had risen to about one hundred forty.
Michael told me she had been hearing beautiful music that no one else could hear.
“It’s not like any music I’ve heard,” Carolyn told Michael.
In the many nights I spent at her bedside in the hospital, sometimes she would ask me where the music was coming from.
I was expecting a miracle. I told myself I was just having hearing problems because I couldn’t hear it.
In the end, there was music I could hear. On Sunday, January 28, 1990, after two months of chemotherapy that was marvelously effective at first but also had horrendous side effects, cancer cells became immune to the drugs. The cancer cells made an immense attack on her body, this time causing leukemia and spreading cancer to the liver and spleen. Pneumonia developed in her lungs.
We were gathering blood samples from our other four children to find a match for a bone marrow transplant. But that afternoon, Carolyn told Michael she felt something was going to happen right away, and she was scared.
The family that was there gathered around her bed to pray. As I began to pray, I started to quote from Psalm 34, “I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall make her boast in thee Lord: the humble shall hear thereof and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears.”
“What’s that you’re saying?” Carolyn asked. “It’s a song. Sing it.”
We began to sing, and she sang with us. She was so ill, but her high harmony blended with ours with amazing strength.
Suddenly she stopped and began encouraging us in a loud voice. She’d never done anything like this in her life. She was always shy about public speaking. She expressed her faith and gave us words of encouragement and hope, stressing the soon return of the Lord Jesus Christ. I almost expected her to get out of bed, completely healed.
Instead, in less than twenty-four hours, she was gone. The next few hours were filled with shock and disbelief.
That night we gathered in Carolyn and Michael’s living room and found what is meant when God’s Word talks about peace.
The first night, the teenagers ministered to us by reading from the Bible. Our youngest daughter, Jeanette, and Carolyn’s stepson, Robert, found appropriate scripture passages for our needs.
The next day as other relatives came in, my oldest brother, Dr. Virgil Nicholson, and his wife, Mildred, who both taught at Evangel University for years, shared a long list of Bible verses with us. We wrote them down and began reading them and other passages God revealed. We read several times a day those first few days.
After I went home, when I could feel my peace slipping away, I’d go read the Bible and pray awhile.
I went to sleep at night repeating the name of Jesus or quoting, “And the peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
Although I lost my mother when I was twenty-one, and other heart-wrenching deaths snatched loved ones in my husband’s and my families, I knew in the pit of my stomach this would be the time when I discovered whether or not I believed what I thought I did all these years.
I don’t know if there is any pain that equals the loss of a child. I do know I met mothers who lost children decades before and their eyes still filled with tears when they talked about it. I still cry sometimes myself.
Wave after wave of grief hit me in the hours, days, weeks, months, and years after Carolyn left us. At first, the impact almost knocked me off my feet, like the waves I loved to ride at Santa Cruz beach when we visited Michael and Carolyn. When I’d walk toward shore, often I’d forget to watch the waves and a big one would catch me with my back turned, nearly causing me to lose my footing. Grief had the same impact.
The first day back at work after I arrived home following the funeral, I interviewed some ladies I knew. They asked how the family was and didn’t know Carolyn was gone. I regained my composure while I told them about her death and how the other children were doing. Yet, as I walked to my car, my breath came in short gasps, the pain of loss almost consuming me.
On the other hand, I found that the Lord’s grace overwhelmed me periodically in a similar way. I’d be going about my business when suddenly the Lord would remind me of a scripture, or someone would minister to me, giving renewed strength and peace.
I began reading the book of Hebrews and it strengthened my faith so much I kept reading.
Oh, how sweet the Word is! To this day I’m still awed by Hebrews 2:9, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor, that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.”
Jesus tasted death for my Carolyn! Jesus tasted death for me! Because of Jesus, death is no longer bitter because He took the sting (the bitterness, the unpleasantness) from death (1 Corinthians 15:55). When He walked out of the tomb alive, death’s sting was left behind like the grave clothes cast aside.
I read Hebrews and continued my intense search. I was amazed to see how much of the Bible is devoted to death and eternal life.
Right in the middle of the “faith chapter” in Hebrews 11, the writer stops telling about the miraculous exploits of men and women of faith and says:
These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them from afar off, and were persuaded of them and embraced them and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth.
For they that say such things declare plainly that they seek a country [of their own]. And truly, if they had been mindful of what country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city (Hebrews 11:13–16).
Even the book of Acts, written as a history of the church, has eternal life as its theme because the apostles’ message was Jesus Christ risen from the dead. Peter’s first sermon talked about what Jesus did to the process of death as he said, “Jesus of Nazareth…whom God hath raised up, having loosed the pains of death” (Acts 2:22–24).
I followed the paper trail left in the Bible, the writings of godly men and even the songs from generations before us, and saw God did something about death and gives peace to those who face it.
Sure, death means sorrow. Oh, such sorrow! Yes, we miss our loved ones, and at times we feel our heart is cut out.
Those who’ve never stared death in the face are terrorized by it. I’m sure nearly everyone who knows he is dying feels fear. But one thing I’ve discovered in interviewing many people who have come close to death, especially if they know God, is the paralyzing fear disappears when they get close to crossing over.
I remember Janelle Hannifious, who received a liver transplant. Before the liver donor was found, she came close to dying more than once.
I met Janelle right after the transplant. The new liver worked marvelously, providing strength and life for her formerly dying body. She’d just been discharged from the hospital. She looked so energized and talked about how much she loved hearing snow squeak under her feet and feeling the wind blow in her face.
But she found time to add how the fear of death vanished in those times of sweet communion with God as she lay on the verge of dying.
If we believe what Jesus said to Martha, “Whosoever lives and believes in me shall never die,” (John 11:26) everything about death changes.
Suddenly, some of the old songs have new meaning. I have new zest for singing: “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!”
My faith was returning. I now believed the exit from earth is only the entrance of our souls into our grand abode for eternity. But I wanted to know what happens between death and resurrection. I wanted to know what happens to the body. And I still wanted to look for scientific evidence that we are more than flesh. There were more things to investigate.
TO READ THE REST OF SWALLOWED BY LIFE, GO TO: http://ow.ly/U11R
Eliza E. Hewitt, 1851-1920., Mrs. John G. Wilson, 1865-1942, Worship and Service Hymnal, Hope Publishing Co., 5707 W. Lake St., Chicago,, 1966