Partly the change in tone comes from the change of shape; when our mouth wears a smile it funnels the sound of our voice ever so differently than it would were we to shape it otherwise. The small tunnel our mouth forms into whenever we have to relate bad news serves as a good example of change in the opposite direction, hollowing out our tone when we need to admit things that we’d wish we could leave unsaid.
Sometimes the sound of smiling seems to sing in text as well as in the spoken word. Every so often I’ll read a blog post here or there and it seems for all the world as if its author was grinning from ear to ear as they composed it. That smile lifts up the words and fills them with a melody they would not possess, were it not for the spirit within the author as they work to bring shape to their inner thoughts.
Surely no sound is as moving to the human ear as that of smiling through tears. That smile has a mysterious sound all its own, unforgettable once you have occasion to hear it, either in person or through the written word.
I found one such bit of writing today, at least to my ear I think I have. It was in an unexpected place, nestled behind the hymn book waiting for me at Mass this morning. I took the time to read it, squinting through the crumpled lines and faded ink of the delicate piece of paper. It was an old newspaper clipping, an obituary. Beneath a beautiful, smiling face, one reads the following:
“Mom, you were right. You were always right. Family is everything. You always said we were your life and you showed it in all you did. Thank you for all the ways you loved us. It was always the 4 of us… and now, [we] will look after Daddy for you.”
It is said that beauty is in the eye of the beholder; maybe the sound that happiness brings out in people is subject to similar restrictions to one’s ear. During prayer at Mass this morning my thoughts wandered back to the last time I had attended a funeral, the one for my grandmother. How well I recall all the heartfelt expressions of gratitude and appreciation that were heard throughout that sad occasion... With every reason to weep from loss each chose instead to smile and share their fondest memory, inevitably an example of how deeply one may love another.
For my grandmother family was everything, much like the stranger in this old obituary. I remember the last time I spoke with her, over the phone on what proved to be her deathbed. I had been forewarned of her lack of strength, and the likely shortness of the call; it was a call to say goodbye, and thank you. Her faint voice was full of news, as she always was, good news about family growing in size and in love, carefully asking for hopeful news from us, if we were soon going to be able to have children again. And that tone; barely strength to speak, but still possessing strength to smile. I got to tell her that she was right, every time she would reprimand me in my callous, younger days for not calling home as often as I should have been, for not placing value on the true treasures of life.
Teaching to the very end, all her thoughts were on family, not job or money or promotions. On family: the job most worth having, the treasure most worth earning, and the blessing most worth growing.
In reading this stranger’s obituary I hear a familiar voice, a familiar smile. It’s the one I was wearing when I said good-bye to my grandmother, years ago. Even through torrents of tears, we can still summon the strength to smile, animated as such shapes are by the wondrous breath of life our Creator has given us to express the joy that comes from being alive, and living as Family.