As the last of the winter snow—long past its prime—recedes, Vermonters rush to be outside.
Gardeners stroll among their dormant beds, picking up the stray branches brought down by the ice and wind of a season that’s already receding into memory. Carpenters start measuring and cutting lumber for the new projects they planned back in February. Walkers don their muddin’ boots to march off down the rutted dirt roads, their dogs wandering as far afield as they can manage.
While Carding’s Episcopal priest, Gordon Lloyd, enjoys the outdoors as much as everyone else in town, this morning he’s looking forward to an indoor activity, one with poignant appeal.
Let’s join him, shall we?
Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. And you can find it any time, right here in the Carding Chronicles and in the four novels of Carding, Vermont, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, and Lights in Water, Dancing.
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Gordon Lloyd, the Episcopal priest who lives and works in Carding, Vermont, will turn 70 years old later this year. So it’s normal that thoughts of retirement flit through his head from time to time.
Some days, such as when the ladies who decorate the altar disagree over peonies versus lilies for the various Sundays in May, his retirement thoughts are more numerous. Everyone likes the notion of escape from time to time.
But there are days, such as today, when he knows he wants to practice his priestly profession for all his days. Because Thursdays are the days he visits patients in the Jack Byrnes Center for Hospice and Palliative Care over in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
It’s the first of its kind in the area, a specialty care center for the terminally ill. The central idea of the center is respect for the dignity of death, something that Reverend Lloyd thinks is sadly lacking in our contemporary society—especially in the medical field.
Now it’s understandable that some folks would think that visiting a place like this would be morbid. But the good reverend finds the palliative care center a place of solace so he looks forward to Thursdays as a day to refresh his spirit.
“These people sure know how to live,” he told a nurse there once. She wasn’t surprised by his remark at all.
“Yeah, you can learn a lot here,” she said. “And most of it isn’t medical in nature.”
She thought about her words for a moment, and then added: “It’s just nature.”
He was more than usually eager to get to the center this morning because one of his favorite parishioners, Josephine Lehtinen, had reached the point of accepting hospice care for the last of her days. Josie, as she liked to be called, was known far and wide in Carding because she’d taught music to every student who came through the local school system.
In Josie’s world, everyone had musical talent. “If you don’t want to play the violin or the piano, you can try a recorder or a guitar or the drums or bang a gong or just hum along. Everyone needs music.”
And she proved, time and again, that she was right. Carding’s band concerts were always crowded by folks who enjoyed music as well as the usual plethora of proud parents. The school’s choral group was so popular, it actually toured the region, performing in nursing homes, at the Carding Fair, and for area elementary schools.
In addition to Josie’s enthusiasm for all things musical, everyone learned (sooner or later) about her passion for the man she called “the Little Austrian,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. She kept a small bust of the composer on her desk and her husband, Conrad, swore that she kept an altar for him at home. All of her instrumental students started their musical careers by mastering the twelve variations of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” that Mozart composed.
So it should be no surprise that Josie Lehtinen is remembered as Mrs. Mozart by several generations of Carding students.
Gordon heard music as soon as he stepped through the front door of the Byrnes Center. It was a cello, one of his favorite instruments. He stood still, absorbing the notes, unsure whether it was a Mozart composition or not. The great composer never wrote a piece of music dedicated to the instrument. No one’s quite sure why but the thinking is that cellos just weren’t that common in the late 19th century when the Little Austrian was about.
But several of his works have been transcribed for the cello in the centuries since, a trend accelerated by Yo Yo Ma.
Gordon tilted his head, turning his good ear toward the sound. It was a sonata, the priest wasn’t sure which one, but he liked believing it was by Mozart and until proven otherwise, that was what he was going to believe.
The music, so soothing, flowed down the hall as Gordon made his way toward Mrs. Mozart’s room. All of the doors to the patients’ rooms were open to hear the musician bowing the beautiful instrument, its age-darkened wood catching the spring light streaming through the windows.
The staff had wheeled all of the patients’ beds closer to the open room doors and stood listening in respectful silence, their faces rapt, embraced by the music.
All except one. Josie Lehtinen.
Gordon’s heart sank when he realized she was missing. He’d been hoping for one last good-bye.
He crept up to her room, careful not to disturb the musician who played with such intensity and fervor. A nurse, standing where the bed should have been, caught Gordon’s eye and pointed toward the double doors that opened onto a small balcony. Every bed in the center had wheels and every room had access to the outdoors. Patients craving a communing with nature could be wheeled into the open air, no walking needed.
Josie’s bed faced the trees surrounding the center, all of them still naked. All except the pines, of course.
Josie’s husband, Conrad, sat in a chair facing the priest, his hand full of Josie’s hand. He smiled when he spotted Gordon and beckoned him to join them.
Mrs. Mozart stirred as the priest approached her bedside. A small breath of a breeze ruffled her white hair. Gordon was glad he’d worn a sweater.
“Aren’t you cold Josie?” he asked. “Would you like me to get you another blanket?”
“Oh no, no. I am basking in this glorious air,” she said. Mischief gleamed in her eyes. “This may be the last time I get to be cold, you know.”
Gordon shook his head.
“It’s one of the great pleasures of life, Reverend,” she continued after a long pause. She made a small gesture toward the trees. “It all comes down to the ordinary details in an ordinary life, you know. The way the pines move, the shadows on the ground, the notes coming from the cello. Isn’t it amazing what sounds you can get from a wooden box, strings and a bow? Just listen to that.”
Gordon perched on the far corner of the bed and let his head fall forward but he didn’t pray. There was no need. The notes from the cello flowed the air, the pines exulted with the spring breeze, the sun creased the cobalt sky, and Mrs. Mozart squeezed her husband’s hand.
It was a perfect ordinary day.
Remember, you can visit Carding any time by scouring the archive of older stories or by reading one of my four Carding novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, or Lights in Water, Dancing.
Thanks for stopping by.