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  • Writer's pictureSarah Gibbs Underhill

Crossing the River Now

Updated: Jul 23, 2022


Watching Mom and her partner Ann breathing, often synchronously, as they lie together on the bed under the light blue comforter, Ann snuggled up to Mom where she lies immobile, save for the gentle rise and fall of the quilt. An ancient mammalian reflex may be at play, that which synchronizes the breathing of infants with their mothers, or any other bunch of warm blooded creatures cuddled together asleep in their nest. Maybe Annie’s steady breath rate is keeping Mom here, triggering her lungs to continue their work. So many times I’ve heard stories of, and seen for myself, the tendency for the dying to stay this side of death as long as they are not alone. I always figured these was some shared force that kept them there. And no sooner had the companion or family left the room and gone down the hall to get lunch or make a phone call, than the spell was lifted, the connection broken, the moorings parted, and the soul finished taxiing down the runway and took flight. Maybe this is what’s happening now.

I used to think it was that the dying person was aware of, had some sense of the presence of the other people, the sound of their voices, some pheromone perhaps, a subliminal smell, and that was what kept them here. Maybe it’s their breathing.

The poem “Thanatopsis”, by William Cullen Bryant, had been memorized by my Great-grandfather, William A. Shuey, when he was a student or schoolboy. He lived into his nineties and could still recite parts of it to the end of his days, possibly at gravesides or memorial services, I suppose. It’s a comforting poem, encouragement given to those contemplating their own death and being daunted by it. As with so many hymns and religious myths, a common theme and perhaps a major reason why religions exist at all, is to try to make us all less afraid of death. As an agnostic I am open to the possibility of an afterlife in heaven. It’s such a lovely story. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were true? Reincarnation is another theory that staves off the loneliness.

Culturally Christian, most of my family has been at least for the past two or three generations a bunch of rationalist, atheist, secular humanists, unchurched. We celebrate the major Christian Holidays in a paganistic way: Christmas celebrates the holy trinity of infant child, mother, and father, in that order. Easter rejoices in the return of Spring, with no mention of anything except the season being risen from the tomb. Our only hymn other than various old Christmas carols has been the Doxology, “Old Hundred”, sung before Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners. I can remember my father’s quiet amusement at my childish solemnity when singing this.

I get a certain fierce and twisted pleasure from some of the American Shape Note hymns which give a soul encouragement, in the vein of “whistling past a graveyard”, by singing boisterously, defiantly, about how great death and its reward in the afterlife is going it be. Songs to put courage into one. Buck up, it’s going to be wonderful. There are solemn songs as well, inviting the singer to experience the awful emotions evoked by the plea “and am I born to die? Must I?” The unspoken message is: habituate yourself to it, think about it, plan for it, because it is going to happen to YOU!

“Why do we faint and fear to die?/ What timorous worms we mortals are!/ Death is the gate to endless joy, and yet we fear to enter there.” – a typical lyric

Mom remembers her father singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to his new baby, my aunt Bonnie, not very long before he died at age 49 alone in the hospital and far from his daughters. Family legend has it that one of his nieces, a student nurse working at the hospital, disobeyed policy and stayed with him in his final hours. To my knowledge, singing the simple “Swing Low” was about as spiritual as my Grandfather got. But it was not necessarily a trivial thing at all, serving its purpose as it marked for my mother, who heard him sing it, his contemplation of the journey.

Mom used to sing “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” with me, learned in the Folk Boom no doubt when she was hanging out with the commie lefty easterners at her boarding school. The quote I found from Annie’s little book of “Healing Prayers” is also about crossing the water, as is one of my favorite “death preparation” Shape Note hymns, “Mt. Hope.” I actually sang this hymn to my bemused hospice co-workers when I was first hired there, in a slightly manic state at suddenly having a job at which we would do things like go on staff retreats to a monastery on the western shore of the Hudson, where we did Team building exercises, which were in vogue at the time. And for quite a while I used to give each Hospice Music therapy intern a copy of the hymn as a goodbye present after their stay, again much to their mystification.

Part of the process of singing Shape Note hymns is that the poetry sneaks up on you. You practice singing the tune and harmony without the words at first, so you get the emotional tone of the piece without knowing what it’s about. Then you add the words, and in the case of “Mt. Hope” I remember the psychic wallop it delivered when the combination of sound and lyric hit me.

The passage from Annie’s prayer book is attributed to Saint John of the Cross, a mystic born in 1542:


“And I saw the river over which every soul must pass to reach the kingdom of heaven

and the name of that river was suffering-

and I saw the boat which carries souls across the river

and the name of that boat was love.”


Mt. Hope, which was written in 1989, starts:


“Now the time has come, to grieve for those we love..” and speaks of “tearing asunder the bonds of breath” and “sing[ing] with all your might.”


Searching for the lyrics online, I received a copy of them from the author, Dan Hertzler.


Now the time has come to grieve for those we love

Stand by the narrow stream of death

See the waters rise before our weeping eyes

Gone is the last of their mortal breath.


Crossing the river now, crossing the river now

Part of the host have crossed the flood

Loud the waters roar, here on that troubled shore

Tearing asunder the bonds of blood.


Could there be a way to meet another day?

Stand by the narrow stream of death.

Sing with all your might into the dark of night.

Hope springs anew with each living breath


Crossing the river now, crossing the river now

Victory shines through our words above

Loud our voices rise, mounting up to the skies

Across the flood to the ones we love.


Soon the time will come wen I will be the one

Lost and alone by the stream of death

Trembling, full of fear, what is it that I hear,

Gasping in vain for my dying breath.


Crossing the river now, crossing the river now

Borne on the wings of sacred song

See them all gathered there, formed in a hollow square

Across the flood to the sacred throng.


Well, maybe, maybe not. But it’s a comforting and optimistic sentiment, and the deep breaths one takes, rhythmically, when singing with all one’s might, oxygenate the blood as if taken while swimming across the river.


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