I will not die. I will live on.
With a song in my heart,
I will witness to God’s love.
I will live on. I will live on.
You are my strength and my song, my rescue.
You are the strength in my arms,
the song in my heart, the very air that I breathe.
You open the doors of my heart.
You reach and let me in.
You are the song I ache to sing, the source of all my praise.
You are my rising day, my wings of hope.
My living you have made;
rejoicing fills my life.
Gladness is the sound of my soul!
Copyright © 2015 GIA Publications, Inc
My mother, Joan Elizabeth (Pierce) Haas, would often say to my brother, sister, and me: “I am going to live forever.” She especially would say this during the last year of her life. I was always puzzled by this, even though deep down I of course always believed in the understanding of eternal life. I believe now that it was no mere coincidence that during this same year my interest and passion for the writings of Henri Nouwen was developing in a more focused way. He had an incredible ability to distill, in the simplest of terms, our true vocation, and discover how to answer the call to discipleship with integrity. For Henri, our vocation is simple. We are called to be a “witness of God’s love.” I had no idea that Mom’s declaration of eternal life and Henri’s call to witness to God’s love would become partners in a song that was about to be pulled out of me.
Among the many amazing charisms that my Mom held and nurtured, one that always remained constant, regardless of the life circumstances that would accompany her, was her absolute confidence that God was real and always working in her life. This was of course instilled in her by the witness of her parents during her growing up years in Traverse City, Michigan, and it seemed to permeate everything in her life. Mom attended St. Francis Church and graduated as the valedictorian of her graduating class at the parish high school (there were 20 in her graduating class!).
She often sang for weddings and funerals. When she would come home in the summer months while attending college as a Music and Commerce Major (at Central Michigan Teacher’s College—which later became Central Michigan University, where she met my Dad, where my brother also went to school, and where I went for my first two and half years of college), she had the rare and precious experience of being invited to teach singing to the Carmelite sisters in Traverse City, where she was allowed to go into the private cloister where the sisters lived. From that point forward until the day she died, she held a very close relationship with the Carmelites, and always relied on their intercession during difficult times.
Mom then taught music for many years at various schools and then left teaching after Jeffrey, myself and Colleen were born and being raised. After we were old enough, she returned to teaching and spent many years co-directing high school musicals until the time of her retirement. In the midst of all of this was her dedication, along with my Dad, to church music. She was for a time the director of music and choir director at Mount Carmel Church in Saginaw, at my home parish at St. Christopher’s in Bridgeport, and at St. Roch’s in Caseville, all in Michigan (Diocese of Saginaw). Even when she was older and after her retirement, she remained active in the church choir at St. Boniface in Bay City. After my parents moved to Minnesota to be closer to their children, she sang in the choir at St. Joseph’s in Red Wing, and she and my Dad were the official “grandparents” for the Music Ministry Alive! program that I directed in St. Paul for 19 years.
She was very devoted to praying the Rosary, and at the same time she remained one of the most progressive and “liberal” Catholics I ever knew. She read the National Catholic Reporter with great interest every week, and was always very committed to the principles of Catholic Social Teaching. She was, in more ways than I could ever count, a true witness of God’s progressive and radical love.
When she died in 2014, the day after Mother’s Day, I felt like the bottom fell out. It surprised me that the impact was so huge, because we prepared and knew that it was coming closer and closer in the last year or so of her life. While I knew it would be hard, I also thought that because Dad died a couple of years earlier, that this would be easier. It was not. Not at all. I think that what got me through those initial days was that I threw myself into planning details for the funeral celebration (which she had planned almost to every detail).
Actually, Mom had two funerals. The first was the mass held at St. Joseph’s in Red Wing, Minnesota (where Michael Joncas was the presider and homilist, along with Fr. Ray East and Fr. Alapaki Kim as concelebrants); but then a couple of months later at St. Christopher’s Church in Michigan (which is now named St. Francis De Sales, due to a clustering of parishes in the area), we celebrated the Eucharist again, followed by the burying of her remains at the cemetery there in Bridgeport (with our dear friend Fr. Bill Taylor as presider and homilist).
The music sung at these celebrations included several of my pieces (I was her favorite liturgical composer), including Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled, Take Me Home, and The Name of God, as well as We Come to Your Feast (Michael Joncas), Mass of Creation (Marty Haugen), Come and Eat This Living Bread (Rob Glover), and The Lord is My Shepherd (Bobby McFerrin). It was for the “second mass”, that I composed “I Will Live On,” the refrain inspired and adapted/paraphrased from Psalm 118:17, “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord,” the psalmist’s precursor to my Mom’s ongoing reminder to us that she would “live forever.” She kept the same song in her heart that was grounded in Henri’s challenge, and so I felt compelled to yoke the psalm verse with: “With a song in my heart I will witness to God’s love.”
One of the joyful memories of this celebration was that the choir was made up of about 30 people who had my Mom as a teacher during the years she taught in high school. The night before at the music rehearsal, we almost did not get to the music, because of the wonderful stories that were shared by everyone about their memories of my Mom (and my Dad) as one who shaped their lives. It was a beautiful moment during the liturgy to have all of these people whose lives were touched by my Mom, sing and pray this piece.
When I decided to have it published and recorded, I asked my friend Anna Betancourt to translate it into Spanish. Whenever I sing it, however, I do not sing the Spanish—because when I try to sing or speak in Spanish, I sound like a drunk Italian. When Anna has sung it with me, the Spanish just soars. But when I do sing and pray it—in English—my Mom’s presence becomes just as real as it did the day we first sang and prayed it at St. Christopher’s, proclaiming her vision of living “forever” and being an ambassador of Henri’s call to always witness to God’s love. She was and continues to be, a celebration of both.
Yes, Mom, even though I miss you so much, I know that you are still living—forever. You will not die. You—and all of us—will live on. (DH. 11.16.17)
This essay is an adapted excerpt from I Will Bring You Home: Songs of Prayer, Stories of Faith by David Haas (G-9617). Copyright © 2018 GIA Publications, Inc. / www.giamusic.com. Printed with permission. All rights reserved.
Song Video: “I Will Live On” by David Haas