But the most meaningful, important holiday "gig" I played for this year was in my own house for my dear friend Lisa.
Lisa has cancer. This may be her last Christmas.
I've known Lisa since 7th grade. I remember walking into Wellcome Memorial High School on the first day of school and seeing her smiling face and her sparkling brown eyes and liking her immediately. And when gymnastics season started in November of that year, Lisa and I got to spend lots of time together, practicing aerial cartwheels and balance beam routines and complaining about leotards riding up our behinds and helping each other into contortionist positions to stretch out our sore muscles. She had the most beautiful back handspring you've ever seen - so arched and graceful and so perfectly rhythmic. She could do them around the gym without stopping. Everyone would quit what they were doing to watch her.
As I got to know her better, I loved making her laugh - a laugh that came from the very bottom of her soul and bubbled up and out in a way I've never, ever heard another person laugh before and may not ever again. We laughed so hard we were shushed and frowned at and had sore stomach muscles the next day. There were slumber parties, gymnastics meets, school dances. All filled with memories of the fun only Lisa could create.
Lisa left Wellcome Memorial in 9th grade to go to school in Mankato. I missed her. Our lives took different paths, different friends. But there were phone calls when we'd make each other laugh practicing our German (me) and French (her) counting: eins, zwei, drei...un, deux, troi. We gossiped about people we knew. And then we lost contact.
Until I looked out into the crowd at one of my earliest holiday concerts and saw her smiling face. She was painfully thin and obviously not well. Afterward, she came up to hug me and I felt her bones under her clothing. She told me then that she had cancer. Cancer she'd fought and beat, fought and beat. But her smile was the same, her pointy little eye teeth poking out over her bottom lip, her sparkling eyes were still bright. It became an annual meeting - the hugs after my concerts.
And then this year I got a text message from her (long, detailed, 5-part text messages are her specialty). Her cancer was back. There was no fighting anymore. She was stopping treatment, getting things in order, seeing all the people she wanted to see. Would I meet her for a drink? Would I play and sing at her funeral? Of course I would. But I made her promise to come over and hear me play anything she wanted, for as long as she wanted, before the funeral came.
And so she did. Fragile, weak, swollen from medication, but still smiling. I played and sang "O Holy Night" for her. "How Great Thou Art". "Silent Night". I played and played and played and sang, anything she wanted. As long as she wanted.
And in between, we talked. I thought we'd talk about big things - life, death, how she was coping, her medication, her faith, her thoughts about it all. But what we talked about were the very same things we've ever talked about - boys and boobs and makeup and hair. We talked about back handsprings and aerial cartwheels and how much we missed being able to do them without suffering major pain or major injury at our advanced ages. We talked about the gymnastics coach who wouldn't let us use a certain springboard for the vault if we weighed a pound over 120 - and who would announce our weight to us in front of our friends (crazy how that both scarred us for so long). We talked about what we were baking for Christmas: candy, cookies, breads and fudge (her)...nothing (me). We laughed, and I could hear hers bubbling up from the very bottom of her soul still, coming up and shaking her shoulders and making her pointy little eye teeth poke out over her bottom lip.
And then I could see she was fading. It was time for her mom to take her home to rest. But we made plans and promises to see each other again. After Christmas. After the holidays. After things have settled down. Of course, I said. Of course. Anytime.
And we grinned like idiots for the camera.
I watched her mom help her down the icy sidewalk and into the car. She gave a wave and they drove off. I made it back into the house, into the kitchen, before I completely broke down and put my head down on the counter and sobbed. My own mom and our friend Wanda had come over that day, too. We collapsed into a heap for a few minutes and then we decided Lisa would probably kick our asses if she saw us crying. So I poured us shots of my home brew rose liqueur and we toasted friendship, life, all goodness.
I got (5-part) text message from Lisa yesterday. She had a wonderful Christmas. She wondered if I'd gotten the cookie Christmas tree she'd dropped off in my mailbox (so that's who it was from!). She wondered when we can get together again.
Anytime. Any, any, anytime my friend.
This, people. This is the most important work I do.