My friend Carmen Merritt died this spring at age 83. A person of intellectual and spiritual depth, of gentle kindness, humor and strength, he had lived a full life with ample joys and sorrows. His funeral service at the little Lutheran church in Saegertown, Pa., where he and his wife, Vina, worshiped for 58 years—so rarely full on most Sundays—teemed with people.
I knew Carmen for only the last 15 years of his life. Physically he reminded me a little of Burl Ives: bald, gray-bearded, suspender-wearing, slow-moving and funny. He seemed so fully at home in his “old man” nature that I now realize I hadn’t really imagined him as ever being younger. (A photo of him in middle age was propped in the back of the church at his funeral, but his face was almost unrecognizable to me.) With his quips and kindness, Carmen had been like good weather, a quiet force on which his family and church family had long depended. It’s shocking now to see Vina sitting alone in their pew on Sundays. In a congregation of mostly older people, those two had been the church elders for my wife, Susan, and me, they “two together,” as Walt Whitman puts it in a poem.
Every Sunday, Vina would greet us with her bright eyes and homecoming hug while Carmen would call out in his quiet voice, paying Susan a gallant compliment and saying something like “there he is” as he took my hand. He had been a social worker for 40 years but had the hands of a blacksmith.
I miss that handshake and his unbidden affection. I also keenly miss the chance to tell him what an unforeseen gift our friendship became for me. Vina would say he already knew. That would be like him, as it would be like me to be still trying to figure it out. I’m not young myself—Carmen’s passing coincided with my retirement at age 62—but now he’s got me learning something new. Our friendship might say something useful about what the heart can learn later in life. Otherwise I wouldn’t presume to write about a man so many others have known and loved for a lifetime.
On the face of it, we were unlikely friends. People are a mystery, so who befriends whom shouldn’t be that predictable. But the relentless social sorting of our modern age—our cleaving to group identities, ideologies and the like—makes picking out “unlikely” friendships easy.
Our friendship might say something useful about what the heart can learn later in life.
A whole constellation of demographic and cultural differences attach themselves to our histories. Carmen grew up rural and poor. His parents raised a large family on modest working-class incomes from factories and a farm. I grew up in a university town in that version of the middle class that becomes upper-middle-class in a generation. My parents both worked at the University of Michigan. As a kid in Ann Arbor in the 1960s and ’70s, I swam in a world of liberal politics and high culture: Vietnam war protests, classical concerts in Hill Auditorium, the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival, the Hash Bash. In the 1940s and ’50s, kids in Carmen’s town swam in swimming holes, spent Friday nights at the roller rink and worked a lot on the farm.
What might have made our friendship most unlikely, though, was that it happened in a church. In this country, being an academic and attending any house of worship can feel like a cultural contradiction, even if survey data suggests that the percentage of atheists in academia is low. Our few colleagues at Allegheny College whom we know to be churchgoers keep it under wraps on campus, as have we (my wife is a professor too). Add to this the fact that my relation to Christianity—the outward rituals of worship and the inward realm of faith—has always been flecked with doubt and self-consciousness. In childhood, stepping into a sanctuary, as I did periodically with my Lutheran mother, felt like a kind of trespass. Becoming a regular member of our church community has certainly diminished that feeling, but it’s still there in the background. Carmen cut through all that.
Friendship is an age-old subject for philosophers, psychologists and writers, starting, in Western culture, with Aristotle. The pandemic and what the U.S. surgeon general calls an “epidemic of loneliness and isolation” remind us of friendship’s lifesaving powers. But in all the literature about friendship, all the definitions of its different types and orders of importance, not much seems to apply to Carmen and me.
We didn’t get to know each other by chatting, for example, even though when people think at all about how adult friendships form and endure, they often put conversation at the center of things. The essayist Phillip Lopate calls friendship “a long conversation.” Only in exchanging confidences, bantering, asking after each other and all those other forms of verbal socializing do we come to know someone else, come to be known and then sustain the pleasure, care and meaning of that relationship. “Good talk,” for Lopate, “is the point of the thing.”
Carmen and I had only one or two long conversations. We got to know each other in earnest while singing together in our church choir.
Carmen and I chatted some. Our early conversations surprised me. He was a free spirit and a free thinker. Like many of his neighbors, he loved to hunt and bowl, root for the Steelers and follow high school wrestling, starting when his three sons were young and wrestled. But his politics were left of the local norm, he had an engineer’s interest and competence with mechanisms and technology (he texted out emojis with abandon), and he gravitated to people rejected by the world. His first job was directing social services for a children’s home, and then, for 27 years, he ran the foster parent program in Erie, Pa.
He and Vina also just looked after people. Cameron Carpenter, the world-famous organist, grew up near Saegertown in a family unable to support his meteoric talent, so Carmen and Vina helped out, taking him in at times when he was young and buying a piano for him to practice in their house anytime he wanted (the piano is still there).
But Carmen and I had only one or two long conversations. We got to know each other in earnest while singing together in our church choir. Sitting side by side, tenors in the back row, meant chatting in bits of whisper during rehearsals. Choirs can be sites of discipline and obedience, but Carmen took a more relaxed approach. He’d show me cellphone photos from his family fishing trip. He’d ask how the paper-grading was going (“giving them all an A would sure save you a lot of time”). He’d offer me a throat lozenge, a bottle of water, a pencil to mark a passage in the music. When our asides got too loud, our choir director would ask with a smile, “Do I need to break you two up?”
“Carmen’s a bad influence,” I’d say.
Carmen would say, “I try.”
It was actually our singing that made us friends—not the kibitzing around the music but the music itself. Carmen had a beautiful voice, high and true and, to the end, wonderfully strong. He had always sung, Vina later told me. In high school he was in a quartet that sang in competitions all over the region. When I joined the church choir, Carmen was the tenor section, and he was glad for my company. We usually sang the same notes (the choir was too small to have first and second tenor parts), and if you’ve sung in a choir you might know the comfort of sharing notes while other voices range around you. With that comfort came joy, especially when the lyrics and dynamics invited it, and we’d forget ourselves and sing too loudly (a notorious tenor problem). When our parts did diverge, during duets for example, Carmen would carry the harmony—he loved to harmonize and, unlike me, was good at it—and that became another meeting place, easy and familiar. Our voices became old friends.
Carmen showed me how to sing, with all my heart, to the very last measure.
Maybe I should have expected this brotherhood of song. Everyone knows the unique expressive power of music, even if none of us can put it satisfactorily into (unsung) words. And singing, bringing music out from the middle of your body, makes music’s power a personal, felt truth. It’s no wonder most of the world’s religions place song at the center of devotion. When I was a kid, certain songs—folk songs and spirituals and protest songs like “If I Had a Hammer”—had a great hold on me. Singing was the first thing, and still the surest thing, to make the idea and feeling of the Spirit real to me. Songs were vessels of joy and sorrow and free-floating love (“between my brothers and my sisters, ah-ah-all over this land”).
These feelings were too powerful to come just from us. What happens when you know a person by being held together in such a state? For Carmen and me, a lot in life just fell away, and what was left was mostly love.
And now he is gone. “Oh Lord, help me see the shortness of life that I may gain wisdom of heart,” wrote the late Irish poet John O’Donohue. For him this prayer (his translation of Psalm 90:12) reflected “the sense of transience” that “haunts nearly every heart.” It’s “one of the deepest longings … to strain against the erosion of one’s life,” he wrote, “to find a way of living and being that manages to find some stable ground within time, a place from where something eternal can be harvested from our disappearance.” Nothing is more transient than music, but what music says and the place from which it comes are eternal. Any of us can stumble across the eternal at any time.
Carmen helped me harvest that. He showed me how to sing, with all my heart, to the very last measure.