You must never stop singing
A story behind the picture of liliana and pope john paul II
On April 30th, 1979, as I walked to my University, I was hit by a drunk driver. My body was thrown into the air and then smashed into the ground. Pain beyond words soared throughout my entire body. I couldn't move. The pain became even stronger when paramedics picked me up and placed me on a stretcher. I was taken to an Army hospital, where for the next 28 days, I fought for my life. My parents were told that I won't survive. Doctors put a metal rod through the femur bone above my knee and attached weights to it at the edge of my bed so that gravity would slowly pull my broken and dislocated hips into place. It was like somebody was breaking my bones over and over again. I was in the hospital for about 3 months, in constant pain and with constant flashbacks of a blue car appearing suddenly on my left side.
By a miracle, I did survive! My left leg was the only thing that would be causing me pain and possibly some problems, but that was nothing compared to what was behind me. I went back to my regular life, yet the 30th day of every April would make me very uncomfortable. Already on April 29th, the flashbacks would intensify and I would not want to leave the house. For the next couple of years, on April 29th, and 30th, I'd be curled up in my bed pretty much the whole two days.
So what does this story have to do with the picture above?
In 1981, the choir that I was a member of was invited to participate in the International Choir Festival in Sardinia, Italy. After that, we would come to Rome where we would sing for Pope John Paul II. We just didn't know exactly on what day. My family was thrilled—I'd get to see the first Polish Pope! Going to Italy was a huge deal then and a huge joy for all of us.
We were already in Sardinia when our choir Director announced to us our schedule; we would sing for the Pope John Paul II during the evening Holy Mass on—chills came through my body—April 29th. Everyone in the choir cheered with joy. Everyone but me. The flashback of the blue car appearing on my left became vivid again. I panicked.
The festival in Sardinia was wonderful. I made great friends and loved every second of my time there; singing, dancing in the streets, and experiencing the wonderful culture of the local people. Then the time came and we left for Rome. I tried not to think about those bad memories of April 29th, but subconsciously I was very aware—my heart was pounding a little bit stronger than usual.
It was our only day in Rome. We were busy sightseeing and, as I was the only person who spoke some English, I was helping everybody with translations. Every question each choir member had, every souvenir that needed to be purchased—I was torn left and right trying to translate for my friends. My leg was hurting more and more (the pain I will have for pretty much my whole life). By the time we were sightseeing the Vatican, I was completely exhausted, yet I kept going. After all, the whole choir depended upon me. I think that I was subconsciously pushing myself harder, not taking breaks, just so I wouldn't have time to think. Suddenly, I started feeling really weak. Everything was becoming darker. The loud noise of the crowds of tourists was becoming more and more distant. I felt that I couldn't breathe. In that instance, out of nowhere, the ghost of a blue car appeared on my left... and that was the last thing I remembered. A few hours later, I woke up in a dark room. I didn't know where I was.
It took me a while to realize what had happened. I must have fainted. I vaguely remembered somebody helping me walk back to the place where we were staying, and put me in my bed. I slept for quite a while and when I woke up, it was already later in the day. The brightness of that sunny day was starting to fade.
"Yes, I should get up and try to make it. Yes, I should..." yet, the uncomfortable feeling started crawling in... tomorrow will be April 30th.
"No, I better stay here," I decided. I was glad I was in bed. It felt safe.
There was only one problem I thought, "What will I tell my mother? 'Oh, sorry Mom, I didn't see the Pope because I wanted to stay in bed?' No, no, I can't do this to my mom. I've got to go," I eventually concluded.
I put on my light blue jacket and walked out of my room. It didn't even cross my mind to put on my choir uniform. My heart was pounding. I was scared. Yet, I kept walking toward the distant noise of the crowd. Despite the pain in my leg getting worse, I kept moving forward. Soon I made it to St. Peter's square, and I couldn't believe my eyes - the crowds seemed endless.
"There is no way I will be able to get to the front of this enormous crowd," I thought. "I'll just stand here and watch the Pope from far away."
Happy with my decision, I found a small barier that I could lean on. "Yes, that's perfect," I thought with a relief. Yet, suddenly some force, like a magnet, started pulling me toward the center. "I am here. I can't just stand by the wall. I have to make it," I told myself and I started desperately squeezing my way between the people. A couple of times the guards stopped me but I pleaded, "Io cantare. Io cantare!" I sing! I sing! I was exclaiming in my broken Italian. Somehow, they kept letting me pass through the different sections. Toward the front, the crowds were almost impossible to walk through. People were so crowded together that there was no way I could squeeze through. But I wasn't giving up. Inch by inch I was still moving forward. Finally, I was able to see my choir. "I am here!" I yelled. My conductor saw me. She started waiving her hands for me to get there faster. There was absolutely no way to squeeze through. My conductor pleaded to the people, "Please, please, I need her here." Suddenly, I felt my body raised above the crowd. People lifted me above their heads and passed me all the way to the front, and dropped me down, where my conductor welcomed me with joy. I have never seen her so happy to see me. I started walking toward my place with the sopranos, but my conductor stopped me. "We have a problem," she said. I saw a strong sign of concern on her face. "Margaret is not going to sing the solo parts."
Margaret was our conductor's only daughter. She was a nineteen-year-old beautiful girl with pretty sapphire eyes, and a perfect soprano voice. She was the main soloist of our choir. At every performance we ever did, Margaret always sang solo. I was the back up soloist. I had to learn all the solos, practice them at the rehearsals, but I never performed at any of our concerts. Margaret was always the one. I didn't think much of it. Other choir members would tell me that I was too humble, that it was not fair that I never got to sing solo, but I was OK with it. Maybe somewhere deep inside I wished I could sing at least once, but my fear of making a mistake or being too nervous was stronger than this hidden wish, so I never asked about it. I liked Margaret's voice more anyway. This day everything was about to change.
"Liliana, thank God you are here," she sighed with a sense of relief. "Can you sing?"
The music was about to begin. "Liliana, can you sing solo now??" I heard again.
My heart pounded stronger. I was out of breath from all the climbing and pushing through the crowds. "What did she just say?" I saw the choir members looking at me with anticipation. This was one of those moments where despite all the noises outside, everything suddenly seemed silent. It seemed as if one second could determine my entire life. I heard my own heartbeat, and then my own voice saying:
Suddenly, I was surrounded by the biggest circle of microphones I ever saw. I couldn't see the end of the crowds. The music was about to start. I saw the Pope lifting his head up from his deep prayer. He was waiting. The conductor lifted her hand. The music began. The whole choir started singing the first verse of the beautiful Italian song, Deo Del Cello. Basses, Tenors, Altos and Sopranos filled the entire air of the Vatican Square. I usually sang the first verse with the sopranos, but there I was, standing up front, trying to catch my breath. I was so dumbfounded. The second verse begins where the choir just hums, and the soloist is supposed to start. The conductor looked at me with hope in her eyes.
Before I knew it, I heard my own voice spreading all over, and echoing back to me, singing this beautiful song. It was one of the most wonderful experiences I have ever encountered. The crowds were so huge, yet I heard no noise, only one voice singing, and praising God in this breath-taking song.
After the ceremony, another miracle happened. The Pope would come to meet us. The whole choir, except for me, was dressed in our formal choir outfits. Yet, our conductor handed me the flowers. "Liliana, you give them to the Pope," she whispered.
Seconds later, there he was, standing right next to me, talking to me.
I was never sure if I should be singing or not, I always liked other people voices more. I didn't think I was good enough. I was criticized as a child a lot. I knew I wasn't perfect. Yet, at the end of our conversation, Pope John Paul II, as if he knew how I felt, held me, and I knew he would say something profound. I will never forget this moment. Here he was, this incredibly important man, and yet, he made me feel like I was the important one, like I was the only thing that mattered at that time... He said:
"You must never stop singing." I was humbled, dumfounded and silent.
Then came the time for the picture. We turned to the camera. He was holding my hand. He turned to me once again and said jokingly: "And by the way, next time, don't forget your clothes." Snap! The photo was taken. My response? You can see it on my face in the picture.
From that point on, April 29th was no longer a terror for me. I always remember that day, but it is so different now. Not just pain but also happiness. Not just a shadow, but also a light. Not just a fear but also a HOPE, a hope that, no matter how hard it is at times, at the end there will always be LIGHT.
©Artpeace Publishing, 2016 (Nov. 15)
a moment with iris
One of the heartfelt stories from a book, things on the floor can wait, currently in preparation for publishing
I was open and friendly. She was reticent and distant. I didn’t have much since I was just starting my life in America. She lived in the US for many years and had an abundance of things. I was in my twenties. She was already in her fiftieth. She was a highly successful, brutally logical businesswoman with concrete plans for life. I was an artist and a young teacher, quite emotional and sensitive, with big dreams. She knew things. I felt things. Her name was Louise. Louise did not talk about emotions, or feelings. I loved talking about them.
We are now two of the greatest friends.
I met Louise at her house, in Los Angeles, CA, in 1983. I had a letter from her colleague, Professor Dembicki. They used to study Civil Engineering at the Technical University of Gdansk, Poland. I was delivering that letter to her. I remember being so overwhelmed when I walked into her house. There were so many antiques, original paintings and valuable things all around. Louis sat down on the large leather couch. Her petite body seemed to disappear for a second among the large pillows decorating the couch. I carefully sat down across from her and handed her the letter. I was uncomfortable. I knew that in this letter Professor Dembicki was asking her to help me find a place to live. I had never been in this situation, and asking for help was difficult for me.
She read the letter and then studied it for a while. After a moment of sorting all the information in her mind, I heard her calm and authoritative voice. “We have a vacant unit in one of our buildings. It is a studio apartment. There is no kitchen but you will have what you need. My husband, George, will take you there.” At that moment she placed the letter on the marble table.
“Thank you! Thank you so much!” I exclaimed with relief. I wanted to hug her, but before I even had a chance to get up, she said quickly with a slightly cold tone in her voice, “Don’t thank me. Thank Professor Dembicki.”
An hour later, I was in my small studio apartment in Los Angles, 345 South Manhattan Place. The next day, George brought a cardboard box to me. He said it was from Louise. It had one spoon, one fork, one plate, one cup, and one small pot. I had everything I needed, and most importantly, I had the roof over my head! I was grateful!
A few weeks later, George introduced me to their youngest daughter, Iris. She was about my age, and had a completely different personality than Louise. She was warm, sensitive and emotional. Iris would visit me once in a while. Soon I learned that she had a lot of emotional problems and a complete lack of self-esteem. Iris believed, or I should rather say, she was sure that her parents didn’t love her. That didn’t make sense to me. Maybe her mother was somewhat distant, but I was sure she loved her daughter. She just probably didn’t know how to show it.
I really cared for Iris, and I couldn’t stand that she was not happy. I was on the mission to prove to Iris that her parents did love her. Yet, no matter what I tried, nothing worked. At that time, I was a self-esteem expert, and I had five years of psychology credits behind me. Helping people who struggled with low self-esteem and self-worth was my passion. Yet, every time I tried to convince Iris that her parents did love her, and that she was valuable, an invisible wall would grow between us. She would just look at me with the expression that spoke louder than words, “Yeah, you know nothing.”
With time, she seemed to be getting worse and worse. There was only one thing left to do. I knew that I needed to talk to her mother.
I learned that Louise liked to go for walks, and that most of the time she walked alone. As soon as an opportunity presented itself, I asked Louise if we could sometimes walk together. And that is how our friendship began.
Louise and I started walking the streets of Hancock Park almost everyday. We both admired the beautiful flowers and unique gardens in front of people’s houses. I shortly learned that Louise stayed home 6 months when her oldest daughter, Bethany, was born, but when Iris was born, she immediately returned to work. When I asked Louise if it was emotional for her to leave her newborn baby and go back to work, she said, “I didn’t have time for emotions.”
That was Louise, a strong, logical, successful businesswoman.
Slowly, as our unusual friendship progressed, we began to learn from each other. Once in a while, we would talk about Iris, but I could never get Louise to open up. Most of the time, she would just cut me short. Louise was an exceptional civil engineer. She had her own engineering firm and also a real estate business. Providing for Iris, paying for Iris’ college, helping Iris with her skills made sense to Louise; however, the fact that Iris was depressed and dealing with painful emotions did not make sense to her.
At least not yet.
A few years later, I was married and expecting my first child. I was faced with a huge dilemma. On one hand, somewhere in my heart, I felt that I really wanted to quit my job and stay at home to raise my child myself. From my many years of study, I knew how crucial it was for mothers to be with their children, at least in their early years.
On the other hand, I loved my job. I was a special education teacher at the Foundation for the Junior Blind. I loved the children that I was teaching, and I knew that my students really depended upon me. I had some of the most behaviourally challenged kids, and they were making great progress.
To make my decision even harder, when I was about eight months pregnant, the Director of Administration asked me if I’d be willing to take the position of the Director of Education. I was so honoured! I could make a huge difference in the lives of all the children from this school. My salary would be much greater too.
I was not only a teacher. In the evenings, I was producing music for commercials, short films, and writing my own songs. I was making steady and good money. My husband, on the other hand, just completed a sound engineering program and was trying to break into the business—one day with a job, the other without. I knew that my savings wouldn’t last long.
So there I was, completely torn and unsure what to do. If I quit my job and be a stay at home mom, we will struggle financially. If I stay at work, my child will be deprived of motherly care.
On one of our morning walks, I wanted to ask Louise for her opinion. What would she advise me? I felt her answer before I even asked the question: Of course you have to go back to work. How is your husband going to support you now with a baby? You are going to put yourself in a financial crisis.
I finally gathered my courage and asked. “Louise, I’ve been thinking that I kind of want to quit my job and be a stay at home mom for a while. I am wondering what is your opinion about that?”
Louise was quiet, as if she didn’t hear me, and just continued walking. My heart started pounding. I felt so insecure. Yet, I asked again.
“Louise, what do you think?”
After a moment of silence, I heard a soft, and for the first time, emotional voice.
“I can buy anything I want. I can do whatever I want, but there is only one thing that I really want, and with all the money I have, I can’t buy it...”
“What is it?” I asked with anticipation.
We somehow simultaneously stopped walking. I looked at Louise. Tears were crowding in her eyes.
“A moment with Iris, when she was a baby.”
Things on the floor can wait.
Calls to return can wait.
All those lists “To do,” they must wait too.
Cause there’s only one thing that won’t wait…
It’s this moment,
My baby, with you.
©Artpeace Publishing 1999
*This story and the last fragment of song lyrics are from my book Things on the Floor Can Wait, a Collection of Stories, Songs and Poems for Mothers, their Babies and All Who Love Them. It is not published yet.
To hear Liliana share some of her thoughts and experiences, look through her YouTube Channel's playlist, Diving Deeper, Rising Stronger. Click HERE.
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