Comforted by the presence of loving family members, physical pain lessened by the hospice-care morphine, she was lying in her own bed in the home she loved. No one knew that in only a day or two she would pass away, sooner than anyone expected.
At her side was her priest, who’d come to offer prayers and give her not only God’s love and his own, but also to receive her love and appreciation, which had flowed through her to so many for so long. In her peaceful acceptance and embrace of the process of dying, she ministered to him, her family, and other caregivers even as they ministered to her, love flowing, as it does, in a circle of reciprocity. In his homily at her funeral Wednesday, he shared about this final visit with this parishioner he obviously admired and loved.
“I brought you a gift,” he said. Her eyes lit up as she smiled. As he placed the surprise–a communion wafer–on her tongue, she brightened even more.
“Wow!” she exclaimed.
Dorothy Straub Genualdi entered my life when I was in eighth grade, and I can’t think of any better way to describe the spirit with which she embraced life, family, friends, and colleagues, perhaps even her transition from this life.
1972: She was in the early stages of what became a major career as a string educator. Her brother Ed and his family lived across the street from our new home in Tampa; soon he and my father were best friends. Dorothy came to visit, and walked over to hear eighth-grade me play the cello, which I’d been at for not quite two years. My new teacher had introduced me to playing with a very long endpin, which made the instrument almost horizontal. As I showed her what I understood to be the advantages, she was fascinated, and took obvious delight in what I now know was my intermediate-level, mostly-out-of-tune playing. She may not have said the word, but it was clear how she felt about me and my music (and I soon learned, about so many other children) and learning something new: “Wow!”
1984: Twelve years later, I was working on my master’s degree at what is now known as Stony Brook University. Broke, with an assistantship that barely covered the rent for the tiny, dark basement apartment in which I was living. Life was a challenge. I was just a two-hour drive from her home in Connecticut, where she was now the coordinator of music for two school systems, and she was thrilled to have me so close. Soon she had set me up with a small class of fifth-grade boys to teach every Friday afternoon. I’d drive up from Long Island and spend the weekend in her home. Suddenly I had just enough money that I could eat, the embrace of this wonderful friend and the family of friends she had created, even a place to stay with windows! Somehow she made me feel that rather than accepting a great favor, I was honoring her and all of Westport by accepting her hospitality.
While I taught in the basement music studio, often struggling to connect with these children from my aspiring-concert-cellist set of skills and neuroses, she’d be in the kitchen preparing dinner. Occasionally she would pause to yell exhortations down the stairs.
“Eric, just make them play in tune!” Loving the young teachers she mentored, including me, didn’t mean she wasn’t tough with us.
Toward the end of the academic year, she brought friends down to Long Island to hear my master’s recital. Her review? “Wow!” (And I’m sure that’s an exact quote.)
In his homily, Dorothy’s priest said each one of us is a facet in the great jewel we call God, and spoke about how clear that was to as well as about her. So many times when I was deeply frustrated with my cello playing and angry with myself for not being the person I thought I was supposed to be, Dorothy was one of the people who saw part of the jewel I am. In the midst of the darkness and depression that periodically seemed as if it could swallow me up, a glimpse at myself through her eyes would help me keep going.
There were hundreds of people at her funeral. Everyone I spoke with had similar stories of this unique friend who offered transforming love while being a wise and challenging mentor.
The Fairfield County Children’s Choir (she was on their board) sang at the service with exquisite beauty. Moved and transported, I understood more powerfully than ever before how completely dedicated Dorothy was to the cause of children making music together at the highest level possible. Over and over again, she looked at them, and us, and what we did, and said, “Wow!”
Wednesday we got to say it back to her, and to the energy that created her. I came back to my own students and looked at them through what I imagined to be her eyes. What better way to honor her legacy than to go forward and find the “wow” in everyone we meet?
One of them could have used a bit more practice on his scales. I told him about Dorothy, and that I could hear her yelling down the stairs from heaven. Eric, make him play in tune! We laughed and did our work.