11 March 2017

Ferrying Between Worlds

Written by Klara Wojtkowska, Posted in News and Announcements

Playing Karimba for the Dying

Ferrying Between Worlds
Klara's karimba playing struck a particular chord with her dying aunt

Klara Wojtkowska, an accomplished musician and playwright among many other things, in a poetic and poignant essay expresses how profound an experience it was for her to play karimba for someone she loved, helping them make the transition between this world and whatever lays beyond.

When I went to Poland last summer, I planned to go for a friend’s wedding. I did not imagine that God might be pulling me by the hair to carry a karimba and a song across the ocean to my beloved Aunt, who did not want to be dying, but was doing just that.


There is a story in the Book of Daniel about the Prophet Habakkuk. When Daniel was thrown in the Lion’s Den, the Prophet Habakkuk, who knew neither about the man sentenced to death, nor that he was a prophet, had just cooked up some soup. This Prophet, who, first and foremost, was a long-haired cook (and it is important that his hair was long), was about to take this soup out to feed the reapers in the fields, when – suddenly (angels never come gradually) – the Angel of God appeared and announced to the startled, long-hair-raised Prophet: Take this soup to Babylon, to Daniel in the Lion’s Den! Habakkuk, eyes rolling in disbelieving sockets, was confused. He had never been to Babylon, and he knew nothing of Daniel or a den of lions. He did not agree nor disagree nor argue, he merely politely expressed his confusion (and maybe this is why he is a Prophet, for who else but Prophets take the absurd requests of Angels so seriously?). Recognizing the wisdom of Habakkuk’s answer, noting the discrepancies in time and space, and not taking NO for an answer, the Angel took him by the hair, flew him to Babylon, landed him (by the hair) in the den, gave him enough time to set down the soup and invite Daniel to eat, and then spirited him back to where he came from (by the hair-raised hair.)

I heard one popular priest recount this story as a metaphor for the little ways in which God loves us, while never saving us from those most difficult moments of our lives (the lions or the hair-pulling?). God does not rescue Daniel from the Lions. Instead, God offers him a slice of sweetness. It is up to Daniel to see through his fear and appreciate what little morsels of affection God lays in his path. I wonder though, how did Habakkuk feel afterwards – winded, hungry, and with a tired scalp? Did he ponder later on the nature of his soup, that God would seek to deliver it to a desperate man from so far away? Was he humbled by the experience, understanding that his soup was not a vessel for himself, but rather he was a vessel to carry his soup to others? (We are not, ever, who we think we are.)

When I went to Poland last summer, I planned to go for a friend’s wedding. I did not imagine that God might be pulling me by the hair to carry a karimba and a song across the ocean to my beloved Aunt, who did not want to be dying, but was doing just that.

The day after I arrived in Poland I went to visit my Aunt Kasia. She opened the wooden door of her apartment, and I was struck by the changes her face carried. The last time we had seen each other had been for my brother’s funeral the year before. During that very odd and special time, when nobody was acting the way they should or would otherwise, she was steadfastly herself – energetic, boisterous, bossy, resoundingly present. Nobody could deny that my Aunt was a force of nature. Now, I saw in the door, she was thin, her voice had turned gray, and her head seemed to be growing too-large out of her body. I could see that she was watching closely how I responded to her appearance. We had spoken over the phone many times in the previous months and I had told her how sick I had been, dealing with an onslaught of inflammation in my body. In all those phone conversations, and despite my Aunt’s twenty years of cancers and numerous death knells banged insistently by various doctors, I had not thought that maybe my Aunt was very sick as well. Forces of Nature do not die, after all.

I came in, and asked her how she was doing. She watched my face as she told me: “I am sick. Very sick. I could be dying soon.”

And that, in so many ways, determined my summer – and then my life. Grief is so little like what it is described to be; death so various in the many masks it wears, and the process so continuously, never-endingly full of endings. I will never not grieve my Aunt and my Brother, and I will never not feel them, and I will never not remember them and I will never not love them. And that feels so important, and so special, and like all things oriented in love – so deeply good and simultaneously (never-endingly) so painful.

That day, or was it the day after? I brought the karimba to show my Aunt. I played and sang for her, and she fell in love with the instrument immediately, just as I had done. She asked to hold it, to stroke it, to pluck the keys. She asked me how much it cost. She told me I would leave the karimba with her, and she would pay me for it so I could then buy a new one when I returned to the States. (When my Aunt was sure of something, she would tell me rather than ask.) I agreed. My Aunt wanted to learn to play the karimba, and so she would not die, even if she stopped being able to go on walks, and stopped being able to eat, and if every week that I came by she was telling me about a new healing crisis that had her vomiting all night long. Even if her legs ballooned and she was in a lot of pain and she could not focus and her hands were weak, my Aunt wanted to learn to play the karimba that I brought to her from across the ocean, and so she would not die.

My brother’s death had been sudden – my Aunt’s was not. Her apartment was small and as crisis after crisis mounted, people materialized in the small doors and tight corners and in the bathroom, and soon the apartment was stuffed with well-meaning people who were there to help. Death is hard work and takes many hands. My Uncle was doing the best that he could to take advantage of all of the help, and keep the chaos from overwhelming my Aunt. I was only one of many people who wanted to spend quality time with Ciocia Kasia (my Aunt Kasia), and what did I have to offer? I was not strong enough to turn her over, I had no experience with feeding or washing or changing or massaging the dying. I myself was still in a horrendous amount of physical pain from the inflammation in my body. Mostly I remember sitting and feeling sad and waiting. Bringing me in probably meant bringing in more chaos. Despite this, the day after my Aunt was released from the hospital for what was a final crisis before her final round of fading, she called me on the phone. I was biking from the center of Warsaw back to my Father’s apartment, the apartment where all of us had once lived, and where my brother had died. I picked up. (Later, when I saw my Aunt, I would understand how much effort it must have taken her to pick up her phone and call me then. It seemed that my Force of Nature Aunt had done another impossible thing.) I heard her breathing, but she had a hard time speaking, so I asked: “Do you want me to come?” “Yes.” The call dropped. My Aunt had exhausted her energy. (Death is hard work and takes a lot of energy.)

I came in, and my Uncle told my Aunt I was there. In a voice that slid out of her throat in a weak and forlorn jumble, my Aunt asked me: “Did you bring the instrument?” I knew that despite my profession as a violinist, my Aunt meant not the violin, but the karimba. (My Uncle had no idea what my Aunt meant.) This was the last verbal exchange that I remember having with my Aunt. She died less than two weeks later, slowly drifting into another world, and speaking only enough to express what she needed or wanted, to save energy for the journey. (Death is hard work and takes everything we have.)

And during this time of in-between dreams and semi-consciousness, I played the karimba for her. I did not know how to play very well, and I did not know how to play many songs, so I improvised, and I played things over again, and I plucked and hummed and did my best to soothe, to offer some cushion to the force of nature in my Aunt that so much did not want yet, to leave. I played and sang for her in the evenings, and then after she died, I played and sang for her while her coffin was lowered into the grave, and I played and sang for her at the cemetery, after everything was over and done with and it was just me and the ants watching the clouds rub their bellies on her gravestone. And while I played for her, I could feel the tangible sweetness that the karimba carries within it, and even though I was so very, very sad, and I could feel my Aunt’s resistance to the death that she did not want, in so many ways, it felt to me that the karimba was a gift to her – maybe not from me, but maybe, in fact, from the God who my Aunt felt so close to, who would not save her from the oh-so-human-act of dying, but would pull a long-haired, devoted niece (who believed in no angel, and is not a prophet, but wanted very much to love well), to bring her a karimba to sweeten those last lion-filled weeks.

About the Author

Klara Wojtkowska

Klara Wojtkowska

Klara is a Polish-American musician, writer, teacher, director, actor, and seeker, currently working and developing her crafts in Tucson, Arizona. She has an M.A. in African Studies from Yale University, and a B.A. in Literature and B.M. in Violin Performance from Rice University. She also studied directing and playwriting at the ARSHARTER Theatre School in Kraków, Poland as well as mime at the White Church Theatre Project. As a violinist, she plays regularly with the Tucson Symphony, teaches, and works for the Arizona Yage Assembly facilitating ceremonies. She has written for Krytyka Polityczna at Yale, and her plays have been performed at Rice University, Yale University, Tucson Fringe Festival, Sheworxx in Tucson, AZ and by She Said Yes! Theatre Company in St. John's, Canada. Her full-length desert play, A Theory of Hearing, was performed by Arete Theatre Forge in Tucson, AZ, in April, 2016.

An artist of international aspirations, Klara has performed and worked with music and theatre artists in Zimbabwe, Tanzania (Halius Arts Productions), the United States and Poland. Her recent burning directions include the life of plants, mime and the truth of the body, rhythm and the life in music, and how to find home. Currently Klara is learning the karimba, the mbira, the djembe, the arts of healing and herbalism, and how to be a whole human being.

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