Today being the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking, the enduring popular interest in this most famous of all maritime tragedies has quickened, and it's been all over the television and radio for days. This morning I heard that the band may not have been playing "Nearer My God To Thee," as I'd always heard it was when the vessel finally upended and sank beneath the waves. The very last tune wasn't the beloved hymn, it seems. It was a sad little waltz, one not known to me: ''Songe d'Automne", by Archibald Joyce, was the last song the eight musicians played on the frigid top deck, before they went into the icy water.
They knew their situation was hopeless. They could have panicked and tried to make a run for one of the lifeboats, but they did not: they kept playing until the end. Those who survived remembered it. The announcer compared the bandleader to a pastor, giving the people under his care the gift of doing what they were trained to do, of being exactly who they were in life while they waited for certain death.
We have little choice about where, when or how we will die -- God willing, it will be decades from now, but it could be later this afternoon. We just don't know. We have a great deal to say, though, about who it is who will die. I can choose to pursue a life that trains me to walk in serenity and trust, or I can choose to succumb to the terror of death's disordering long before it happens. The end will be the same either way -- eventually, we all slip beneath the waves. But we have the power to decide who we will be when we do.
What would you do if you knew your death were imminent? It is a great blessing to be able to answer Exactly what I'm doing now.
Listen to the story of the Titanic's quietly heroic bandleader on NPR, and hear the waltz.