Afscheid

The French say Au Revoir! or even the sweeter A Bientôt! but both mean essentially the same thing: I will see you again though we part for the present.  French was the first foreign language I learned.  Now into my fifth language I can honestly say that I love languages, and perhaps what I love about them is the special way that each language crafts its closely held cultural values to the surface of its usage.  The French assume a rather confident stance, thus, on parting.  They say, while leaving, you and I will meet again, whenever that my be.  Perhaps, at 12, I internalized that so much that I left “good bye” and its finality behind in childhood, and then forgot how to let go in the soul of those I love.

August 14, 1998

The hospice nurse came to speak with both of us that afternoon, and Mom was there as well, crying into a heap of Kleenex.  The hospice nurse sat on the edge of my bed, my sister and I resting on it together and she explained that she believed Dad was holding on because he needed to hear from both Jackie and I that he could go.  She asked us to go to him and tell him that it was okay for him to die, to reassure him that we’d be alright after he was gone.  We agreed and went into the sun room which had been converted into a makeshift bedroom for him so that he could see the gardens in the last few months of his life.  Jackie climbed up onto Dad’s bed.  I sat next to him at the head of the bed, and took his hand.  He recognized both Jackie and I almost immediately, which was a good sign, though when I looked at his eyes I saw that he truly was (as I’d heard in conversations between adults in the house over the last few days) “with a foot in one world and a foot in the next.”  I leaned forward, knowing I’d have to be the first to say these dreadful words to my father without knowing if they were true, but because I was older I’d have to speak first.  “Daddy.  It’s okay to die.  You don’t have to stay.  We’ll be okay.”  Jackie cried.  I cried.  Daddy cried.  He asked, “Are you sure?”  I told him we’d be together and look after one another.  I couldn’t know I was lying to him, but I also truly thought it would all work out differently than it did.  He sighed.  We hugged and kissed him and went back to my room where I held my sister and we both cried ourselves to sleep.    He died in the afternoon of the next day.  And I never said good-bye.

October 2002

At some point in Madison, during my second year at college, there was a concert of Early Music being put on by one of the ensembles that traveled to the area.  I went only to fulfill an attendance requirement built into the music major that you view a given number of performances in and outside the music program.  I will say here that music of the Baroque and I are not friends, and I went to this concert very much afraid that I was going to have to hear upwards of two hours of Bach or Handel.  I will sing it and never complain.  I will listen to it and support the arts, but this is just simply not my flavor of music.  I was 19 and stupid so I’d never heard of Heinrich Schütz before and I was a bit worried that I was going to hear a Bach duplicate when I saw a piece called Musikalische Exequien on the program.  Well, I can honestly say that that was probably the first time I walked out of a concert in a trance of pure rapture and amazement.  I know I filled my poor voice teacher’s ears at our next lesson about how completely blown away I was by this piece and its performance.  I think voice teachers at college must laugh themselves sick every time some dumb 19 year old stumbles across a work/composer from 400 years ago and goes on raving about it like they’d discovered the most sumptuous chocolate known to man.  Well Paul Rowe was polite, said it was a lovely piece, he was glad I enjoyed it, and couldn’t we get on with warm ups now???  I filed away that work in my head as a piece I’d sell my eyes to perform and rejoice if the opportunity ever came up.  For the next several years I jumped excitedly every time a piece with the name Schütz on it wound up in my folder, but alas…

June 14, 2012

I boarded the plane, pushed myself into the corner with my head against the glass of the window.  I felt like I was being throttled.  After a harrowing two weeks, when there had been a brief spark of hope that she would survive yet another brush with death, all hope had been extinguished when she asked to die, and neither I nor any of her other children could say, “No.  You have to fight on.”  She had fought so long and so bravely for her dignity as a human, through pain that tortured her day in and out, through anxiety and feelings of worthlessness, through loneliness and feelings of increasing helplessness I’d watched this woman fight for life against diabetes long past the days when her soul mate went to his grave.  Fourteen years after his passing, none of her children would say to her, “There’s a reason for you to carry on in this broken body and to try to recover.”  Even her doctor who had pulled her through one medical disaster after another took her hand and said, “I won’t tell you, you have to fight, Jackie.”  She begged to be taken off the medications used to drag her back from death, to let the pneumonia have her and so I brought my son to say his good-byes at her bedside.  I held her hands and kissed her.  I knew I had to fly back to Amsterdam to clear up business, set things to rights, sing a concert and that I would fly back one week later for her funeral.  I could not stay for her passing.  After AJ’s father took him out of her room I knelt next to her, I took her hands.  I kissed her cheeks and forehead.  I told her how much I loved her.  I thanked her for the life she and Dad had given me.  I promised to take care of AJ with all the love she’d ever showed to both he and I, and I left.  The words good-bye, I refused to say since they would come out broken and ragged.  Easier by far to say, “I love you.” and close the hospital door.

March 12, 2016

I once had a voice teacher who said to me that the key to performing really dramatically was to wrap yourself up in the meaning of the words and the music and then let it flow outwards from you like you were “unzipping” yourself.  I confess I never mastered this in the short years as a bachelor in music.  It took years of performing before I finally understood what she was trying to describe, and even then, perfecting that technique of letting the music and words invade you and then transcend you doesn’t always work.  Sometimes you just simply don’t bring across precisely what or how the music means to you.

And then something else can happen too, which I experienced with this last project we did, and I didn’t know how to overcome it until about halfway through the project.  I had to strip away my knowledge of the lyrics completely because the words, this time, simply meant too much and lay too close to my heart to let me sing them without weeping.

I’m not half way through my life and I’ve lost both my parents.  I’ve watched my family destroy itself and rebuild itself.  I’ve loved and lost many people over a short time span and this time around we were singing about death and love lost.  Each piece in our program had to do with loss and grief, and even the title of the program, it was eventually decided should be called Afscheid which can mean any number of things in English, but which I believe is best translated as “breaking off”.  Scheiden is the Dutch verb “to sunder” or “to divide”.  When the Dutch talk about “leave taking” or saying “good-bye” it has a visceral finality to it very unlike the first language I learned out side of English, and perhaps this is the reason that the Dutch are very careful about throwing this word Afscheid around.  Its literal meaning is “the end”.  Everything from here changes, and is broken off.

There’s a mysterious quality to the human mind which I didn’t encounter until I was learning Italian in college and realized (after two years) that I could “read” (not well or in depth, you understand) uncomplicated Spanish.  This has now happened to me with Dutch and German.  I started learning German vocal repertoire well over 10 years ago now, so I had a decent vocabulary before coming to learn Dutch, but when you add having learned Dutch to a fluency to pass their state examination in proficiency, suddenly I do not understand isolated words anymore when I sing in German, but I understand, by and large, whole sentences.

It was during the choir weekend that this became a real problem for me.  Here I was learning a piece I’d fallen in love with years ago, living amongst melodies I’d long since memorized, and reveling in the chance to be doing this program when the words I was singing began to penetrate ever deeper.  In short, the music coupled to these lyrics about how we must all at some point die, how life is at times a vale of woe where angst, Night, and grieving pervade all things unzipped me.  I saw my father dying again.  I heard myself reassuring him that everything would be okay.  I held my weeping sister.  I held my mother’s hand again as she pulled through every brush with death except the time she asked for death.  I watched my ex-husband sob as I asked him for a divorce.  I read a text saying good-bye to me again and again before smashing my phone on the sidewalk.  I watched my son shuddering from saddness as I hugged him at the airport.  I found myself wandering in the vale of woe and was overcome by it.  Somehow I found myself so deeply bound to this music that every beat became a pulse I’d shared in grieving terrible losses.

Des Bleibens ist ein’ kleine Zeit, voller Mühseligkeit
Our stay here is a short time, full of soul-deep care/fatigue.

I would look up at our conductor whom we were saying good-bye to, and the music became unbearable suddenly.  The other two pieces on the program were not doing this to me.  Carissimi’s Jephte and Monteverdi’s Lamento D’Arianna did not have me weeping uncontrollably.  Clearly I’d learned my way into a work so deeply that it simply meant too much to sing those words and really mean them. Now I had to learn my way out, otherwise I would not be able to sing it.  I started playing a game with my own mind.  Each time I saw a word I knew, the start of a sentence I had to focus my mind elsewhere, on vowels, on ideas of other things.  This is the first time I had to try to be distracted while singing otherwise I was going to end up sobbing through it.

In the end I did not learn how to say good-bye, but I learned that this is something I’ve never known how to do.  I can say Au Revoir! I can tell people I love them.  I can be loyal until the bitterest end even as the fiercest indifference freezes the blood in my veins, but this project taught me that I do not know how to make Afscheid work for my life.  I guess those I love will only be dead to me when I join them in death some day.  I am so grateful for the chance to have sung this amazing program and to have brought it to a successful if very emotional conclusion with the incredible choir I belong to.  I know that the experience drew us all closer in various ways, and it was beyond meaningful to us and the audiences that heard it.  It was a program of music sung so fully by everyone, with so much depth and passion and sincere gratefulness to our conductor that there were few, I imagine, who could have heard it and not been moved.

I learned that in the end, you give your best to those you love, to show them your joy in their presence in your life.  I learned that good-bye doesn’t always have to be said, and that though things change, we can accept it and grow from the changes without losing the core of our natures.  I learned that sometimes you don’t unzip yourself to let the music out; but sometimes the music lets you out of the box you put your painful moments away in.  I learned that there is life even amidst the vale of woe .

Den Tod verschlingt das Leben mein, mein’ Unschuld trägt die Sunde dein; da bist du selig worden.
Death shall my Life devour, my innocence will bear your sins; and so shalt thou be blessed.

 

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~ by Rebecca Erickson on March 16, 2016.

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