THE HOSPITAL ROOM DOOR was open a crack. We stood outside in the corridor. I could see, past my mother’s shoulder, my father on the bed, a long tube still attached to his inert arm.
Distant. Unreachable. Dead.
My first encounter with the ultimate dissonance from which there is no resolution.
First and final theme.
My mother leaned her head against the doorjamb and sobbed. Next to her I felt lumpy, awkward, scared. Her tears terrified me. We stood, each of us on our own island, apart from one another. Convention would say that we hugged, but I don’t remember that. Clearer to me is the sense that her grief was untouchable, my terror a new isolation. Something inside me closed down. A flap on the heart shut tight.
She was forty-six. I was thirteen.
Four decades later, high on a barren hill in Dorchester, New Brunswick, Canada, in the small, windowless classroom of a maximum-security penitentiary, a pallid, earnest student in his mid-thirties peered at me through round, dark-rimmed glasses. We were discussing James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” My three inmate students in English 101 sat carefully spaced from one another, no desks touching. They nurtured mutual antipathies outside of class, I had been warned. One student, Jean, an Acadian from northern New Brunswick, had recently emerged from “the hole,” extended burial in solitary confinement. We kept our distance, all of us, touching each other only through words on the page, which threw a fragile bridge above chasms separating us.
“We all think we’re immortal,” said Barry. “Until we die.”
Intense in class, rigidly moral in his attitudes, Barry would forever see life through bars. His crime was so heinous that even callous guards buttoned their lips and rolled their eyes at his name. Perched on the bridge of Joyce’s story, Barry wished to explore a witty Irishman’s exquisite verbal shadowings of death.
Avid to learn, he sent away to universities in Canada and the United States, took examinations in philosophy, languages, ancient classics. Some of his completed exams never found their way back out of the penitentiary. Mocked for his ambition, he persisted with the stubbornness of the desperate. Through works of literature, of philosophy, of history, he sought to let a crack of light into his cell.
On my last day of class he waited until the other two had left the room. “This is for you,” he said formally, presenting me with a new copy of Webster’s very large Third International Dictionary. I had mentioned that I did not own it. Instantly anxious about how I’d get this oversized book past vigilant guards, electronic monitors, and metal detectors, I murmured a thank you. It wouldn’t do to ask, “Where and how did you get this brand new dictionary?” Always a gentleman, he held my coat for me. As I slipped my arms through the sleeves, fear zapped me: this man could hurt me.
I got the contraband out with no questions asked.
I do not remember mother entering the room. Surely she did; her husband of seventeen years was so freshly dead.
I know I did not.
The next time I saw what had been my father, surrounded by satin, his stillness was even scarier than when glimpsed through the hospital-room door. I was up close now. The casket stood at the end of our living room, displacing my brother’s drum set. To the right of the casket, a bank of flowers hid my Chickering piano.
As Father Cronin led the rosary before our final goodbyes, did that dead eyelid flicker ever so slightly? Could it be?
I wanted it to be. No, I didn’t want it to be. We would bury him. He should be dead.
I wanted life, not death. Song, not silence. Not this catastrophic dissonance in the harmony of our life. I wanted to be making music, my brother and me playing some jazz standard at the end of the living room which was our place. My father belonged at the other end of the room, in his easy chair, reading the evening paper as I practiced.
I wanted to unroll time back to the moment four hot July nights before when mother and I, keeping our date to see a movie together, walked to the end of the block, then turned back. We knew he was sick; we shouldn’t leave him alone. We came home to find him out of bed, watering the grass. It had to be done.
No rolling back.
As I went forward to my father’s casket, I felt an unspoken pressure to kiss his cold forehead as a final goodbye. My mother had done it. I knelt for a moment on the prie-dieu. My whole thirteen-year-old being revolted. I would not kiss death.
He had beautiful hands, and I noticed them again, crossed at his waist, resting on his fine suit, a rosary threaded through them, hands that were, as usual, perfectly groomed, fingers shaped with a pleasing symmetry, very dead hands.
Forty-eight years later, in the time of my mother’s radical diminishment at ninety-four, she suffered yet another fall at her care facility. My husband and I had come down to Connecticut from Canada to spend time with her. From our downtown hotel we heard the ambulance sirens. I said a quick silent prayer, as the nuns had long ago taught us, for whoever’s suffering the siren signaled. Then the phone call came. We hurried to the emergency ward at Saint Mary’s Hospital, two blocks away. She had fallen forward and badly cut her face and mouth. Her lips would need stitching. At a loss before her conscious pain and fright, to say nothing of her stoic courage, I felt that old flap-close of the heart. No words, no way to console. As she lay waiting for the doctor’s needle, I held her hand and put my other hand on her forehead. When she could finally speak, she whispered, “That feels so good.”
Later, when it came time for me to bury her, I would learn from the undertaker that she had arranged, all those decades ago, for my father to have a most expensive burial, protecting his coffined remains against the corrupting touch of earth with a lead vault. All business, the undertaker rustled his papers, surveyed again the record of my father’s death and burial.
“No,” I said. “No lead burial vault.”
And then, “At the wake I would like a closed casket, please.”
A barely concealed pucker in his forehead, a slight rustle of the papers again. I was flying in the face of established custom in Irish Catholic Waterbury.
“Some people benefit from seeing the dead body,” he offered. “It makes the death real to them.”
Why should the last view of those who loved her in life, cherished her vital spirit, be the body of a dead woman?
The exposition, in sonata form, sends forth vibrations into the musical atmosphere, basic themes that generate, in the ear of the listener, a sense of anticipation.
We are going to make a trip. It has already begun. Where will it lead?
The development section, which comes next, challenges a composer to lead listeners far away from the original key by expanding the structure and exploring its harmonic possibilities. It may be as long and complex as desired, provided that eventually it leads back to a recapitulation of the earlier themes, back to the home key. Our western ears have been trained to expect this return.
Let us cross the bridge of modulation, then, to bind musicking, touch, distance, and dissonance as these have found themselves linked in my own limited time. Beneath these changes plays a basso ostinato, our resistance to finality, to death.
Run through as many keys as possible, stretch the sounds far away, bend them so that shape touches memory but raises a question. The challenge will be to find a way back to home key, but we’re not there yet.
Turn sounds upside down, inside out, make harmonies smaller, larger, go at it. What a trip. Echoes abound. Diminishments occur. Time curves round and round and sends into life bits and pieces, motifs, that emerge skewed, tipped, inside-out, from earlier echoing motifs. We inhabit an echo chamber. What is this cacophony? Where does it lead? Does it have a center? Does it need to?
The faces of death slide before me, so many kinds. And hidden behind them, cracking apart the darkness of death in my life, the angel of music would tiptoe in to create, again and again, a fissure of light in my cell.
A couple of months after my father’s death, I entered Waterbury Catholic High School, an all-girls school with about eight hundred students. I left behind my first piano teacher, Professor Bonn. A frail, elderly, cultivated musician, he had introduced me to piano at age seven and brought me through elements of theory without ever foisting on me a thick book with Grades I, II, III.
Now came the big switch to Mother Saint Ambrose. She was French but spoke fluent English. She bustled about, rubbing her large, expressive hands together and murmuring Vite! Vite! as if life were too short to hold all the music to be made, so we had better get busy. Her small, bright green eyes were darting pinpricks of alertness behind thick glasses.
My tasks at the piano grew rapidly: learn my pieces, accompany smaller singing groups and, occasionally, the choral club itself, and accompany singers on the weekly radio show. A new edge of excitement entered mere piano playing: others depended on me; others were listening.
I did my academic duty in classes upstairs, but I lived for the chance to run down to Mother Saint Ambrose’s kingdom on the ground floor. I don’t remember ever seeing her upstairs, where the classrooms were. This was her domain: the modest stage surrounded by several small practice rooms and the even smaller music studio that served as her office. I coveted the small white bust of Beethoven that stood on her paper-strewn desk. By the standards of today’s high-school auditoriums, this setting was laughable. For me it became a minor heaven, distant from a home that felt empty and from a mother consumed by grief. A musical heaven breathing with life.
The choral club practiced at least four hours a week, no nonsense tolerated. In the plain auditorium featuring only a simple stage fronted by four wide steps on which the singers stood, a flat wooden floor, and no sound system, Mother Saint Ambrose packed in listeners from all over Waterbury every year for the three nights of the spring concert. Her choral club annually garnered prizes in state competitions.
A gifted student pianist, a junior, accompanied the choral club: Claudette Chevrette. I loved to hear Claudette play. Her fluid fingers made the piano sing, and she carried with her a sweetness memorable to this day. I longed to become her successor, and eventually it became clear that Mother Saint Ambrose was preparing me for that.
Claudette and I shared two deep personal attractions: to making music and to the religious life. Sometimes, of a late rainy afternoon, we would sit after school on two metal straight chairs down in the empty auditorium, our homework books piled on the floor, sharing our secret hopes and ambitions. While both of us dated, that was a thing of life’s surface. Down deep, we dreamed together of living a life totally given to God. Was there any higher ideal to aspire to? Such a life would invest every moment with transcendent meaning; such a life would be open-ended in its possibilities for radical service and deep inner joy. We knew perfectly well that many nuns had weird foibles and attitudes. We dealt with that every school day. But nuns, we realized even then, had no corner on strange behavior. Nuttiness appeared in all lives, our own included. At its core, the ideal animating their lives seemed to us, in those long, intimate conversations, whole, noble, and compelling. We longed passionately to realize that ideal, our true harmonic center.
For the concerts we would help Mother Saint Ambrose in various ways: organizing music, practicing with sections, sharing the accompanying, distributing and collecting music. After she graduated, Claudette disappeared from my life, entering the Montreal novitiate of the order that taught us, the Congregation of Notre Dame.
It was my turn to step into Claudette’s huge musical shoes. There was no telling Mother Saint Ambrose that you couldn’t do something. You simply did it.
One wintry day in my junior year I ran downstairs during my free period and discovered a sign on her studio door: Until further notice, Mother Saint Ambrose will not be here. A small curtain covered the door window. No explanation. There seemed some dark secret about it. The auditorium, the practice rooms, her studio office: silent, dark, locked up tight. Upstairs, nothing was said about this. The next morning I sneaked downstairs before class to check. Someone had pulled the heavy maroon curtain across the front of the stage. I came in through the rear door and stood there on the enclosed dark stage behind the curtain. Soundless. Empty. Spooky. No sign of life.
About a week later, I was called out of French class one morning. “You are to go over to Saint Mary’s Hospital,” said Mother Saint Mary of the Precious Blood to me in the deserted hallway. “Put on your coat and go there right now. You may come late for your next class. What is it?”
“I’ll explain your absence,” she said, and waved me toward the cloakroom.
The hospital was one block away. Light snow wet my cheeks as I hurried along, scared.
Nurses pointed me down the hallway to the room, its door slightly ajar. I pushed the heavy door inward, terrified at what I might face.
The room was darkened, the blinds shut, and my eyes took a moment to adjust after the winter sun outside. I tiptoed in and stood by her bed, gathering myself against the shock of seeing a nun, for the first time, without her habit. The distinctive peaked headdress was off, and a simple white piece of cloth hid part of her still brown hair. Those small eyes looked naked without their glasses. Her arms lay on top of the white sheet, thin and bony beneath their loose white sleeves. I stood there a few seconds, almost holding my breath. She turned her head toward me but said nothing. Did she even see me? Then she reached out a hand. “I’m glad you came.” Her voice cracked. It was barely above a whisper. Her hand touched mine. Cold. Then she turned her head away. Did she murmur, “Pray for me?” I felt shy. The old heart-flap was closing down. You never touched nuns. Physical distance was part of the mystique. Nothing to say, nothing to do.
A nurse slipped in and tapped me on the shoulder.
The next day Mother Saint Ambrose died.
Eleven years later, she returned.
I was beginning my first year of teaching as a nun at Ursuline Academy in Bethesda, Maryland. Clothed in the habit of the Ursuline Order and fortified by a freshly minted MA in English, at last I could close a classroom door behind me and begin to discover, without constant supervision, what teaching was all about. I was assigned to teach English I and II and first-year Latin.
In the first week, the principal, a pale, sick-seeming woman whose occasional smile spelled effort, called me into her office.
“We have a sudden need I want you to fill, Sister. You are to take over the choral club immediately from Mrs. X, who resigned yesterday with no notice.” She tried to smile encouragement.
How does one get fidgety adolescent girls to stand still, forget boys, and produce music? And where do you go for material? How could I do this? I had no training. One didn’t ask how in those days. You just did it.
Keep them standing for rehearsal, mon petit chou, she whispered as I gathered the girls together on my first day. Her pet name for me injected a shot of courage.
“Stand on the steps of the stage,” I ordered, as I set about arranging first and second sopranos, altos.
Make them stand up straight, she insisted. Vite! Vite!
“Shoulders back,” I said firmly, obeying her heart whisper. “Remember, you are about to make music! Stand up tall. Don’t squeeze your neighbor.”
Always begin with vocalizing, she murmured. You know the drill, ma petite.
“Ahhh, ehhh, eeeee, iiiii, ooooo,” I intoned. Could they guess I didn’t know what I was doing? That I was merely obeying? “Round your mouths, please. Put two fingers between your teeth. Like this. Don’t sing from your heads. Bring it up from far below. Betsy, stand up straight. Mary, stop giggling. Is there something you want to say that we all should know?”
Back in the forties we had been “Miss Walsh” and “Miss Kenney” in school. By 1959 the less formal “Virginia” and “Margaret” had become acceptable in the classroom. Nuns still carried the power of the habit, however, and I intended to exploit this to the hilt. For an accompanist I found a gifted mother whom marriage and parenthood had waylaid from a promising performing career.
We worked hard toward the spring concert and the promised reward of a record with their pictures on the slip jacket. As I see it today, that photograph tells only part of the story: forty young women in uniforms, white gloves, saddle shoes, and white socks, standing erect and perfectly still in front of a nun, her loose black sleeves raised to direct them, her black back to the camera. The invisible part of the story, the voice inside me, made the music happen.
Yes, I believe in ghosts.
Yes, I believe in resurrection.
The death of a life ideal is an old story. When it is yours, it is new. The conversion from one way of life to another carries its peculiar dissonances. What bridges will hold to carry you forward, and toward what?
The touch taboo starts early. Don’t touch things (I broke the china candy dish when we visited a friend’s house). Don’t touch that place (It can lead to sin). Don’t touch that way (The squinty-eyed seventh-grade boy pushed me from behind on a swing at the park, his fingers traveling up up up until my breasts began to tingle). “That way.” “Please, Sister, what is ‘up to a point?’ What is ‘going too far’?” Unasked, unanswered questions.
Fingers, hands: instruments of power. To be feared, avoided. That was part of the early spoken, internalized lesson. And then, long years later, I would discover their power to articulate the vocabulary of intimacy and human love.
Yet, in any setting, at any stage, fingers, hands can make music. They can comfort. They can lead somewhere.
And when, during thirteen years in the convent, the rare chance came, I explored touch on the keyboard: its power to soothe, relieve, heal, quiet the soul.
Midsummer evenings in our Waterbury neighborhood were humid, simmering with dogs barking, lawns being mowed or watered, neighbors chit-chatting from open front porches, kids playing catch in the street. Sometimes, after supper, my father and I, would walk the neighborhood. A quiet man, he held my hand. And we walked. Decades later my own son, who would never know that grandfather, would walk with me down the neighborhood streets of Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada, heading toward swim practice, or soccer camp, ice skating…anything. Hand in hand, we didn’t talk. I let him seek out my hand, for I knew it would end. While it lasted it was silent, tender.
These moments pass.
Our journey into the world of touching is complex, secretive, fearful, thrilling, revelatory.
The learned Jesuit, revered preacher, eminent scholar, spiritual director and confessor of many nuns, invited me into the privacy of his office at the university to offer counsel. “Would you feel better if you removed your veil?” His electrifying hands began to travel, past the crucifix in my cincture. Major dissonance. I left. No way to talk about this with others. Should your own shock torpedo the trust of another, especially another whose innermost life is grounded on that trust? Or should you say nothing, even when you know that other “young sisters”—as we were called at age twenty-seven, twenty-eight, thirty—visit him, too, and trust him?
Return to the keyboard, to music. What does “dead to the world” imply? Inside black, I was alive to the wonderful world.
Words on a page bridge chasms in a classroom. Encased in their gray blazers, pleated plaid skirts, white socks, our Catholic high school girls at Mount Saint Ursula Academy in the Bronx were caught in their own conflicts about touch. “Keep a distance from your students, Sister.” But what superior or principal can legislate the terms of distance as you and your students explore Kafka, relish Thomas Mann’s irony, Tolstoy’s adulterous passions, Salinger’s turbulent adolescents? How (and why) should we limit the touch of literature on the expanding imagination? As I studied twentieth-century English literature in graduate school, my superior ordered: “No, Sister. You may not read James Joyce.” Now in my third year of teaching, I longed to excite and deepen their imaginations, to touch their minds and hearts.
To the keyboard, again.
My principal lobbied my reluctant superior to send me to an organizational meeting in Manhattan. An ambitious, talented young man wished to form a diocesan chorus with students from high schools in the Archdiocese of New York. He was soliciting support from faculty in area high schools. Feeling like an imposter—for I was not a music teacher or professional musician—I attended the meeting, sat in the back of a windowless midtown room while Mr. Jacques explained his goals and sought ideas and support. Three nuns were present. Near me sat a Sister of Saint Joseph. I recognized her habit. Farther down in front, ahead of me, I spotted the back of another habit, the familiar peaked headdress of my high school’s nuns, the Congregation of Notre Dame.
As Mr. Jacques talked, even though I felt somewhat alien, I knew instinctively that I wanted to be part of this adventure.
We broke for coffee and the peaked habit turned and came back toward the coffee percolator. Then I saw the blue eyes, the black hair.
We were stunned. I had thought she was living and teaching in Canada, where she had gone to make her novitiate years before. She had no idea that I had entered the Ursuline Order after college. We had said our final goodbyes the year she graduated and vanished into the mysterious world of training for religious life. Thirteen years had passed.
And now, for one school year, every Saturday morning, we would work together again to make music happen. We would take raw, restless, unruly youths off the streets of Manhattan to form a chorus that would sing in May of 1962 at Carnegie Hall. Thanks to the generosity of an Episcopalian minister in Manhattan, we had a hall to practice in. We practiced in sections, drilling in the manner we had both learned from Mother Saint Ambrose years before. If a student missed two rehearsals, he or she was out. Gradually, the chorus began to come together, and the three nuns—for the Sister of Saint Joseph had joined us—and Bill Jacques began to experience the thrill of seeing musical results.
Claudette was still sweet, her hands fluid as ever at the keyboard, her presence a joy. Both of us were now living out the ideal that had sparked our deepest yearnings as we talked together in the empty auditorium thirteen years before. Partners in music, we still felt that deeper connection as we worked with young singers who would make their parents proud one May day in Carnegie Hall. This weekly Saturday morning trip to Manhattan immersed us for three hours in noise, color, traffic, and the hard work of young singers hoping to transform their own cacophony into harmony. For me, that excursion provided important release.
Dissonance: a dear friend, unfortunately male, unfortunately secular, faithfully married, writes to me of his agonizing conscience problem, an affair. He is in love and deeply troubled. He does not know my mail is read. His slit letter is placed by my setting in the refectory after other eyes have seen it. His reaching out touches me. “Not your place,” I am later told. “His letters will be confiscated.” How can I let him know?
And what is that place? I do not reply, but I believe now that I should have said: Jesus came close to the world, to others. People longed to touch him, if only the hem of his garment, and he touched them, spreading mud on blind eyes, accepting water from a Canaanite woman, letting Magdalen waste her precious perfume on him. He washed his disciples’ feet. What is this touch taboo?
Darkness shadows the edge of all relationships. Dissonance.
“I want you to teach liturgical music, Sister, in addition to your English classes. You will go around to study hours and inform students that from now on this hour will be devoted to liturgical music in the auditorium.”
“Go ahead, try to teach me hymns,” their eyes dared me, furious at losing their study hour. After school, in those pre-iPod years, they listened to the Beatles, whom I had never heard. Ignoring books open on laps, notes being passed, forbidden gum-chewing, I handed out sheets with hymns transcribed into numbers. “Now Thank We All Our God,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” I waved my long black sleeves, glared at whisperers. Their eyes glazed. It became a deadly, dreaded hour: one large piano, an untrained choir director, reluctant victims. No ghost appeared to help. The mighty fortress failed me.
Now and then, I’d put aside the sheets for the last ten minutes of class, dig deep into buried memory to resurrect some dated piece from the years in the living room with my brother at his drums, my father in his chair, my mother in the kitchen fixing supper: “Boogie Woogie,” “Begin the Beguine,” “Blue Room,” “Sentimental Journey.”
It wasn’t the Beatles but it was better than Bach.
The dissonance of physical pain invaded, slicing me at unexpected moments. We made our meditation in chapel at five-thirty am. Focus your mind, your imagination on a New Testament scene with its implications for your daily life. Sometimes eyelids closed and jaws went slack as we turned our minds toward God for the hour. Here and there, a bit of drool could be seen to escape and dribble down a chin. When the pain arrived I would slip out of chapel, past the black forms so miraculously sitting upright, past an eager beaver here or there still kneeling. When I finally reached my upstairs cell, the touch of my mattress offered relief. Lie here, now, until the hour of prime. Pray. A knock would come at the door. My dear friend: the infirmarian. That made her legit. Silently she would come in, close the door, and sit by me, hold me around the shoulders, human warmth thinning the pain no doctor could diagnose or cure. No words between us. The warmth of silent understanding, an arm about me. “Keep your distance, Sisters.”
All death is personal. It happens one at a time. We do not know when the light will finally go out.
For me it took seven years.
How can you sustain the sense that your life is turning into a lie? That a habit has become a costume? How can you face that in silence when others’ lives about you seem reasonably content, reasonably good? But who knows what goes on inside the other life?
I went on intoning psalm tones.
Beauty hour: on the occasional Friday afternoon, before we hurried to chapel at five o’clock for matins, a few of us, friends, secular teachers, students, would gather over in the music building on the college campus. From the piano bench I’d rustle up some music, sight read, noodle around. Each of us had her problems: physical pain, the need to escape home, an alcoholic parent, a hopeless love affair, a sense of failure as a teacher, a bewildering loss of inner direction. We did not talk about these troubles.
I simply played.
In his Late Beethoven, Maynard Solomon recounts a touching instance of music’s capacity to offer wordless solace, to touch the heart with healing power.
A dear friend of Beethoven’s had lost her child, age three.
She heard nothing from Beethoven. That was strange, for she knew him to be feeling, tenderhearted beneath his gruffness. She could not understand. It pained her.
Then one day, uninvited, Beethoven entered her chambers, sat down at the pianoforte, and played and played.
After a long time, wordlessly, he rose and left.
A recent discovery of Beethoven’s eighty-page piano transcription of his Grosse Fugue arranged for four hands suggests other aspects of music and touch. The fugue was composed in the last year of his life. Filled with rub-outs, scuffs, and blotches, the paper reveals the violent touch of Beethoven’s hand inscribing the music, pushing it into the page as if he were fighting resistance. Of what? The air? The pen? The emptiness? The limits of his musical imagination? The fleeting presence and threatening perishability of musical inspiration? Of death?
His attack on the page hints at a drive to make the paper speak. Yet he was a master at improvising. He could trust the musical moment without notation. Still, how he dug at that paper.
Dissonance meets touch: through the arm, into the hand, onto the page, then lifted from page by hand, into air, touched into an instrument, into vibrations, into sounds that sometimes insist on their dissonance, on their not being what you expected would sound together: dis-sonare.
Even today Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue defies analysis. It speaks in its own terms, harmonically, dissonantly, of life, of death. Was muss sein, muss sein.
Some deaths come slowly.
The breaking apart of what we feel was meant to go together, the loss of direction casts us into a sea of unanswerables: Where am I? Where am I headed? Where can I go from here?
One day Bach was in another room while his wife was at the clavier. Suddenly she stopped playing, leaving a dominant seventh chord hanging in air. Unable to stand it, Bach leapt up and ran into the room to resolve the sound.
So deeply hard-wired are we diatonically conditioned westerners to resolve a question, reach a goal, seek an ending that will satisfy.
A luminous long moment brightened my final dissonant time in the order.
It offered no answer to my raging questions, only wonderful release from them. This came from two sets of hands, friends’ hands, at two keyboards. Sister Pascal, two years younger than I in religious life, was a gifted pianist. Like Claudette’s, her wrists seemed boneless; her fingers flowed over the keys. Next to hers, my own playing felt workmanlike, labored, earnest, chancy. We had been students together at the college. There, years before, I had admired her playing.
Now we were professed sisters in the same convent at the college. I still remained mute about my dilemma. I taught, cared for an elderly sick nun, got through the days, prayed. Then, in the summer of 1966, when only I knew I would no longer be at that house in the fall—though I did not yet know where I would be—Sister Pascal and I hatched our plan. Our superior’s feast day was approaching. We would gear up to play Rhapsody in Blue for the celebration.
Still in black to the ankles, our heads veiled, faces framed by starch and white plastic, we rolled back our loose outer sleeves and set to work. The days were fiercely humid. I was a mess inside that cloth. When I could, after tasks were done, I let myself into a practice room and set about connecting notes, fingers, and my true friend, the keyboard.
Finally, on a steamy afternoon in late July, a few months after periti and cardinals had packed up their memos and regalia and departed from Rome, some sixty invisibly sweating nuns gathered in the auditorium at the College of New Rochelle to hear Gershwin.
I feel it now: the heat, my insecurity, inner turmoil. Would I find the right notes?
Curious to see if my memory of this great fun was exaggerated, I called up Sister Pascal during the writing of these words. I had not spoken with her since I left the order in 1967, but I traced her through a common friend.
“Do you remember?” I asked.
“Do I ever remember!” came back her familiar warm voice from a convent in the Bronx. “It was such fun. Terrific fun. We played just for the love of it; I remember that. We didn’t over-worry about notes. We just loved doing it and did it because we wanted to. It was that simple.”
She added, “I sensed you were having a difficult time. We didn’t ever talk about it. You were very silent in those days. It went beyond words. We just played.”
And less than a year later I would leave the order on a dominant seventh chord, so to speak, heading for a yet-to-be-discovered modulation into a new key.
Echoes persist. Is there no way out of the echo chamber? Do the angelic choirs create a choral fantasy of echoes?
Years after the Gershwin afternoon, perhaps fifteen years later, I was moving about the kitchen in our home in Canada. The children and my husband were out. I was probably scraping carrots or chopping celery for supper.
The telephone rang.
I picked up the receiver.
“Hello? Do I have the right person? Is it you? This is Claudette Chevrette. Do you remember me?”
Where was she?
“I’m living in western Canada. I can’t stay on right now. I just wanted you to know that I’ve left religious life. I married. I’m happy. And I hope you are, too.”
The cadenza comes near the end of a movement and gives the performer a chance to show off technical mastery. It delays final resolution, the return home. Cadenzas are improvisatory, echoic, varied, and unpredictable. What has gone before reappears here in new, beguiling patterns. Familiar motifs form odd links, surprising. The other instruments stop playing. All eyes are on the soloist. Everyone listens for instrumental feats of derring-do to blend harmonically with what remains in memory. What will emerge?
Where are we? Where will she go from here? Listen for the cue to return for the closing section.
Dissonance, Dying, Touch, Words, Death.
I searched for the appropriate key, the way to modulate there. At every turn, the bridge was about to collapse. The words I had used so far wouldn’t do it; the several chasms were too deep. The whole concept of modulation, of pathway, of goal, in the sense of a key to return to, seemed tentative, questionable, oddly blocked, even dishonest. Of course words lie. And words about oneself especially. How truly do we know ourselves, anyhow? Isn’t it easier, maybe even truer, to look out at the world we see and feel, take it in, search out words to make it felt for another, and simply give up on saying those sentences that begin with the big I. The big I grows fat and boring. Music should never bore.
This variation on the theme of dissonance, of dying, stopped me cold. It was set too deep inside my ongoing, minute-to-minute living. It touched the question of my personal survival.
So be it, I thought, puzzling for several days. Months.
My movement in sonata form stood still. Words about dying and music simply stopped when I thought about him. Not to mention him would be to leave the story incomplete, unresolved.
I could not write about him in the first person, memoir-style. He had a right to his privacy. Moreover, I was still learning about death and life, still enlarging my ability to hear. How do you make an ending out of that?
But to be true to the music, I must say something about those long years of dying.
Finally it came to me, another way to sing it. I would tell a story.
There was a woman who longed to transform her life into music. Could she explain? It would be difficult. The goal was impossible and she knew it. That made it worth the effort. What kind of music? Well, that would depend. Her life music would have pulse, a rhythm, a beat. It might not have a single overarching melody—at least one she could hear—but somehow its bits, its smaller arcs of organized sound, would offer her, and maybe some others, the satisfaction of music made and heard. Call it a musical memoir.
Well, then. The effortful bearing of life itself, having a child, sent forth one mighty arc of sound, not least of all the gasps of pain that went along with it and then, for years after that, the observing and loving of that other life becoming itself, generating its own music. Different from hers, she could hear it and recognize it as related.
Bringing life into the world a second time attracted her, but that proved impossible. So she would accept the anonymous gift of another, a life already sent into the world through none of her doing, and hope that her own inner music might find a welcome in the ears of that little being.
The tune of that second life gradually took its own shape and rhythm and pulse—in painful spurts. That other little being, as it developed, sent forth dissonance, dissonance, shattering dissonance. Occasional tiny bits of recognizable harmony caused shivers of grateful recognition in the mother. Even so, there seemed so little harmony he could make that she could hear. No sounds meshed into decipherable patterns. It was enough to make a parent want to live with cotton in her ears, but that was impossible. The challenge before her and her husband (his own music in another key, though related) was to support any music-making capacities they could discern in their strange new little being as he grew—fitfully, unevenly, with gaps that not even the most highly qualified musicologist (psychiatrist) could decipher.
Dissonances grew. Others heard them, too. Her ears struggled to stay attuned to what came from him to her, and as she absorbed the sounds, more and more she came to a place of extended darkness, a slow dying. She came to see how questionable was the sanity of expecting, of believing in growth patterns, of trusting the normal. She felt the iron bindings around her mother-hopes: to nurture, care for, urge along a path she could recognize as the normal music-making of growing up. He couldn’t handle the crayon; he couldn’t bear correction; he couldn’t sustain responsibility; he couldn’t pay attention; he couldn’t find a friend; he had no one else in the world.
He walked alone on his side of the street.
And then, after eighteen years of living together in the struggled-for harmony called family, he found his way out of that circle of fifths and into the world of wider dissonances and possibilities. That he would find any kind of home key seemed unlikely, though she sustained a belief that all things are possible.
And what was home key, anyway?
Time passed. She moved far away.
And then, the tonal link between them having held through all these years, their musicking arcs re-met.
She flew thousands of miles for the meeting, the first in two years. She waited in a place that defies musical metaphor: the food court in a mall. Her heart-flap was open and her own music quiet, waiting.
He had reached his third decade.
Then she sees him: a figure in a baseball cap, worn jeans, an ink-stained khaki shirt—distant but recognizable. How expertly this non-driver navigates his electric scooter past and around tables where tired citizens take midmorning breaks, sip coffee, munch doughnuts, gulp an Orange Julius.
As he waves, rolls near, puts on the brakes for a slow stop, he grins widely.
He is not, she sees over their coffee and doughnuts as he expertly rolls his cigarettes, unhappy. He sustains work. He can love. He can find friends. Above all, he can laugh. That is not new, but this laugh is deeper. He can look at his own life now. He has found a way to generate his own music, make his own harmony.
It is completely his. It can never be hers. She had already known that. He doesn’t struggle to modulate, he simply does it. He doesn’t worry about music-making; he is inside it.
He doesn’t seek development, resolution, worry about a center, a goal. Still, she can sense the pulse of his growth, the dependability of his slower rhythms, his repetitive patterns, their texture and color. She had lived with the dying expectation that she would ever find a way to touch his life.
And yet: maybe she has. When he laughs his eyes glow. He has friends; he is kind to them. He is learning how to love in his way.
And she is still alive.
The electric scooter has carried a gift to her. Now she can see, nearing the ending of her own development section and headed back toward the first theme, she sees that he has opened her ears to another kind of sound, life-making, call it music. Distance has helped her discover this. Intervals of space and time affect what we can hear.
Back then, thirty years ago, she had been ignorant. She still is musically ignorant. In his eloquent memoir, Broken Music, Sting speaks of being intrigued by “the ever receding mystery of music,” and she knows his meaning.
She had not known back then how many scales there could be in the world, how many keys, how various the ways of tempering a keyboard to send forth tones. She had never heard of overtones. She had not yet been forced to new awareness by George Crumb’s musical explorations, been bored by ambient music, thrilled to Golijov’s harmonies, tried herself to play Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Wave, pushed herself to hear beyond the structures of classical training, structures which continue to offer her surprise and solace.
Her scooter-riding son lives over there, in some other world of music.
At last she has found a way to write about it, include it in her memoir. Maybe his music-making came from outer space. They used to call him their little Venusian. He has stretched her ears. That can only be good. She writes these words with the advantage of time and space, years distant. She has given up the naïve expectation of identifiable resolution in his patterns. It is not necessary. What on earth would it be?
It is sweet to imagine that we can pull the patterns of our life together in a way that resolves, satisfies, makes a coherent, pleasing ending. It is a composer’s pride and delusion. Beneath such longing that basso ostinato persists.
What we glimpse through the half-opened hospital door terrifies. What we feel as we sway on the swinging bridge of words is an infinite chasm beneath. What we sense in the relentless annihilations of time itself is the prevalence of discord, the insistent dissonance of death lining our harmonies.
Perhaps what we seek most desperately is comfort against life itself, its subtext of finality. We resist the heavy maroon curtain closing on the stage of life. Yet, if darkness can yield to light, if pathways of music can lead to places beyond present imagining, if touching a keyboard can reach the hollow spaces in the heart, I am grateful for that gift.
Robert Smithdas’s moving account of finding his way through devastating, total loss—of sight at age five, and then of hearing after fourth grade—astonished me. His hard-won personal achievements—independent living, college education, romance, teaching, helping others—defied and transcended the limits of the crippling life dissonance he inhabited.
As he traces that excruciating path from darkness to light, from soundlessness to a sense of life’s utter richness, he tells of ways he sought to link himself to the world around and inside him. He sniffed, he fingered, he touched, he imagined. At one point he improved his sense of verbal sound by resting the soles of his feet against the vibrating vocal cords of his teacher. He found his way into books through the fingers of friends and teachers touching alphabet symbols into his listening palm.
One day, when he was still little but already blind and profoundly deaf, his mother was reading to him, touching words into his hand.
Suddenly he asked her: “Mommy, can I touch God?”
“Yes, Bobby,” she replied without losing a beat. “You can touch God. If you reach out for him, my darling, you can find him at your fingertips, waiting to lead you safely through darkness.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.