December 10, 2001
The last time we had seen her she was sitting in the first pew with her two young children listening to friends and relatives memorialize her husband. He had died along with so many others on September 11 and she had asked us, a local choir, to perform a requiem mass at his service of remembrance.
She sat dry-eyed and erect as each speaker lovingly recalled her husband, then turned her eyes to us as we rose to sing
She had heard that music before, at one of the many concerts she and her husband had attended over the years, but this time was forced by an unfathomable fate to listen alone. Though surrounded by so many who cared for her, she seemed, as the music began, to be cast adrift, bereft of the man with whom she had shared this and so much else for twenty years.
Could we harbor her in song, I wondered, could we fill the impossible void in her life with our voices? Wasn't that the purpose of the requiem text, to bridge the chasm of despair with faith?
For a few, fleeting moments I thought perhaps we had done so as bursts of jubilant harmony and delicate traceries of introspective melody drove back the chaos of recent events, offering the comfort and perhaps even the spiritual companionship of joy.
But then the last notes died away and a terrible silence flooded the sanctuary. I knew then that nothing, not even the most transcendent air, whatever temporary solace it might provide, could efface such loss and fill the aching chasm between present pain and remembered joy. When she came forward to thank us for our music, her eyes bespoke the suffering that would not be stilled except perhaps by time and divine grace.
For the moment, watching her step alone into the night, I hoped she walked companioned less by aching despair than by warm and resonant memory...
Several months passed before our next meeting, time enough for those of us who had not been directly affected by the collapse of the Twin Towers to put aside the season of mourning and get on with our lives. Increasingly the nation's attention turned to other events and to the approaching new year.
And once again our choir prepared to perform, holding a final dress rehearsal the night before our annual holiday concert. In years past we had sung to an empty hall as we made last-minute adjustments, but this night was different. As we began to sing, a lone listener took a seat toward the rear of the sanctuary. The presence of even one person in an otherwise empty hall can galvanize performers and it seemed to do so that evening, focusing and energizing our singing even before we realized that the solitary figure in the shadows was the widow we had sung for back in September.
I had not given her much thought since that Sunday, eager to cast off sorrow and return to life.
But there were so many who could not make that return, at least not yet. Here, I realized, was the real result of that terrible morning in September, the ineradicable consequence of terror. It was not a room filled with loving family and friends embracing the grief-stricken and fondly recalling the dead, but a widow sitting alone in a darkened hall, a hall that had once brought her and her husband great joy and now seemed fraught with pain.
She had come that night, I later learned, because she wanted to hear our music but could not yet bear the thought of sitting alone in a crowded sanctuary, especially at such a joyous time of year. So unwittingly we were being given a second chance to accomplish what clear-eyed experience suggested was impossible but a resilient faith nevertheless urged upon us: to help ease the suffering of one who sought solace in song.
This time we would try to do so without fanfare or expectation.
We sang that night for ourselves, for the pure joy of it, in the hope of achieving mastery of music capable of transporting performer and listener alike to a realm beyond sorrow and loss, within sight of the sublime. All too soon the music would end and the aura quickly fade but not before leaving an indelible residue upon our souls, a spot of inextinguishable light that might act as a marker of transcendent delight, of hope, of life. Out of such brief moments a subtle and sustained healing might eventually be woven.
When it was over and the orchestra began to disperse, several chorus members gathered around our sole listener to see how she had fared in the weeks since we had last seen her. She thanked the choir for allowing her to attend the rehearsal. It was the first time she had been out, other than for work, since the funeral.
Though she still seemed burdened with sorrow her voice conveyed something of the light and joy we all felt in the immediate aftermath of our song. It wasn't that music had the power to overcome death or obliterate loss but that it was capable of piercing the veil of even the deepest grief, providing a temporary respite from mourning.
Perhaps in time the memory of that evening would help lead her out of the darkness. For the moment, watching her step alone into the night, I hoped she walked companioned less by aching despair than by warm and resonant memory.
© Steven Schnur