Over a dusty rose-pink coffin, he sobbed and blubbered while his family led him away. The old man wept without abandon over his little wife, a woman he scarcely seemed able to recognize in the past two or three years. He staggered down the church aisle on the arms of others, and sat down in a padded folding chair, waiting for everyone else in the church to exit in two single-file lines to offer him their condolences.
When I got to shake his hand, it was wet with tears and snot. I tried to embrace him, but in an instant, I knew I would be responsible for holding him upright, and though he was an elderly gentleman, he was not slight—not portly either, but solid. And so I told him I knew he loved her and I would miss her too. As I left the church, it was raining and I looked for my father who had just left to get the car.
Quietly, I got into the car, and as the door clipped shut, my dad told me he was glad I’d gotten to know her and that even though I’d never really experienced having regular interaction with biological grandmothers, I’d had the opportunity to have two wonderful adopted grandmothers, and Lucille was one of them.
It had been raining for what seemed like weeks, and for the past two days, I’d driven all along the back roads of northeastern Ohio, thinking of Lucile, wishing I’d actually gone to my lessons having practiced all week as she’d recommended each time. I’d wished so much that I could have memorized that number by Schubert that I so horribly botched in front of all her recital audience. At the time, I thought I could hide the fact that I rarely (if ever) took the time to practice my lessons at home, but upon her death, I felt guiltier than ever.
At the funeral, I saw the elderly gentleman who had pulled me aside after my third and last public vocal performance, and in a hoarse New Jersey accent, he had said, “Honey, you’re pretty good, but you were just shakin’ like a leaf. Don’t be so nervous.” I had no idea how he’d known Lucille, but it may have been his wife that had been the tiny, retired coloratura that grabbed my hand and told me she just wanted to put me in her pocket. I don’t remember. Maybe it was just a church connection.
The drive to the graveyard and Lucile’s interment didn’t take long. If I had wanted to, I probably could have returned to work on that drizzly afternoon, but I didn’t. I drove to the next town and bought first-rate running pants with money from my very first bonus instead. I’d never owned a brand name pair of actual running shorts with wicking and pockets for keys, so after more than a decade of running, I thought it was time to have some appropriate gear. Perhaps feeling more official and invested about the activity would encourage me to take it more seriously—at least more seriously than I had taken my four years of voice lessons.
On the drive home, I kept thinking of little things Lucille would tell me as I stood by her baby grand that she kept so immaculate.
“I always aim for my students to be exhausted but exhilarated when they’re done with a lesson,” she would say.
Usually, I was.
When I began singing lessons, I had no big ideas or ambitions. I’d never intended to become a singer, and I certainly never thought of myself as any good even in choir. The chief reason I began lessons with Lucille was overcoming my total mortification of having spent three years in the second choir in school and never achieving a spot in the highest one when it was rumored that students who got into the Symphonic Choir their freshman year would easily pass into A Capella by their Junior, if not Sophomore, year. Usually, this held true, but not with me. Every year at tryouts, I would burst into tears, and eventually ask the director if I could lock myself in a tiny room with a piano and to record my audition. He acquiesced for the first two years, but finally, told me that if I ever wanted to make it any further, I’d have to master this fear.
My dad, ever the pragmatist, suggested the lessons with our neighbor. I remembered that I had walked up the cul-de-sac to take a piano lesson or two from Lucille when I was 12. In our short two lessons, she had accomplished teaching me the names of all the keys, creating chords, establishing the rules of sharps and flats, reading treble and bass clefs, describing the function of time signatures, finding middle C, and demonstrating the proper use of all three piano pedals. My crowning achievement of those two days was playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Lucile couldn’t have been more thrilled. She said I was a quick learner and she looked forward to working with me, but suddenly, we had to stop because she had to have a surgery on her hand.
Neither my father nor I searched for another piano teacher, so at 17, I drove myself to my second attempt at private music lessons. (He and my mother had since divorced and we’d moved far enough away that I couldn’t just jaunt up the sidewalk anymore).
I still remember what I was wearing that day: knee-high tan fake leather boots, a turquoise knee-length linen skirt, and cotton button-up floral shirt with a mother-of-pearl hibiscus pendant on a leather chain. I’d told my boyfriend what I was doing, and he thought it was absurd, but I didn’t care. It was warm and humid.
We reintroduced ourselves and discussed neighborhood happenings, and before I could unload my absolute grief about performing in public, she assured me that other than Bill, who would occasionally make an appearance from the next room, we would be entirely without interruption. No one would bother us, and she was the only one I would have to please; but ultimately, I was doing this for myself.
So we began the lessons with vocal exercises tailored to challenge me in different ways.
Waste and Want We Would Deplore is one I still remember singing—that and She sells sea shells on the strand.
It all did seem a little bit ridiculous to me at times. In the family’s Maxima outside Lucile’s large bay window, a mix tape filled with music by various punk rock and alternative outfits waited for me; but next to the piano, I was learning simple ditties set to pieces by Saint-Sans and Schubert.
Despite my absolute terror of singing in public, the lessons worked. By the time tryouts came around again only three months later, I didn’t cry, and I was finally granted acceptance into the highest choir. Moreover, I decided to continue with lessons even though they had served their purpose.
Every week, I would meet with my teacher, who bragged about sending a student to “The Met” once.
As the years passed, although I did not know it as it was happening, I was learning to push myself into singing like how I would when I was alone or hidden by the voices around me in church.
One Sunday during those years of lessons, a visiting friend was standing next to me during service, and I thought I must have hit a sour note because he started to laugh.
It was obvious that he was laughing at me, so I immediately ceased worship to ask him, though mortified, what was so funny.
He told me that it wasn’t so much that I had been off-key, but that I had been so unexpectedly loud. To this day, it’s still a funny memory for him. It hurt me then, to think that I had been spending so long to feel comfortable to externalize such a basic a form of joy. Two years later and half a country away at another church service, a girl, virtually a stranger, told me that she liked to stand by me in church because I was loud. She said she could find her place to sing too, and that she could tell I was sincere.
Now, I think of those words—either insult or praise—and I wish I could find that volume again. Whether I’m in church or in my car, anymore I am usually silent listening to music. I may talk, but I don’t sing. It’s almost been two years, and no matter how hard I try, I cannot force a sound from my diaphragm up my vocal chords and out my mouth.
It’s not hard to pinpoint when the singalongs stopped. It is abruptly obvious when I remember that my father’s casket was a steely gray. I don’t, however, remember whether or not it was raining, but it was November and close to my twenty-fourth birthday. I never saw my dad buried because his body was shipped to a small cemetery in the middle of Iowa. When I run through the local cemetery in Texas and I catch a group of people huddled over a freshly overturned mound of earth about eight feet long, I get jealous because they can stand together over that person.
Dad sang in church, so it doesn’t make sense that I would stop if I wanted to honor him in some way. A lot of times he sang even when he was crying about something I usually didn’t understand. Most of the time, I was embarrassed of his unabashed tears. Oh, God, how I wished he would have stopped sometimes. And now, I just wish I could start.
A little more than a year ago, I ventured into a verse on a Thursday evening and my husband broke out into sobs because it was the first time he’d heard me sing since we’d been married. Since then, the notes come out in single digits—an occasional single-file line, trailing out my mouth. With all the joy I’ve experienced and the beauty I enjoy, I wish I could express myself. Sometimes when I go running, I hope my heart will explode, not because I’m morbid or because I want to die, but because there are days that I have so many positive emotions that they cannot be contained by my skin, and there is no outlet for them. Most of the time, I feel like the things inside my brain spin and spin and sometimes I sleep with my eyes open because I actually am half awake.
Yet the notes do not come, not for any kind of praise at all—at least not while I’m awake.
My husband rarely wakes up before me, but when he does, he says he has woken up to my humming. According to him, sometimes the songs are short, almost like accidental exhalations of rhythm and tone, but other times, he hears full songs. He tells me that the songs have been getting longer, and that each time, he is amazed by the fact that they are never the same and they never resemble anything he has ever heard before.
It makes me happy to hear his perspective because it gives me hope that something else operates within me to do things I can’t. These songs have woken me up on occasion too. It hasn’t been as often as I’m informed that I do it, but in the most recent episode, I woke up just long enough to realize I was singing, and I can find no other words to describe the feeling except that it all seemed like a continuation of something that had never stopped and was not ever going to end. It wasn’t exhausting or exhilarating, though. It was an embrace of the color yellow at seventy-five degrees. And so I returned to sleep, still humming without knowing why and without any thought of stopping.
Awake, I usually feel less yellow. I think about waste—and what a waste it is that I still can’t sing. I think of that stupid warm-up scale I used to practice in my car on the way to my lesson. I think about how maybe some day all those sleeping tunes will creep into the waking world and stay.