The suspense of the final night divine begins at the first meandering piano plunks. Behind every kind face is a growing anxiety, with stomach knots that raise like baking monkey bread and feel like Christmas fruitcake in April. And, for the singer and the audience, there is no going back. When O Holy Night begins, the sanctuary sways, the bricks that once held us in a small Western Pennsylvania town cease their hold and we are a ragtag crew beneath the well-meaning, but often ill-equipped captain. The accompanist, mute in the crow’s nest, looks diligently ahead– the only one who can warn us of our impending future as the glacial freeze creeps up on every stained-glass apostle– and she is silent. So are we.
By the time I was 10 years old, we had been let down by every willing-and-able old lady and young man in the congregation who attempted to swoon us with their rendition of O Holy Night. That soaring, beautiful, climax of a tone remained in tact as the greatest myth in caroling history. As the song rolled forward, we watched the sweat building on the forehead of our latest attempt, the panic permeating through the room as every radiator popped its sneer. O night! O shit—!
Sometimes they aborted mission altogether. It was easy to tell whether this was premeditated, as their shoulders relaxed and their eyes communicated to each face, “It’s okay! The waters are calm! I, your fair-weather captain, will politely drop you off in exactly the place you find yourself now.” But the sonic nutritional depletion that was met with a last second abandon left a freeze in the spine that rested squarely between the shoulders through the end of the sermon. We were failed. Brave is the one who dared us, shame on the one who spared us, the old congregational sea song goes.
As I remember it, we were required to outsource her. It was a particular point of pride that she just-so-happened-to-be-related-to-me-somehow. Cherie’ (said Sher-ee, like something fancy– not like the usual peasant names) entered into that December Sunday morning like a spring time songbird, nestling herself toward the front of the wood-and-paint sanctuary. In my remembery, she was silent until she took stage, preserving this great gift– her personal mission to this congregation, who was starving for the final diviiiiiiiiine! as an octave– in tune, as it was written in the sacred hymnals and forever it shall be, Amen.
When sweet, kind, angel of God Cherie’ finished, every clogged spinal chill that remained from every other rendition released within those seafoam green walls. Even the radiators remained silent in reverence. It was true. It could be done. And we were the long-suffering, deck-swabbing witnesses.
I remained stunned through the sermon and the obligatory closing hymns. I hated them. I hated that these impossibly ungrateful beggars could themselves stand and pollute the soundscape with their haggard voices, after the miracle that had just come through and washed years of failure away. Why was this woman not being hoisted onto our shoulders and marched around the building in a celebratory and accurate reenactment of Jericho? Let these walls come down, for Godssake, for they will never again bear witness to the phenomenon we have heard today!
While the rest of them filed out and politely thanked her for her time and talents, I ran out of the building and to my family’s Barney-colored minivan. What did I have to say to this holy presence, this sacred songstress? What could I possibly tell a woman who has freed us from our enslavement of sour-note finales, Christmas season after Christmas season?
I replayed the performance as we made the short trek home. Sometime after we got off of the new highway (it’s has been called the “new highway” since it was constructed sometime in the early 80’s), I heard an argument reaching its own finale.
“…but she’s being so loud!” my brother wailed.
“Leave her alone,” was my father’s reply. “Let her sing.”
Let who sing? I thought. That’s when I realized it. I shut my mouth. The operatic timbre that had been roaring in replay through my head stopped. It was me! I caught my father’s eyes in the rearview mirror, his ears raising from a smile.
“Keep going,” he said.
I was at the last divine. This was the moment– mine. Before I could lose momentum, I charged the octave with the ferocity of mother bear–
If I didn’t nail it, I must have blocked it out. Either way, I’ve never had the gumption to do it again. At least not in public.
My father’s look in the mirror is what I remember best. Even Cherie’ and her eternal-praise-be-to-God performance has loose ends and creaking floorboards that have been lost in the account (forgive-me-for-I-have-sinned). But his face is the face of someone who doesn’t understand, or understands better, and wants the thing– the thing!– that is happening to continue to happen uninhibited. The restraint it must take for a forty-something father of four, with the yelling and bickering and bangs and bumps– the orchestra of unappreciated sounds and squabbles that come from the creatures you have made and you have raised– and above all of them to have the squealing 10-year-old belting in her best opera voice, inciting more angry mock opera voices from more of your spawn.
And then to respond with let her sing.