It is a week — days — before my wedding, and it seems that everything in my life is happening all at once. Work stress, business travel, proliferating rehearsals and wedding obligations, originally so neatly queued, have degenerated into a disorganized mob that is threatening to riot. I’d recently concluded that all of this was happening for a reason: to quell my fears, unpack my baggage, and clean my slate. In church (and out), I frequently found myself repeating a quick distilled prayer, mantralike: Please, God, clean my clock.
Work was a matter of biting the bullet and soldiering through. Pulling together the last threads of the wedding plan, including the manufacture of place cards and menus and programs and cupcakes and a few hundred truffles for the favors, was not something I could manage alone; but I didn’t have to. My husband-to-be, known for his proactivity, would take up my slack and then take the initiative to do ten times more. The toughest hurdle to get past, in the days leading up to my wedding, was going to be the Verdi Requiem.
I love to sing, and can find nourishment in music that is unavailable anywhere else. But the Verdi Requiem frustrated me. It’s challenging music, unpleasant to my ear and emotionally difficult to choke out. Even at its most lyrical moments, it’s dark and Halloween-creepy. (Well suited to performance in October.) The Dies Irae is, unsurprisingly, one of the most vocally and psychologically taxing pieces in the sacred-music universe. And Verdi doesn’t let you get away with singing it just once: the chorus reprises the Judgment Day hellfire no fewer than three times throughout the work.
It’s exhausting, having to work yourself up into such a lather every time you rehearse the piece. For the first few times, I managed it by summoning to mind the gathering nerves and noise of my life, circa September 2009, and channeling them into a good hard Tuba Mirum or Libera Me. But eventually, despite everything that was complicating my life, I had trouble mustering sufficient negative energy to fuel the vocal reach the piece demanded. The Requiem wants to give voice and release to profound misery. When you’re not profoundly miserable, this is a difficult thing to achieve. And right now, I’m not.
But I used to be.
There was the rest of the revelation. Confronting and overcoming this most recent round of professional challenges had taught me that this was the time to defeat my oldest fears. The sheer volume and Gordian complexity of wedding logistics has been teaching me more and more to let go, to delegate, to trust that others can and will do what I cannot. Now, the Requiem was offering to teach me the most significant lesson I would need to learn before I took a marriage vow before God and my fellows.
Whenever I’d think of my ex-husband and my ex-marriage, my vision would dim and cloud. I chose not to litigate my divorce, which meant walking away from quite a lot of money to which I was, on paper, arguably entitled. My life has improved immeasurably since then; I have no doubt that the wonder and richness of my days far exceeds the tangible value of the assets I abandoned, just as I had hoped it would. So it surprised me how, even now, the mere thought of my ex-husband, cynically profiting from my terror of him (or, even worse, claiming ignorance of it, maintaining that he was a wronged innocent), aroused such bitterness in me.
I needed to unpack, divest, release, dispel this drama before I could vow myself to another human with a clear conscience. These sorts of thoughts did not belong in a good marriage.
And the Verdi Requiem was offering me a smokestack to burn them all to ashes.
I tried it. When Reilly exhorted us, “You’re terrified! This is frightening stuff! You’re crying out, save me, save me!”, I took this to heart. I thought back to being terrified. I saw the empty, manipulative look in the eye of the scary opposing counsel I’d faced down last week. I saw July and August of 2007, a rubber band stretched almost to breaking, when my entire life seemed to hinge on my then-husband showing up at the appointed time with the appointed papers…and how much power he could exert, simply by threatening not to. And I thought back to November of 2006, the month when that marriage stopped twitching and died for certain, when I’d taken shelter in a colleague’s downstairs apartment and prayed there, at night on my air mattress, that my then-husband did not know where I was and would not figure out how to find me.
Salva me! Salva me! Salva me, fons pietatis…
And I understood how to sing the Verdi Requiem.
The soprano line did not get any easier, but the piece made more sense after that. This was the last wall to demolish, the last issue to resolve before I could marry again. I needed to make peace with the man who had been my husband before I could call another man by that title. I needed to settle up our tab and put our affairs in order, inside my own head.
Libera, libera, libera me, libera me, Domine…
I queued up the Requiem on my iPod, set it to play on loop, and chewed on this. Should I contact my ex-husband? We had not spoken since our court date (August 7, 2007: thank God he showed up). No, that would not be wise. I would have no idea how to confront him. I’d moved on, changed my name and my appearance and my profession and my domicile, and found someone wonderful, many wonderful things, the life I’d dreamed of. I un-learned my learned helplessness, and had no need to revisit that mode of living, much less its agent. Now that he’d been relegated to the gallery of bad memories, what would I say to him?
It came to me one morning in the office, with the Requiem in the background, looping, muted. I discharge your debts.
This had happened to me once before, on I-93 in Massachusetts, while driving back to Logan Airport at the end of a business trip. I crested a rise in the highway, saw the skyline of Boston before me, and heard a voice that sounded much like my own, only more articulate, and resonant like a bell. It said:
I have moved beyond your reach.
You can no longer harm me.
My home is safe from you.
My children are safe from you.
And you shall never cross my threshold.
This was strange: I do not spontaneously think in poetry, much less in a voice addressed to my ex-husband. But now, here I was again in October of 2009, hearing that same voice:
I discharge your debts.
I release you of any obligation to which I have held you.
Everything that you have taken from me is now my gift to you.
And should we ever meet again,
passing on the street,
you shall be as one I have never known.
I did not need to say anything to him, I realized. I’d already said everything that needed to be said. All I had to do was let go of my resentment, release any residual anger, sing the Verdi Requiem and then be at peace to call the right man my husband. And that was all it would take.
I arrived at the Cathedral this afternoon, robed up, made my way into St. Joe’s Chapel and sat down on the stairs for the pre-concert warmup. I was not expecting the shout-out from Reilly (who blanked on my name, but given the job he was about to do, I could hardly blame him): “And — would you stand up — she’s getting married here! on Saturday!”
I stood, to the applause of a roomful of people. It was beautiful…but surreal. I was getting married, here, on Saturday, and it still wasn’t real to me. There was one thing I had to do first.
We queued up in the aisles, filed on stage, took our places — and were off.
SCENE: Timpani. Trumpets. Pounding basses. Screaming soprano section, myself included. Magical soaring soloists. Reilly is using no score. The music overwhelms. The National Cathedral trembles from vault to crypt.
I sing a requiem mass for a failed marriage that consumed a decade of my life, which is now my gift to it. I tell my ex-husband: All that you have taken is now my gift to you. And this Requiem is the last gift I will ever give you.
I sing Dies irae dies illa and think of gunning my car through the slushy maze of one-way streets in Cambridgeport, where he never did find me. This is my gift to him, and I forgive him.
I sing Salva me and think of hiding behind slammed doors, instant-messaging with friends whom I did not have the nerve to tell what had just happened. This is my gift to him, and I forgive him.
I sing Huic ergo parce Deus and think: I wipe his slate clean. I judge him for nothing. I hold no further grudge for anything he ever did. Because this is my gift to him, and I forgive him.
I sing Libera me Domine with all my might, stretch the rubber bands until they break, and with each stinging *snap*, release the bitter memories one by one. I forgive him. I am free of him. Everything he took I now name my gift to him, and like Job, I have been repaid twice what I gave up. For the first time in my life, I have found simple, unencumbered bliss — the happiness that comes without trying. This is priceless. This is worth what came before, many times over.
Libera me. Libera me.
And the Requiem is over. I am exhausted, sweaty and chilly and spent beneath my choir robe, whisper-hoarse as I catch up to my future inlaws and husband-to-be in the audience. “I guess I had a Verdi Requiem in me,” I tell him as he wraps his arms around me and shuts out the noise of the world.
And now I’m ready to get married.