There is a universal language to pregnancy, equally understood by Spanish sopranos, British choir directors, Russian percussionists and even South Ossetian conductors. It’s a widened eye, an appreciative smile, a subtle ahh from someone with whom you may have no other words in common. (If the perceiver of the pregnancy is male, it’s often a raised eyebrow and look of vague alarm as he imagines the emergencies in which he might be called upon to assist.)
It made the marathon rehearsal week a whole lot easier. Despite the unceasing, vocally exhausting schedule, the various language barriers, and the somewhat harried quality of the process (marshaling four unrelated choruses under a uniformly unfamiliar director), being eight months pregnant meant that everyone around me was smiling, friendly, happy to offer a throat lozenge or yield a choice spot in the ladies’ room queue to the Enormous Preggo. It no longer feels rude when people remark that that baby could arrive any day now, because honestly, it looks like she could. Even though she’s technically got five weeks left on her shot clock, both she and I are big enough now that I plausibly could go into labor on a moment’s notice without great harm befalling either of us.
I waited for it to happen onstage at the Kennedy Center, admiring the potential irony: after all this work, wouldn’t it be funny to miss Carnegie Hall altogether if Mayhem decided to make her grand entrance the day before the bus left for New York? But the Russian orchestra guys who had seemed so scared, pondering my Pregnant Tummeh in passing backstage, had nothing to worry about. Mayhem stayed put, stirring only at opportune moments during the Mahler 8th (and, of course, to take her bow when the audience applauded).
The Jersey Turnpike, too, proved no real hazard, except that the bus ride caused my ankles and feet to re-inflate to near-July dimensions. We arrived in New York City with barely a half hour to check into the hotel, change into concert black and makeup, and report to afternoon rehearsal; there was neither time nor space to put my feet up and hope they’d deflate by concert time. There was nothing for it but to put on black socks, strap my Mephisto walking sandals onto my breadlike feet, and walk right onstage in formation. Fortunately, that’s one of the benefits of ensemble singing in concert black: nobody’s looking at your feet, especially if you’re behind the entire orchestra and three rows back into the chorus.
In one sense the Mahler 2nd is easier than the 8th, because you’re only actually singing for about fifteen minutes at the end of the Second. But in another sense it’s more difficult, since none of those fifteen minutes is easy or relaxed singing. The intense unaccompanied pianissimo entrance of the chorus has apparently driven more than one maestro to throw up — actually vomit — out of sheer fear that the vocal ensemble would go palpably flat before the orchestra entrance. We’d been working this pianissimo hard, all week. Now, after four more hours of work (upstairs with Simon Halsey, the British chormeister, then downstairs on stage with Valery Gergiev the maestro) we were good and ready to give it to Carnegie Hall.
I was glad that we were doing this one first. I like the 8th, but the 2nd is my favorite. Mayhem loves the big loud brass and squirms vigorously at their huge fanfares. (Most lucky babies get earphones held up to mommy’s Pregnant Tummeh. Mayhem gets the brass section of the Mariinsky Orchestra playing Mahler 2, live, five feet away from her. Nothing but the best for my kid.) I like to imagine the mezzo-soprano aria addressed to Mayhem, and our own pianissimo entrance as a lullaby, something I’ll sing to her again in a month or so when she’s born. Maybe some day she’ll learn German and dig the words like her mommy does. You were not born in vain, she can hear, even now. I will fly with wings that I have earned.
It’s the kind of piece that gives me goosebumps even in rehearsal, but now it was uniquely magical: my daughter and I were on stage at Carnegie Hall, for the first time, surrounded by brilliant musicians and friends, singing to a sold-out house. I took the deepest breath I could manage, pushed back against Mayhem, and — for the first time — nailed the high B-flat. And did not go into labor. Not while listening, not while singing, not while rising to the standing (and shouting) ovation that the sellout crowd gave us. Not even by the fourth curtain call had I experienced so much as a single contraction. Mayhem was, apparently, thoroughly pleased to be right where she was. As was her mommy.
There are very few things in life which delight quite like the experience of that concert. But one that comes close is waking up the next morning, wishing you could do it all over again, and realizing that you’re about to. After a lovely lunch at the Russian Tea Room with my college roommate Laura and &, who had driven up that morning from DC, it was back upstairs to the Kaplan Rehearsal Room for another five-hour go at practicing, practicing, practicing for the next and final concert in our series.
My biggest fear at this point was not going into labor (which would’ve made for a great story), but the much more pedestrian concern that I would need to sit down at an inopportune moment during the 8th. It’s a long piece, and the chorus sings standing for most of it. I’d proudly managed to keep my feet for the entire Kennedy Center performance on Tuesday, but we had been singing all week, for five or six hours a day, and everyone and everything was starting to wear down. This was the end of the marathon, the time when the adrenaline was running out and we’d have to get to the end through sheer work and willpower. Please, I begged my blood pressure, stay steady for me.
And it did.
I needn’t have worried. About anything. A hundred years after Mahler premiered the work (scant months before his death), we sang his Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall, and it was pure euphoria. I stayed standing, sang solidly, did not once go dizzy or weak-kneed. Mayhem happily settled in to listen to the 8th, barely moving except to stir appreciatively at her favorite parts of the piece. Perhaps she could tell, as we all could, that this remarkable impossible dream week was coming to a close, that this was not something we’d have a chance to do again any time soon. I thought long and hard about this, all through the piece: this is the last time things will be like this. This could be the end of so much. Everything in my life is about to change. I am so, so, infinitely glad to have had the chance to do this now, since that chance may never come again.
Every so often it hits me again. Everything in my life is about to change. The arrival of my firstborn child is not the first inflection point I’ve ever lived through, but it’s the biggest: bigger than graduations, relocations, marriages or job changes or any of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities I’ve already enjoyed. This week I drank tea at the Russian Tea Room, dozed through the NPR pledge drive when the alarm went off, sang Mahler at Carnegie Hall, and realized that, in less than six weeks, all of these things may become thoroughly impossible for the foreseeable future. For several weeks now, I’ve felt this impending metamorphosis like a chill shadow: every little thing I do — an extra few minutes in the shower to give myself a sugar scrub, a detour on the way home from work to pick up some gelato, a stroll over to Skewers for some kofta kebab — is now threatened by scarcity. Every minute of unharried quiet is a gift to be treasured. Who knows when we’ll see it again?
But Mahler (and Goethe) had already pondered this for me:
Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis;
das Unzulängliche, hier wird’s Ereignis;
das Unbeschreibliche, hier ist es getan;
das Ewigweibliche zieht uns hinan.
Everything transitory is an illusion (we sang). Here the impossible transpires, the undescribable is made manifest. And what makes it so is “das Ewigweibliche” — the “eternal feminine.” I looked down at my undulating midsection and thought: that’s you and me, kid. That’s us. That’s taking the evanescent and creating something permanent, something that will alter and elevate everything transitory in her mother’s life. And she’ll grow up, live, evolve her own impossible and undescribable and transitory things, and some day those too will be altered or elevated by her own eternal feminine.
We’re not giving up any of the wonders of our lives. They’re cyclical. We have done amazing things, and will continue to. And there is more than enough magic to go around.