One of the biggest problems I’ve had during this pregnancy, which I don’t recall from last time, has been shortness of breath. I’m not sure if there’s some weird pregnancy-symptom that mimics asthma, or if I’ve just been so strung out on hormones that my body has interpreted the mess as a prolonged anxiety attack and restricted my airways accordingly. (For me, the worst part of any anxiety attack — far worse than the anxiety itself — has always been the lung lock. When the going gets tough, I get hypoxic.)
For whatever reason, the more pregnant I get, the less it seems I can breathe. I get winded talking to colleagues at the office. I’ve had to sit down at every single rehearsal so far this season, often for virtually the entire time. And I’ve freaked out & on more than one occasion when he’s gotten into bed and found me curled up, reading a book, and panting as though I’d just sprinted up the hill.
My obstetrician is unconcerned; of course it’s going to get harder for you to breathe when you’re pregnant, she theorizes, conveniently forgetting (or at least discounting) that last time I managed to belt out Mahler’s Eighth Symphony at thirty-four weeks. Every pregnancy is different, the mantra goes. Maybe this kid is sitting differently, invading the personal space of my lungs in a way that Natalie never did. Maybe my respiratory system was just in better shape last time, when I was taking weekly voice lessons and rehearsing several days a week. Or maybe I’ve got something diagnosable and a pulmonologist will tell me what it is, once I deliver this baby. (We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.)
At any rate, I finally requested leave to sit down for the Duruflé Requiem, once the writing on the wall became clear at the beginning of concert week. If I had not managed to stay standing for longer than ten minutes at a single rehearsal thus far, my chances of keeping my feet for a whole concert were minimal at best. Bless the Cathedral Choral Society, they were unbothered, and even moved me from my customary tall-second-soprano seat on the rearmost riser to a floor seat right next to the bass section, right behind the French horns.
Admitting defeat was liberating. Once I’d been given permission to sing seated if I needed to, I wondered if I might not manage to stay standing after all. I took a nap this afternoon and ate a whole Vosges chocolate bar on the way to the cathedral, hoping that the energy spike might help.
The first piece on the program was a quick César Franck psalm, am uncomplicated ten-minute piece which had nonetheless consistently knocked me into my chair at rehearsal. To my delighted relief, I made it through on my feet. I refrained from punching the air in victory as we filed back into the choir for the second piece on the program, the Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony.
Thanks to my designated position in the bass section, I wound up in one of the throne-seats in the choir, with my back to the wall directly beneath a bank of organ pipes. I love the Organ Symphony even when played on a piffling small-church organ at Strathmore or the Kennedy Center, but damn, the way to hear it for real is on the monumental instrument at the National Cathedral. The wall behind my back vibrated like a massage chair. The baby stirred. And I caught my breath.
Natalie, my chatterbox, has been a great communicator from the moment of her conception. This child, meanwhile, has played it coy, refusing to reveal her personality, her name, or even her gender (until the ultrasound gave it away). I’ve periodically fretted that she’ll be born shy or withdrawn or otherwise disinclined to bond, based on her radio silence. But as we sat together in the choir and the poco adagio movement of the Saint-Saëns wound itself around us, we connected, for perhaps the first time.
The wood panels thrummed against my back with a resonant frequency that — oh, thank God, finally — unlocked something in me. My second daughter palpably snuggled up against me, from the inside. I imagined hugging her back, my doughy newborn, and found myself with tears in my eyes and air in my lungs. I could breathe again. And I knew that I wouldn’t need to sit down for this concert after all. Between us, there was light and air enough to fill a cathedral.
And we did. The Duruflé came out as smooth as silk, as the sun dipped below the rose window. Three years ago I sang a very different Requiem in this same space, at a time when I made peace with some of the noisiest and most epic conflict I’d ever experienced. This was precisely the opposite Requiem: spare and Gregorian, subtle and unexpected in its emotional reach, introspective and clear-headed and unafraid. Ah, I smiled, reaching inward to my new daughter. There you are. So that’s who you’ll be.
As I write this, several hours after the concert, my breathing is still not at a hundred percent. But I definitely feel as though a weight has been lifted from my lungs, and not only because the concert’s over and I’m on vocal hiatus until the baby’s born. It’s probably still worth a visit to a pulmonologist next year. But in the meantime, suddenly, there’s just so much less to worry about.