The Brood: Vigil

image of ice crystals formed on frozen ground.

This last week, Holy Week, I have felt detached, almost dissociative. I whittled my chore list down to the bare minimum, procrastinated on writing jobs, and napped while the kids were at school. When my family was home, I went through the motions of care in a fog. I baked a cake for C’s sixth birthday. Made a list and shopped for Easter baskets. I checked Facebook for updates on two friends in the hospital. Laundry piled up. 

The Michigan weather has turned cold again. 

When I attend Mass nowadays, it is almost exclusively as a singer. For those of you who are just beginning to know me through these columns, I am a semi-professional soprano with enough classical training to sound convincingly angelic, particularly when singing from the loft of an acoustically exquisite church. I sing a lot of weddings and a few funerals. My husband, Ron, is the music director of a parish in Detroit, and I have been singing with him since the day we met, more than twenty years ago. This Easter, he was without a cantor, and I didn’t want him to sing the first of three long Easter liturgies alone. 

I have sung at dozens of Easter Vigils in my life. I began attending the liturgy as a teenager, when I served as a sponsor for children coming into the church along with their families. My home parish in Virginia was fairly liberal, and back in the 90’s the music was boisterous and contemporary, just wall-to-wall Haugen, Haas, and Cooney. I loved it. I loved the candles and the smell of incense and the flowers. I loved wearing new clothes. Even the readings, interminable as they are, have always moved me. 

The Vigil readings tell a story of redemption, and redemption stories are my narrative sweet spot. The psalms are simple and singable and full of hope. The liturgy has a shape, honed and refined over centuries for maximum impact. My background is in theater, and if you view it dispassionately, the Vigil Mass is some well-crafted performance art. It makes you feel things. 

This year, I sat through the readings in the organ loft with Ron, jotting down notes in the hopes of finding something I wanted to say.  I knew I had a column due Tuesday, and I knew I should say something about Easter. I had been trying all week to avoid thinking about Easter, yet here I was, surrounded on all sides. 

I set my notebook aside to sing my first psalm, which was the third psalm, which was actually the fifth psalm: “You will draw water joyfully / from the springs of salvation.” 

I made it through the first acclamation. At the response, though, my voice cracked. I turned my head and exhaled sharply, trying to clear my throat before I started the first verse. My voice was still wavering, uncertain. Dammit. 

I was only a few words into the second verse before my left vocal fold locked up and my voice broke off completely. I was done. The words had literally stuck in my throat. 

Ron took over, casting me a sympathetic look as he continued playing. I was embarrassed, and relieved. There would be a long break before I had to sing again.

I returned to my notebook where I had begun to write:

What I want my little girls to know about Easter:

Have you noticed the flowers in Mama’s garden? 

I planted them last fall, back when the air was still warm but the leaves were turning. I put them in the ground when everything was starting to fade. The light. The warm. Everything was returning to the earth. 

So I took these bulbs—looking like nothing, like dirty little lumps—then I put them in the ground, and I covered them with soil. I blanketed the soil with mulch. 

Remember how you wrinkled your nose at that sour smell? Mulch smells like that because it is an in-between thing. It is wood, so it used to be trees, and it is rotting, so it isn’t yet soil. It had life, and it will have life in it again, but not yet.

After the mulching, I walked away, and for a long time, no flowers grew. Instead, things died. Flowers and plants and grass. And the earth grew dark, and the wind blew cold and icy, and nothing happened.

(You, my darlings, were warm and full of life all winter long, but Mama got colder. Tireder. The sun went down at 4:30, but my light faded before that.)

And the lumps stayed in the ground, and the ground froze.

Remember when you learned about dying? When our sweet little kitten got sick, and she stopped playing, and stopped eating, and we watched her fade? Your big sister and I took her away so we could be with her when she died, but we didn’t bring her home again to plant her in the ground, because the ground was frozen. 

I sat on the couch and told you both that she was gone. She had died. Your sweet faces crumpled, then hardened at the unfairness of it all. I stroked your hair. 

You tried to go back to your playing so you didn’t have to feel it or think about it, but that feeling of wrongness stayed with us, didn’t it? How very wrong it is, that something you loved, something beautiful and alive, has to die and disappear.

Remember how I told you everything ends? Sometimes it takes a long time, and sometimes it happens too soon, but everything ends…”

oh, my heart, I tried to say, “but…”

I tried so hard to say “but….” 

My voice cracked.

I couldn’t tell my girls about the resurrection last winter, and I suppose I can’t sing it today. In my throat is a cold lump, and a part of me that was alive for so long is dying, and I don’t know if anything is going to grow there again. My soul is an in-between thing. 

For the love of my husband, I managed to sing a bit more—a motet at offertory, an anthem for communion. In between songs, I wept. 

I have wept at the Easter Vigil a dozen times, because I felt the resurrection. 

I weep now, because I feel the dying. 

Everything ends. Sometimes it takes a long time, and sometimes it happens too soon, but everything ends. 

The bulbs in my garden are growing now. Two daffodils have bloomed, but the rest are hanging on, because the wind blew cold and icy this Easter, and another snow is coming. They are still waiting. 

I am still waiting. 

Theresa Weiler is a writer/singer/speaker/seeker. You can follow her broodings at sickpilgrimblog.com or on twitter @SometimesReese.

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