24: Silent Night No More

24: Silent Night No More

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hope & Miracles

Silent Night No More

Faith and joy are the ascensive forces of song.

~Edmund Clarence Stedman

I stared at our antique player piano, too afraid to touch the keys. Those keys were now foreign, glaring back at me like eighty-eight black and white teeth, one scale away from taking a bite out of my calm. Three years before this moment I had been enduring ENT and gastroenterology visits, endoscopies and laryngoscopies, speech therapy, and a vague diagnosis of “muscle tension dysphonia” that forced me to walk away from the stage and the college classroom. After twenty-five years of performing and teaching, I was no longer able to sing. I thought my life was over.

Yet after reinventing my career with the use of the written word as my voice, I found myself taking a call from a producer for The Young Americans international performance company. She was assisting with The Magic of Christmas, a five-show run in Southern California, and informed me, “Our lead singer has laryngitis. She’s trying steam treatments right now but if Jessica can’t sing, can you go on for her tonight?” My first instinct was to run. All I could think of was my current Sunday morning attempts to sing from the church congregation, voice cracking frequently and throat sore for the rest of the day. Mondays found me without a voice at all. How could I get through a public performance?

More profoundly, beyond the physical performance, however, I took into account my continuing grief. Only a month earlier, I had a conversation with my husband about how heartbroken I’d been away from the stage these years, not able to share my heart with an audience. I told him, “Being onstage was a precious place for me. I felt beloved there. I don’t feel beloved anymore.” What if something went wrong and I had to spend even more years coping with my loss?

As I contemplated my answer, the lesson from those painful years hit me. It had taught me that when I want to run from what is scaring me, I should lean into the fear and embrace it. So I took a deep breath and said, “I’m available but can you send me the audio file to see if I can even handle it?” The “Ave Maria,” Schubert’s reverent interpretation of the enduring prayer to the blessed Virgin Mary, was a beast. There would be no faking my way through it.

Now faced with the piano and the alarming task of a simple warm-up, I tentatively depressed the first key, then another and another. Soon I was vocalizing, triad after triad, arpeggio after arpeggio, head voice connecting to mixed and mixed voice to chest until I felt ready. I opened my mouth to try the classical piece and what came forth was decent. It was certainly safer than a singer with laryngitis. I called Tara and told her I could do it if necessary, simultaneously praying for Jessica’s total healing before the show. At 2 p.m. I got a text: “You’re on.”

I drove to the theater, my pulse racing and my palms sweating. I got a brief walk-through and sound check, then went to my dressing room to get ready for an 8 p.m. show. The stage manager gave me a five-minute call, and I slowly walked to the stage right wing. One hundred and fifty choral voices were already onstage performing an excerpt from Handel’s breathtaking “Messiah.”

I appealed to the Holy Spirit to blow His breath in me, giving a clear voice to Schubert’s musical prayer. Then I walked on. What came forth surprised me. There was a clarity of tone and richness of resonance I had not been able to achieve in three years. I did it! At the close, however, I thought, “Whew, that was nerve-wracking. Now I can’t wait to hear Jessica in the next four shows,” having faith she would be in good voice the next day.

God had other plans.

Jessica texted me the next morning that, though she had regained her voice before going to bed the previous night, she couldn’t talk at all when she woke up. I received the same text the third day. So I went on again . . . and again . . . and again . . . and again. Five shows total. That glorious Sunday morning driving to the theater, I realized I had been experiencing a miracle. I had been so focused on evaluating my vocal performance and praying that Jessica heal that I hadn’t been focused on the gift I was receiving and giving to others with each performance. Many audience members knew of my vocal journey, of my inability to speak or sing for some time. I began to realize, as people approached, hugging me and crying after the show, that they craved a miracle as much as I did. There were overwhelming embraces, comments and tears as people told me they needed the prayer of the “Ave Maria” just as I sang it. I was blown away.

It dawned on me that God had orchestrated an event that I never could have imagined, even down to the song selection. I reflected that I had been praying the “Hail Mary” my whole life, first on my knees each night with my sisters as children, then many times in the rosary at my lowest. I couldn’t have been more intimately acquainted with it. I recalled that my beautiful daddy taught Latin in school, and I was graced to be speaking it in song. It had even been my final goodbye to my grandmother at her funeral years earlier. Oh, so many connections and gifts had rained upon me. Most of all, I realized this miracle was giving me the very gift I had so desired. I felt beloved again, and more than anyone, loved by my Beloved. He was letting me know he heard my prayers, heard my needs, heard my sorrows. He gave me a gift that will last me forever.

The following day my throat was sore and my voice hoarse again. I could barely speak. I had not done one thing to prepare for Christmas. Not one gift bought or wrapped. Not one Christmas card addressed or mailed. But none of that mattered. I had been given the gift of singing a tender prayer for my children, my husband, and hundreds more. I had been blessed to sing for so many who needed His presence, many of whom had lifted me up in my years of loss or who had suffered losses of their own. Most importantly, though I had unwittingly forgotten the meaning of Christmas in years past, I realized the wonder I had experienced is exactly what that sacred season has always been about. We are His beloved, and there are miracles all around us every moment of the season and beyond into the New Year. All we have to do is look for them.

~Cynthia McGonagle McGarity

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