Five years after my younger sister Barbara died of a malignant brain tumor, I moved from Minnesota to California. I loved the soft tilt of the large round hills, the unfiltered California light, the green Irish spring and golden Italian summer. Being alone, without Barbara, wasn’t what I had thought would happen. When she died, both of us were in our forties and neither of us had married.I had presumed that the two of us would age, visiting each other’s homes where we would both wash dishes with a sponge, not a rag, use SOS for burned pans, and, like Mother, wrap everything in plastic. Eventually we would end up in a nursing home, eccentric old maids rocking side by side; I imagined her tormenting me with her singing.
Instead I sat in my dusty studio in the Marin Headlands overlooking the Pacific Ocean and just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. It was a 170 square foot garret in an old army quarterhouse with rutted floor boards that caught my chair as I rolled from one part of the room to another, and in the inflated real estate market, I was lucky to have it. In summer my room was often cold and smelled of the spit of the swallows that nested in the eaves. If I opened the skylight, the resident cat jumped out on the roof and attacked the swallows.
In this room for the next five years, I tried to resurrect my sister. At times, Barb’s spirit had given me a friendly wave, and at other times, chastised me as it emanated from one vertical file cabinet, then another, from Minneapolis to San Francisco and places in-between. Now, a yellow folder sat at the front of the file cabinet, luminous against the royal blue hanging file. When I unpacked the files, I felt I was removing a body wrapped in fragile papyrus.
I had Barb’s dresser and desk, I wore her chartreuse harem pants and her red and black striped socks. I had a soft leather purse with her pink plastic comb, boxes of letters, and wads of photographs in rubber bands. I had her sheet music and her scribblings about the voice lessons she took. I drove her 86 Camry across the country and back. I had her eulogy and three-inch thick binders filled with notes and flip chart pages on which I had written “What is the meaning?”
Perhaps our meaning was in singing, maybe even our faith, certainly our hope was. The women in our family had been as one with the Metropolitan Opera as Texaco, which sponsored the Met’s Saturday afternoon broadcasts from 1940 to 2003. My grandmother in Massachusetts sang to those broadcasts and so did my mother in Duluth, Minnesota, turning the volume so high that the basses and sopranos rocked through the oak doors of our house, from the den to the kitchen where, apron tied around her middle, Mother sponged dishes and sang along with Leontyne Price, even though a high school chorus teacher had told her to mouth the words in chorus. Unless the opera were extraordinarily long, broadcasts started unfailingly at 1:00 and my mother refused any invitations for Saturday afternoon.
When each of the three sisters in the family reached fifth grade, our parents took us to the Metropolitan Opera, which toured every year in Minneapolis. Riding in the back seat of the old Buick into downtown Minneapolis, I saw the Pillsbury and General Mills factories stationed like sentries over the Mississippi River. To me they meant, not farming and food processing, but opera and food. In the Curtis Hotel, I walked importantly through the green and red train style lobby, ate in the hotel coffee shop, walked through Dayton’s Department Store with my mother, saw the sunset glow a deeper gold than in Duluth and sniffed grainer, less piney smells. All of this was going to the opera. After I left Minnesota and returned to Minneapolis for graduate school, by which time the Curtis Hotel had been demolished, my feelings remained the same about the opera and so did Barb’s, who had entered law school in Minneapolis.
That year, the May of opera week was humid and hot and the auditorium wasn’t air-conditioned. Three times that week, Barb and I joined the opera mavens, their long silk gowns rustling in the soft night breeze, high heels clicking on the stone plaza of Northrup Auditorium. The first night we dressed in black and white and pretended to be ushers. The second night we wore our dress-up hippie clothes, long, pink and black flowered skirts with peasant blouses. The skirts would blend colorfully with the gowns the wealthier patrons wore – we would fit right in, we were sure of it. At the end of the first act, imitating the privileged patrons, we strode to empty seats in the first row. Jittery, we eased into the maroon velvet. A well-dressed matron stopped us and said, “These are not your seats!” We stood up, smiled and walked with injured dignity to the side of the auditorium, where we remained until we found a seat for the next act.
The last night of the opera there were no empty seats in the front rows. We stood at the side and as soon as the curtain went up, Barb beckoned me, then walked across the first row of seats, crossed the few yards separating the audience from the orchestra, and casually walked towards the seven steps on the far left that led to the stage. Praying that I was invisible I followed. There we sat, on the fourth and fifth steps, nearly on the stage, twenty feet away from the silver streaked hair of Cesare Siepi, who was singing Mephistopheles in Faust, his tall lanky body packed into a red jacket threaded with gold and silver. The dimension and timbre of his bass voice slid into every cavity of our bodies in the same way a morning jump into Lake Superior cuts to your vital organs and makes your body tingle until nightfall. My ears reverberated and my heart beat – in part I was afraid we would be asked to leave but Barbara wasn’t perturbed – she hummed along with the music. I heard the music note by note, the melody almost fragmented, each note becoming both more and less than it was alone as it joined up with the others and strolled or marched or leapt toward the end of the aria.
It was certainly possible that we would be kicked off the stage steps and tossed out of the auditorium, but I went with Barb year after year because to hear Violetta die in La Traviata and Lucia go mad in Lucia di Lammermoor from six yards away thrilled me. Concentrated in one night were all the bliss and fear I had yet imagined. I felt proud going to the opera with Barbara in the same way I had felt special when my parents took me in fifth grade. I was going with someone who cared. It was my good luck to be with her.
After Barbara passed the bar exam and joined my dad’s Duluth law practice, she took voice lessons in Duluth and kept written vocal instructions in a booklet lined with bass and treble clefs, as she practiced arias from the operas we had seen as children. She did breathing exercises every day and learned how to support the voice and how to locate the place where the sound comes from, behind the bridge of the nose, deep in the sinus cavities.
Eight years later, Barbara was diagnosed with a brain tumor that started in her visual cortex. “If I hadn’t identified so strongly with Violetta when I was a little girl,” she cried as I sat with her in the hospital, “do you think this would have happened?” Violetta, a young courtesan, is Alfredo’s lover in Verdi’s opera La Traviata. Alfredo’s father begs Violetta to leave Alfredo so that Alfredo’s sister can make a good marriage. Violetta, sick with tuberculosis, is reluctant to leave the man she loves, and during the duet, you’re not sure what will happen, she could go either way. Finally, generously, she forsakes Alfredo and moves to the country to die of tuberculosis. Believing himself abandoned, Alfredo rages. When at last he learns of Violetta’s sacrifice, he rushes to her bedroom and they are reunited. Minutes later she dies. Barb and I grew up listening to La Traviata as my mother played it on the old mahogany record player in the front hall. We both thought it could be the most beautiful opera ever written. Verdi’s combination of tragedy and score – the troubled relationship of father and son, the family pride, the illness-crossed love of Alfredo and Violetta, the courtesan who sacrifices so another woman can marry in an almost feminist gesture – all of this thrilled us. Oh, to be so grand, to love so well, to sacrifice so nobly. To die so beautifully. Barbara had always identified with Violetta, I think because she felt things wouldn’t work out in her own life, and because Verdi’s flowing melodies express a bittersweet longing for all that is unattainable.The story would be melodrama without the music. The despairing “Addio” is filled with longing and the melody searches. Why do we enjoy wallowing in sad music? Because the song’s end promises, not joy, but the knowledge that others have felt what we feel. If you know an aria, you silently join in that place at the top of your soft palette where music soars. You feel it in your chest and throat and lift your rib cage, involuntarily breathing as though you were singing, and climb over and under, up and down, your pleasure in the melody and the search propelling the aria forward. The music of “Addio del passato,” which Violetta sings at the end of La Traviata, melds a sublime musical line with an earthly story, guiding you from loss, to rage against that loss, until, eventually, over the course of the aria, you are able to reflect on what happened. After she got the tumor, Barb couldn’t see well but she could still sing while I played. She sat scrunched against me on the piano bench, so close that my arm couldn’t move. Then she stood. “It’s better to sing standing and better to see too,” she added.
“I can’t see either, Barb,” I said.
“You act like you don’t believe I can’t see. You don’t want to admit what is happening to me because it makes you unhappy. You’re trying to make me feel better, but it doesn’t.” I was lucky we continued. I stilled my back and shoulders so they didn’t betray contradiction. Only my fingers moved. She was so close I could smell her if we hadn’t smelled so much alike that I smelled nothing. Would she sulk? I couldn’t see very well but who could say how well I saw compared to her or what made it dark – the light or the angle or the blindness caused by the tumor? We had really believed, Barb and I, we could burrow inside each other’s skin or behind each other’s eyes, that we knew what the other was feeling. Now I couldn’t make the leaps of understanding that came so easily before. I couldn’t be inside her head. I was careful not to look at her in case that made her angrier. I couldn’t see what she saw. I could only see how to find the keys in her purse and open the door to the porch, how to put bright lights in her lamps, and when to shut the windows because it might rain. I could only see that she wanted to sing and I waned to play. A match. Rejoice!
“Shhh,” I whispered, meaning, “Sing softer.”
“Were you telling me to be quieter? I haven’t sung in over six months. I am lucky to get out anything at all much less the variances necessary to do it At the piano I kept silent, breathed slowly, acted calm. I loved playing and hearing her sing the arias from La Traviata, Un di felice – A happy day, Sempre libera – Forever free, and Addio del passato.
Ten years after Barbara died, I walked down a sandy hill to the Pacific and felt the familiar tears welling up as I thought about Barbara’s lengthy and violent dying. I had cried almost every day, sometimes several times, from loss, guilt, anger, all the usual emotions of grief. Startling myself, I thought, “I don’t have to cry.” I felt some guilt, as though I were choosing to ignore Barb. I smiled anyway. It was a windy afternoon softened by warm moisture from the sea. The hills were blossoming with bushes of lavender lupine and on the sand were unruly spreads of fuchsia iceplant. I heard the brown pelicans’ wings tapping softly against the water in Rodeo Lagoon when they landed. In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, for which I imagine these brown pelicans, nearly wiped out by DDT then, flap their wings in gratitude. Carson herself died of breast cancer in 1964, but not before visiting Rodeo Lagoon in a wheelchair to witness fifty brown pelicans gliding to the ocean on their huge floppy wings and splash-landing in the water. Before that day, I hadn’t known that one could choose not to be sad, not to cry, that one could move around in the mind like a chessboard, taking a pawn and sliding it to a safe place instead of placing it directly in the path of the queen. At the turnoff on Coastal Trail, I started singing. I had begun singing lessons nine years after Barb died and I breathed through my diaphragm and tried to flare my nostrils and smile, as my singing teacher had instructed me. In classical singing, you pull your chin down, push out your diaphragm, let your stomach flop, flare your nostrils, flatten your tongue, make fish lips and smile. When I neared the east end of the lagoon, nostrils flaring and stomach flopping, I thought I was singing well.Addio, dorati sogni, cari fantasmi, addio. . . . (Farewell, golden dreams, dear spirits, farewell. There is no room for you in my heart anymore.) My teacher picked this song for me, along with Come Away Death by Sibelius, Dido’s Lament by Purcell, and several other death-oriented arias. It troubled me that she thought I was suited only for death. The music of Addio has an agitated marching rhythm and an acrobatic melody but the lyrics are angry and depressed: “Woe is me, in the strife of the world sorrow cannot be forgotten. Death is the only true farewell and that pleases me.” It pleased me to sing the song, but I didn’t understand its emotions until I remembered Barb saying she needed distance from me. By the time she said that, I had thought things would be peaceful but they weren’t. I saw that it was wrenching for her to pull away from the living and when Barb pulled away, I felt like she’d socked me in the stomach.
Suddenly, in front of me in Rodeo Lagoon, a Great Blue Heron lifted its terrific wing spread and flew to the next cove. My body on the shore seemed utterly unimpressive and finite. I walked to the bridge over the lagoon and she did it again, flying back to where my singing had disturbed her. She landed on the grey rocks and was still. After a few seconds, I couldn’t make her out. Perfectly camouflaged. I began to sing again.
Mardith Louisell has published essays, profiles, and book reviews in Italy, A Love Story, The House on Via Gombito Street, The Best American Erotica, and in journals and magazines. She writes about music, color, obsession, the WWII Holocaust, feminism, food and relationships. She lives in San Francisco where she works in child welfare and just finished singing the Mozart Requiem.