One of my earliest memories is singing the entire score to the Wizard of Oz, over and over again, and being so pleased with myself. I knew that I was singing it right and well and beautifully. My mother probably about lost her mind. I think I was four or five.
It was the beginning of a long life of singing in choirs, and shows, and recitals, and opera choruses, and the occasional mainstage production, and churches. From time to time, I’ve paid my bills as a singer and I’ve had a few nice successes. My college degree is in vocal performance.
But recently I lost my voice. Well, I haven’t lost my voice, but I’ve lost my Voice.
I thought it was post nasal drip, or vocal abuse from too much teaching/talking/singing/shouting, or not singing high notes correctly, or allergies.
The gravel in my speaking voice wouldn’t go away, my singing voice felt stiff, there were hisses and stops and starts in the voice that weren’t there before. So I went to see a friend who is a leading laryngologist here in town.
And after a relatively uncomfortable encounter involving a camera down my throat, what’s the news? Nerve damage, most likely caused by a virus that I didn’t even notice at the time, to the arytenoid cartilage – not the vocal folds themselves – causing the vocal cords to close asymmetrically. Yeah, yeah, what’s that mean? It means that my vocal cords don’t vibrate at the same frequency and they aren’t in contact all along their length as they vibrate. Air escapes and creates holes in the voice. It feels and sounds like being on the edge of laryngitis. Except that it’s permanent.
The gravelly voice and the stiffness and the crackles and pops in my singing voice are permanent.
What? Excuse me, WHAT?
My doctor says that nerves can regenerate to some extent over the year following the damage, and that exercising a muscle weakened by nerve damage can help to prevent further loss of function and perhaps even help me to modify how I create sound, thus allowing me to keep some useful singing function – he doesn’t know. I can come back in a year and he’ll look and we’ll see.
In one season, I’ve gone from being too much of a soloist to sing in a chorus to being not good enough to sing in a chorus.
I’ve lost my fluid, solid, beautiful voice that I have had since before I could speak. Every time I talk and it’s gravelly and I feel like apologizing for the scratchiness, I realize that it’s the way it is now. It’s structural. I saw it on the doctor’s TV screen.
It never occurred to me to be grateful for my voice. Greta Garbo-like, I’ve reclined on my Chaise of Life, back of the hand to my forehead, and bemoaned the Burden of a Gift that I Don’t Know What To Do With, or Why Didn’t I Do More With It, or What Shall I Do Now? The artistic version of White Man’s Burden. Cry me a river!
But I’ve never stopped and been thankful for a lovely voice that did pretty much whatever I asked it to do. It was part of me, one of my quirky talents, like my ability to read a thousand words a minute or make up a new recipe on the fly or see the one typo on a page at a glance.
So a lifetime of “near misses” with a singing career (my friend Sally says, “What’s a near miss? You were a featured soloist on the stage of the Hult Center, singing to 2,000 people for God’s sake!”) is over. I don’t have to feel badly any more that I didn’t do more with my talent. As Cat Stevens sang, “And if I ever lose my mouth, all my teeth, north and south, oh if I ever lose my mouth, or if…I won’t have to talk.”
It makes me think of other near misses. The eight-year teaching career that never really quite took off (again, what’s a near miss? Four years of teaching fifth grade, two of teaching music, two years of temping and substitute teaching…). My life as a Development Officer (yeah, yeah, I was never vice president of a college but I did raise a million dollars and made a world-class fencing facility in Portland, Oregon possible). I agree, at this late date, I could reset my definition of what’s a near miss. Still, they feel like near misses to me. I wanted to be the BEST at something. I thought that singing might be it.
I guess what bothers me most is that this and that happens, and plans go aft agley. Life is so goddamned RANDOM.
It’s not that the world is a dangerous place. It’s that it’s such a RANDOM place. And some random happens that’s not good.
And some random happens that’s terrific, like my blissful marriage to the Best Man in the World and being the mother of the Best Two Kids in the World, our overall good health, good friends, Ed finding a job he likes through the most unlikely sequence of events you can imagine, all of four of us enjoying intelligence, optimism (modesty, let’s not forget modesty), and stubbornness.
Last year, when I was hesitating over what to plant where and what if things don’t come up? …my friends and fellow gardeners David and Linda let me in on their philosophy of gardening. “Just plant a bunch of stuff, Brenda. Some things will come up and some things don’t.”
Just keep digging, just keep getting dirt under my nails, just keep planting. Ya get dirty. Some things come up and some things don’t.
And maybe I’ll take a few days to cry me a river.