“I stayed in bed for three weeks trying to figure out what to do with my life, but nothing came to me.”
She was saying this to her companion as they ascended the stairs, two urbane thirty-something women on their way into the opera house. I waited until I was in the marble and gold leaf lobby before I stopped, rummaged for my pen, and wrote her words on my ticket, not having thought to fit even an index card into my opera purse.
This writing, was it part of a writer’s attack, one of those acute moments where one is suddenly aware of what one always means to be aware of, namely paying attention and taking notes? Or was this a message that travelled right to the center of where I was living and therefore had to be saved in writing?
The opera was “Dead Man Walking.” Perhaps it would speak to the young woman as nothing in the three weeks supine had.
As we enter the story Joe is on death row and has run out of choices of what to do with this life. Into the prison comes Sister Helen. If she cannot save his life, she will save his soul. But first Joe must admit his guilt if he is to experience God’s grace and forgiveness and through that some sense of his own self worth. “The truth, Joe,” Helen says. “the truth will set you free.”
Helen has to change, too, has to face her own truth. She has to reach beyond her Bible and books of prayer, must reach into her own soul and find the love and forgiveness she tells Joe is there for him.
In the final moments of the drama he admits he did what they say he did and he expresses sorrow for having done it. This is the moment the story has waited for. Now he can know the love that Sister Helen has struggled to offer him; now he can say to her, and maybe to himself , “I love you.”
The message of the opera carried in the words and the music is not to denounce capital punishment as much as to honor the core of goodness that lies at the center of even the one who has committed the most heinous of acts and to celebrate the power of compassion and love. Opera fans have sat through a lot of Liebestod to get to this towering point of a death that is truly transformative.
Maybe the young woman will be telling one day hence how she lay in bed for three weeks pondering her path and then in the fourth week she walked into the San Francisco War Memorial opera house and was awakened to the rest of her life.
Or consider Parsifal who happens upon the Holy Grail and doesn’t know what he has found until he has lost it. He is in the castle of a seriously ill king whose kingdom is in shambles and who has reason to believe that this simple young knight can heal his wound. The king treats young Parsifal as an honored dignitary. The boy sits beside the injured man and observes the elaborate ritual of the unveiling of the Grail and the feeding of the assembled, and has neither the compassion to ask his host about his illness nor the curiosity to ask the meaning of the service being enacted before them. He connects to no one nor to anything that is going on. The next morning he is out on his ear.
The story from that point on is about Parsifal’s years of wandering, of his gradual realization of what he failed to see and of the compassion he failed to express, of his growth in consciousness and empathy, until in the end he asks the question that heals the wounded monarch and restores the wasteland to a flourishing kingdom of which Parsifal himself becomes King.
Or consider someone as ordinary as one of Elizabeth Berg’s heroines (Nan in The Pull of the Moon) who has a moment in which her inner self, “dulled by the grief of abandonment,” asks “Where have you been? . . . I had ideas. There were things to do. Where did you go?”
Nan apologizes to this part of herself. “I had errands to run,” she says. “ I had a few things to do, I needed to get married and have a child and go underground for twenty-five years and be pleasantly suffocated. I meant to come back.”
Three weeks, fifteen years, twenty-five years, whatever it takes. We all mean to come back. Take to your bed when you must. But don’t go back to sleep.
Donna Hardy 1999