Set in a snowy midwestern suburb on Christmas Eve, “O Night Divine” is the story of a choir director who refuses to let a knee injury keep her from directing her singers at the annual holiday church service.
For me, the feeling of creation is one of love, a building rush of euphoria that never fails to leave me exhausted from all my spent energy. I’m a musician, an artist, through and through. I’ve been the director of my church choir for the past five years now, and I don’t think my love for music will ever fade. From the sleepless nights spent tossing and turning before a performance to the looks on the congregation’s faces in the silence after a piece is concluded, it all feels like what I was put on this earth to do.
The yearly Christmas Eve service is always my favorite. There’s something magical about an evening performance you just can’t find in a morning one. Suburban quietude surrounds the little stone church at seven thirty on this lightly snowing evening. Beneath the colors of the stained glass windows, illuminated by the night sky that stretches out beyond them, the smell of incense is all the more permeating and the piano keys are all the more trembling.
Among all this beauty, I find myself at the back of the sanctuary behind the pews where nobody but Pastor Alice, the liturgist, and of course my lovely singers up in the chancel can see me. The first song of the evening is about to begin, the congregation holding in a breath of anticipation. I raise my right arm, the one that doesn’t rest on the cane that travels the length from my hip to my heel.
It was nearly impossible, a month ago, to find a cane short enough for me. Though I’ve always known my own height, not one bit over five feet tall even in socks, it wasn’t until then that I felt just how small I was.
It’s possible that my earlier feelings of tallness were from how much I stick out like a sore thumb in the midwestern suburb where me and my wife, Beatrix, have lived in our cornflower blue house for ten years. We’re both oddities among the businessmen and housewives around us. I’m Tennessee-born and a frequent wearer of overalls (though I’m wearing a black-and-white striped sweater dress tonight instead). My most distinctive physical feature is my red hair, which I chop off myself at the chin, once a month with garden shears. Then there’s Beatrix, a mortician, easily recognized by the sweet smell of lavender oil she uses in her honey-colored hair every day. Well over six feet tall and still with the broad shoulders and deep voice she had when a college-age version of myself met her under a man’s name years ago, she can easily—and often does—scoop me up in her arms.
Of course, she doesn’t particularly look as if she wants to scoop me up in her arms tonight. See, she usually turns around in her seat to smile at me before each of the choir’s songs begin. Now she’s just rigidly facing frontward. My Beatrix isn’t one for angry outbursts, but her feelings can be read just as easily in the tightness of her jawline or the stiffness of her shoulders.
She didn’t want me to direct at all tonight. She told me I shouldn’t spend so much time standing, not with all the pain I’ve had since I tore my meniscus one cold morning last month, a few days before Thanksgiving, when I bent down on our porch to get the newspaper, of all things.
To her request, I asked, “What am I supposed to do, keep the Christmas Eve service from having music, after all the hard work and rehearsals I’ve put in?”
“And how much pain have you been in during the past few rehearsals?” she replied.
Of course, she hadn’t raised her voice at all, frustratingly. Afterward, we had a silent car drive to church together.
It was all worth it, I think as the choir begins to sing, hitting each note with crisp perfection as they begin the first Christmas song. (“O holy night…”) It doesn’t matter that my knee is strained and tight, way more than it has been for the past month, or that sharp pangs shoot up and down my leg every time I move to conduct. The music twinkles in the air, and I can tell people are enjoying it by the way the whole room holds its breath.
I’m satisfied with that. By the time I speak to Beatrix again, I hope she will be too.
It is generally the case, in legends and lore, that when someone vows not to look at something just behind them, they turn and look anyway, thereby losing whatever it was they were previously attempting to gain. Often it’s a life that’s lost, whether it be that of the person who looks back or one of their loved ones with them. As for me, all I have to lose is my stubborn aura of I will not acknowledge you because you have made me angry. How lucky.
If it’s any consolation to me, I manage to hold out until the penultimate “O night divine” of the first Christmas song before I throw my last shred of respectability to the wind and turn around to smile at my wife.
She looks beautiful, of course, and radiant, that wild hair of hers glowing like a halo around her. Before I can avert my gaze, her eyes lock with mine, and she smiles like she did when we first fell in love. I’d wager a bet that she’s in too strong a state of euphoria right now to realize how much pain she’s in, that stupid, lovely woman. She often tells me this is her true calling, her life’s purpose, and I’m sure if music makes her feel anything like how I feel when I’m putting lipstick on a freshly embalmed corpse who was someone once, she must be right.
What? We each have our own little kicks.
Crossing my legs underneath the skirt of my wine red dress, I turn back around to face the front of the church. I was right. Just a glance was all it took.
After the service has concluded, we make our way to the car, our shoes pressing down on about an inch of fallen snow with each step we take. My face is numb and my breath is short from the cold air and the excitement of a performance gone well. Meanwhile, Beatrix’s eyes pensively avoid mine. We’re completely quiet for about half the length of the parking lot before, in the glow of a nearby streetlamp, she turns to me with a half-smile.
“You’re limping quite a bit,” she says. “Was it worth it?”
“I think it was one of the best performances we’ve ever done,” I reply, unable to wipe my smile from my face.
“It’s still four days away from your surgery,” she points out, “and you’re going to feel awful until then.”
“Still worth it. But, yeah, ow. I’m going to have fun getting out of bed to get ready for Christmas dinner tomorrow.”
“You certainly are. Should I carry you to the car?”
“Just because I want it, not because I need it,” I laugh, picking up my cane and falling into Beatrix’s outstretched arms.
When she kisses me on the forehead, I hear a few old men from the choir chuckle behind us, but I don’t care. I am here for Beatrix, and she is here for me. So it has been, and so it shall be.