In Heavenly Peace

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My sweet baby girl is gone. Izzy is out on a daddy date with Mr. B. on this Christmas Eve day, giving me some much-needed alone time. My house is a mess. My body is healing and enduring the pain of not being able to nurse. The sun is out, making bright the recently-fallen snow, but descending already. It doesn’t feel like Christmas-time. And my sweet baby girl is gone.

I won’t share the details yet. I haven’t been able to settle all the swirling thoughts into something cohesive to post about my daughter’s brief life. But on this Christmas Eve… a night we like to think of as sacred and silent and peaceful, I can’t help but remember four simple words that ring loudly-softly, or softly-loudly, in my ears and memory. Words I heard sung as if for her ears and hers alone, back when she was still very much alive, and kept so by my heart and protection, the way I feel kept alive by God’s today.

Mere days before she would leave us, I took her to hear the most beautiful sounds I could possibly think of. A complete blessing born out of the thought that came to my mind a week or so earlier. This thought reminded me… no, revealed to me… “You most likely will never be able to take your daughter to hear your favorite music performed… not Mendelssohn nor Schubert played by the CSO or any other orchestra. Not Alison Krauss or Chanticleer, not Diana Krall or The Shins. No Coldplay. No bluegrass. No jazz. No solo piano by any number of classical pianists. No french horn solos that move the soul. No pulsing beat of any band.”

At this point, thoughts kept to myself turned into silent messages toward her.

“In fact, you may never even hear the sound of the Beatles, Beach Boys or Bee Gees blasting in the living room as we dance around… the way your big brother has come to experience and love. Or the sound of your own heart beating wildly because music, somewhere, in some place, stopped you in your tracks or commanded you to move.”

Mostly, I was overcome with an intense desire to quickly take her to a symphony or some sort of orchestral performance, and my venue of choice was Symphony Center, home to Chicago Symphony Orchestra… while there was still time. Before these thoughts were even complete, I found my way to CSO’s web site to see if there was a concert I would enjoy… one I would have wanted to take her to if she was ten or twelve years old, in hopes of exposing her to the music I had come to love since about that age. Disappointment would fill me after discovering there was no such performance. None from my favorites category… Brahms or Schubert or Mendelssohn. Not even any from my likes group… Mozart, Vivaldi, Tchaikovsky… Only concerts I would not enjoy myself. Wagner and the like. I almost gave up. And then I saw the Chanticleer Christmas concert on the calendar. There was no question. No “Yes or no?” running though my mind. Simply the urge to call Mr. B. and ask if it was okay to purchase two tickets.

Two tickets for three patrons.

He would agree, and it was settled. We would take our little girl to hear the sweetest sounds I’ve ever been privileged to hear. And instead of hearing them at Symphony Center, we would be listening to those sounds in the most beautiful, intimate sanctuary of the Fourth Presbyterian Church.

So, December 4th, we took her to her first… and last… Chanticleer concert. I won’t try to explain just how much I experience their music. I almost used the word enjoy. But it did not seem to be quite right. Experience was the only word I could find that would fit. I will simply say that I don’t believe I could have let her experience anything more beautiful than what we did that night. And it would be pointless to rewrite that experience right now, when I’ve already written it out in a letter to the members of Chanticleer themselves.

Since I want this space to be a record of the few days she had here on earth {a record, mostly for Izzy someday, as his memories of her life and death will most likely be fuzzy}, I have the urge to permanently journal the words in those letters… here and now. Here, because of what I’ve already said. Now, because this quiet Christmas Eve seems the perfect moment…

To the members of Chanticleer,

My husband and I took our baby girl to see/hear your concert here in Chicago last night {Wednesday, Dec. 4} at the Fourth Presbyterian Church. It was beyond memorable for us, as we are still carrying her… in the 8th month of our pregnancy, exactly one month away from the due date. We had been told by doctors around sixteen weeks of pregnancy that we will likely never meet her, and even if she does live up to and past the due date, we would not have her with us for long.

Recently, I sat and realized that in carrying on with this pregnancy so as to have some time with her, I may never get the chance beyond it to share with her some of my favorite music by one of my favorite choral groups. So I knew I must take her while I had the chance. I am so glad that it worked out to take her to your concert this season. I had seen Chanticleer at this venue during the Christmas season once before… and at least once in the summer at Ravinia. But this was, by far, the most memorable performance I have attended. It was almost as if it was tailor-designed for our little girl, Anysia. We sat in the second row of the back balcony, and because of where we were positioned, she had a direct line of sound to your voices, as there were no obstructions between the trajectory of your voices and my belly. No pew, no balcony railing, no other attendee came between her and your voices on that stage.

As you walked in darkness with your candles glowing and voices echoing, I almost began to weep, but contained my emotions to just tears silently streaming down my face. How beautiful it was, and how glad I was that she could hear such beautiful singing during her short life. It is known that babies can hear well and respond to music, even while still in the womb. What a special, peaceful concert it was… one which ministered to me as I heard words sung of Mary carrying the child, Jesus, making me connect to that part of the story of Christmas in a way I never had before. And hearing the words sung of Christ who came to heal.

And as if the entire concert was not wonder-filled enough, you came back for a simple, most beautiful and perfect encore that had me, once again, almost weeping. To hear just the simple short rendition of Silent Night with your most beautiful voices in the most beautiful strains of perfectly in-tune chords… so peacefully ending with that familiar phrase sung twice… “Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.” Even my husband got choked up at that. And we both felt like those last words were sung just for our little Anysia.

As I mourn that I will never be able to take her to a concert such as yours the way that I would like to… when she is five or ten or twenty years old… I still feel so blessed that I was able to take her in this way. It is a night that I will never forget as long as I live. And the memory of her moving inside me… especially during the applause after each song… will live on with the memory of the night. I look forward to listening to the three Chanticleer Christmas CDs I already owned throughout the rest of the season and every Christmas to follow, as I will forever think of her when I hear each and every beautiful note. I never thought I could hear anything more beautiful than I did that day many years ago when WMFT in Chicago played your version of O Jesulein süß, o Jesulein mild! on the radio as I sat in my car on a wintry day, eating my lunch during a break at work while it snowed… the first time I had ever heard of Chanticleer. But it turns out, I would hear something much more beautiful. And that was last night at your concert.

Thank you for bringing such beautiful music, both to the born and the unborn. Thank you for the gift you gave my daughter in the days she has been given. And thank you for the gift you gave to me in being able to give the gift of the sound of sweet music to her. I could have simply played my Chanticleer Christmas CDs for her at home. But I have to believe she sensed the difference in sound offered in the echos of the arches of that beautiful church.

Forever grateful to each and every one of the twelve of you,

The following day, the President and General Director {Christine}, sent this to me…

Dear Georgia,

Thank you for your description of those moments last night in which our lives and yours were bound together by music. We are unutterably sad to hear your story, and deeply moved that we could give something to you and your daughter at this time. We will think of you three as we continue our Christmas journey this year, hoping that music will continue to help relieve your pain.

We would like know that you have all the recorded Chanticleer Christmas music there is, in the event that it may continue to provide comfort. If you care to tell us which CD’s you have, and your address, we will send you any that you don’t have.

With our heartfelt best wishes to you,

A couple of days later, one of the actual singers {the Interim Music Director} sent his response as well…

Hi, Georgia:

On behalf of myself and all the members of Chanticleer, I want to thank you for sharing your heartfelt and deeply personal story with us. Our staff receives messages sent to the general information email address, and they occasionally forward emails that are especially funny, insightful, or touching. However, I can’t remember ever before receiving an email that was as moving and meaningful as your email last week.

I extend on their behalf our deepest sympathies, though I am under no illusion that sympathy is helpful. However, I will tell you that in spite of the beautiful music we make together, being in Chanticleer at Christmas time can be challenging. The schedule is relentless and the expectations are high. When hundreds of people say to the singers each evening that they expect Chanticleer to “make their Holiday special” or “start their Christmas,”… well, the pressure becomes palpable. The Perfect can be the enemy of the Good, and as their leader I occasionally fall victim to the impulse that I must perfect or micromanage each moment of the Christmas concert so that it sounds as flawless as possible.

If we all aren’t in touch with something deeper, we flirt with the possibility of losing touch with the reason we fell in love with singing in the first place. No one in the group starting singing because they wanted to be perfect, nor because they wanted applause, nor even because they wanted to make someone’s Holiday season complete. They started singing because they wanted to share an experience with other people. To inspire others toward reflection, thought, dreams, and emotions, as they were inspired by music. To share with them the miraculous beauty of singing together, which transcends experience and individuality more readily than almost anything else that I know of.

We remind each other of this as often as we can. But every once in a long while someone comes around who does it more eloquently and perfectly than any of us can. Thank you for reminding us how deeply emotional and transformative this experience is.

Chanticleer is comprised of singers of different faiths, so we often spend time in rehearsal talking about how to make Christmas music and Christmas texts work for each singer on a personal and/or spiritual level. At the core of the Christmas story, with all its religious implications, is a tale of mother and child. Thank you for the gift of personal context. Thank you for reminding us that we are empowered and blessed with the opportunity to touch the souls of the people in the crowd and resonate with every person in the room, no matter how young or old. Thank you for sharing your story with us. It will be an inspiration to each and every one of the singers in Chanticleer for the remainder of this Christmas season and well beyond.

With gratitude,
Jace Wittig
Interim Music Director
Chanticleer, “An Orchestra of Voices”

Sometimes, letters are just letters. And other times, they are the most precious accounts and the best keepers of memory. And in this case, they are the proof I cling to that my baby girl’s life touched others, and maybe even made a difference. Of course, she made a difference in mine. And her dear dad’s and brother’s. But I love to hear that her story and her self touched another life besides.

And I am so grateful that their voices… those words… sleep in heavenly peace… touched hers. She slept as she left us. And I believe with all my heart that she is now in heavenly peace… with God, her maker. This Christmas Eve… the one we three will not get to spend with her and the first of many… that is a comfort to me.

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Silent Night, by Chanticleer, as we heard it that night… {listen}

Photographs by Sherah G