In the middle of his last night I finally turned off the CD player, with its soothing piano melodies by Schumann, Faure, and Brahms. I wanted only the sound of my voice, singing to comfort him. I sang whatever came to mind: “Always,” “All the Pretty Horses,” “Silent Night,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Shenandoah,” and “The Water Is Wide.”
The water is wide; I cannot cross over,
And neither have I wings to fly.
Give me a boat that can carry two
And both shall row – my love and I
I thought my singing was simply solace for my husband. That was true, but there was more to it. Days after his death, I read an old fairytale, “The Emperor’s Nightingale.” And then I understood.
In the story, the Emperor falls ill. He’s “cold and pale,” as was my husband. Death waits in the shadows. During the night, the Emperor calls for music. Everyone in the court has fallen asleep, but suddenly the little nightingale appears at his window. She bargains with Death: if she sings through the night, will Death let the Emperor live? Death is dismissive; the bird is far too small to sing all night long.
She breaks into song and sings until dawn. Death is defeated. The Emperor awakes and thanks the nightingale: “I saw Death at my side last night, but you have sent him away.”
Like the nightingale, I sang in hopes of keeping Death at bay.