How Writing Two Operas in a Year Helped Me to Understand Grief
By Ross Crean
The best day of my life, and the worst day of my life happened in the same year.
I married my husband William in January 2014. It was a brunch wedding in a mansion located in a suburb of Chicago called Oak Park. The one thing that every person we spoke to had noticed about that day, besides the decorations, the home-hitting homily, and the more-than-appropriate mimosa and Bloody Mary bar, was the fact that my mother was smiles from beginning to end. She made an effort to talk to every single person she had never met, and we had a variety of guests, believe me. A woman raised in the conservative south suburbs of Chicago, she hugged and chatted with all of our guests: the Queer, Straight, Black, Asian, Muslim, Christian, Agnostic, Atheist, Pagan, Trans, Young, Old...it did not matter to her. She loved everyone, and was more than happy to thank everyone for coming to her gay son's wedding, which, she always said, "is just another wedding!"
My Mum was my loudest cheerleader, and for my entire life told me that it was ok to be the massive freak I was. The moment I went to college for music, I wanted to perform contemporary and avant-grade opera, write epic pieces of music, experiment with pushing boundaries in tonality and sonic territory, and you know what? She had no clue what any of it meant, but she loved EVERY. SINGLE. BIT. OF. IT!
That woman, so overflowing with unconditional love and acceptance, passed away the following July, and I never felt that warmth leave so quickly from this earth as it did when she let go of her last breath.
By May of 2014, my mother was forgetting names, dates, things we had just said to her five minutes previous, and it was chalked up to aging. However, she quickly started feeling pain that was making it uncomfortable to sleep, and it escalated to several hospital trips and numerous tests. The first week of July, after four weeks of no answers and no resolve, my father told the doctors that enough was enough, and that he would not take my mother home again until they figure out what was going on. So, numerous tests were performed, and each came back inconclusive. That is, until the final test, which was her liver biopsy.
Pancreatic cancer, terminal stage. It was in her lymph nodes, liver, and frontal lobe. To say we were in a state of shock would be an understatement. She was going to die very soon, and none of us had any idea how we were going to deal with the situation. Something in me became lost. I shut down and went on autopilot.
I had a career as a singer-songwriter, New Music vocalist, and film composer for 15 years, and at that point of the diagnosis, I had been working on ideas for a sixth album for quite some time. When all hell broke loose, though, I stopped thinking about anything. My father and I put my mother in a rehab facility immediately. Honestly, I knew the reality; she was already seeing things that were not there, saying things that made no sense (she insisted her makeup was being hidden underneath the floor of her room), and stopped eating. I walked into her room one day to see my aunts sitting around her, and a priest performing last rites, and turned and ran out of the facility, hyperventilating, so grief-stricken that my best friend and biggest support was not going to be here much longer. I wouldn't be able to call her and tell her all of the good news, or vent to her about when I had a bad day. I already couldn't do that now, and it was killing me.
I had gone that afternoon to a bookstore close to where I worked, and ran across the book "Love You Forever" by Robert Munsch. If you are not aware of this book, it is one of those children's books that will make you cry uncontrollably for hours on end, so of course I bought it. I brought it home, and thought about my mother singing "Siúil A Rún" to me as a child, and what I could do to make her last days mean something. The idea immediately came to me that I should record that song, but not in the minor-key march that it is usually heard. Instead I would go bitonal, keeping the minor-key melody and arranging its accompaniment to a major key. I went home, recorded it, and planned on bringing it to her the next day.
I should probably say at this point that my mother lost her mind and senses very quickly. She couldn't speak or walk, her eyes were always closed, and the only sound she would make was the exhausted whispers of "help" that she muttered for more pain medicine. I was angry. I was so incredibly, ragingly furious that this woman, who never said a bad word or performed a cruel action towards anyone, was suffering so horribly towards her end. However, now I can say that this proved something to me...my Mum was a fucking badass.
I brought the song on my iPhone for her to listen to, and asked (not really thinking I would get a response) if she would like to hear it. She immediately, and clearly said yes. I very carefully put my earbuds into her ears and pressed play. She immediately started to shed tears through those eyelids that had been closed for two weeks now, and I cried along with her, all the while saying to myself "She's still in there...she's still in there...and she hears me." It was my "Love You Forever" moment. This woman sang to me as a child, and here we are now, and I am the one that gets to sing to her. It was my way of saying good-bye, that I owed her everything, and that I would never ever let people forget the magic of who Charleen R. Crean represented.
Then, the worst day of my life arrived. On July 23, 2014, my best friend left this world, and left a big empty whole in its place. My insides were telling me that she was going to go that very day, and all I wanted to do was brace myself for the impact. My father called that afternoon, and with a huge release of breath, I picked up the phone. It was at that very moment that I felt sorrow that I never knew existed, and at the same time I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I was grateful that I knew the best example of love I could ever have known.
I took that August off of work to help my father get their house in order, as well to gain some sense of sanity. One of those days at the house, I came across a box of items I had during graduate school. Inside, I found one of my favorite books, "The Great God Pan" by Arthur Machen. I had always wanted to compose an opera based on that story, having two previous operas under my belt, and it felt like my Mum had thrown it right into my lap. It was as if she was giving her demands, saying, "Time to get to work!" I read the book again, intrigued with its treatment of innuendo as a source of horror and mystery; what you don't see with the naked eye can be much more terrifying than what is right in front of you. I wrote the libretto and composed the music side by side over a period of three months. I would have said that it was a way to conquer my grief, but in hindsight, it was a way of deflecting it. My synesthesia causes me to create music based on what emotional colors I sense, and that opera had sepia written all over it. Sepia is what I see when I am overwhelmingly sad.
The year of "firsts" without my Mum came and went as I finished up "The Great God Pan", and it was at that time that I was approached by the Oberlin Mozart Players to compose a chamber opera for orchestra and three female roles. I had become friends with a librettist in New York named Katherine Arathoon, and we found that we had very similar interested and tastes in art. We talked about alchemical symbolism, since it was for a Mozart ensemble we were composing, and the idea of bringing back the character of the Queen of the Night was extremely enticing. Within weeks, Katherine created this wonderful story where the Queen of the Night, Mrs. Darling (from Peter Pan), and Clytemnestra meet in a desolate wasteland every time their stories are finished being read, and they discuss the one thing they have in common, which is that each has lost their daughter in some way: one by death, one by estrangement, and one whose daughter disappears each season like Persephone to the Underworld, returning each time aging less and less. The obvious title to give it was "Lost Daughters".
Katherine was concerned and asked me if I was ready to tackle the heavy subject the libretto centers itself around, since my mother's death was still recent. I always believed that if you want to come to terms with pain, you have to face it head on, so I said I was ready. I may not have been as ready to deal with the subject as I thought. I realized that there was still so much ground to cover concerning my grief and the depression that it caused me. I realized during the early stages of the musical conception of "Lost Daughters" that I was closing many things off. I was closing off my friends, my family, my husband, and my own feelings.
Synesthesia may seem like an annoyance to those who do not understand the actual stimulus that synesthetes tend to experience when it comes to the creative process, but I have always thought of it as a useful tool. It makes me extremely sensitive and I feel emotions very strongly, putting that in the music I make. I realized that my colors were dulling, my phrases changing, my structures losing their shape, and I had to figure out why this was happening. I started to journal, meditate, and listen to what the silence was telling me. I knew that I had to open myself back up to pain, and let it take over if I was going to be myself again.
The strangest thing happened about a week later. I had gone to sleep, and dreamt that I picked my mother up from her house, went to downtown Chicago, and went to various places that she always wanted to go. We went to the Field Museum, the Shedd Aquarium, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and even saw the Stomp show at the Chicago Theater. What was so unique about this dream was that it wasn't the kind of abridged version you know you had once you wake up. It was a realistic all-day experience, and I woke up feeling like I was going to have to relive that day a second time. I was exhausted, and I can say that I lived two days in one.
Something very strange happened after that. My sense of grief went from sepia to azure, just like that. I went to the piano the next day, and got to work. The music came so much easier, but so did the tears and the need to walk away very once in a while because of the sadness. What was different about the sadness this time though, is that it seemed like a celebration of the life that left, like a beacon that showed my mother that I heard every single thing she was saying. My melodies said it, my harmonic coloring said it, and my silence said it.
I completed "Lost Daughters" this past January. Two operas in a year. I still don't know how I did it, to be honest. I took a few days away from the opera, and then sat down to listen and read the score once I had some distance. I noticed something peculiar was happening as I read through the score. I had gone through all five stages of grief while composing the work, and it showed at specific points.
Denial - Mrs. Darling refuses to believe the Queen of the Night and Clytemnestra when they inform her that she has gone through her story thousands of times, always reliving the loss of Wendy, and always ending up in the limbo once her story is finished.
Anger - The Queen of the Night is angered to find out that Wendy is not dead. Because of that, she believes Mrs. Darling has no right to be there with the other mothers.
Bargaining - Once Mrs. Darling accepts the truth about the ladies' situation, the three concoct a plan to kill Peter Pan, therefore changing their constantly-repeating outcome.
Depression - The three women realize that if they change their stories, the story will cease to exist, they will cease to exist, and so will their daughters.
Acceptance - The mothers decide that they would rather keep reliving their stories, for the love of their daughters outweighs the possibility of never having had that live in the first place.
When I turned in the score to the director at Oberlin, the first thing the he said was that he wasn't expecting the end to feel so triumphant. I told him of course it is triumphant. Though we have these moments of sadness, we realize that we make the choice to keep going, keep living, keep creating, and for what? To show that we exist. Our expression is an extension of our existence, and when we are able to connect with ourselves, regardless of what emotions we are conveying, we can then connect with others. And really, isn't that a form of love in itself? We grieve because we loved, and I grieved strongly because I was loved strongly.
I learned that my grief was a result of the love I have for my mother, and it was through my journey in music that I came to discover its importance in the realization that we are truly lucky and honored to have the experiences that we have in our connections to others, whether it be our friends, family, or even our collaborators and colleagues. By gaining those insights, grief became a friend that has consistently reminded me that I have been so blessed to have received the love and life that was given to me, and in turn, I tell those people in my life (including my New Music family) how grateful and appreciative I am of their presence and contribution in my life. It is wonderful way to live life.
And I had a wonderful example to live up to.