Out of the darkness the tenor’s voice rang sweet and clear, sad and exquisitely beautiful. A single spotlight ever so subtly illuminated the singer’s handsome features – just enough to see his intense emotion and concentration, but compelling as his stage presence was, Camilla did not need to watch. She closed her eyes and let the sound wash over her – a sound that not only filled the theatre, but also swelled her soul to overflowing.
O Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountainside.
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dyin’.
‘Tis you, ‘tis you must go and I must bide.
Camilla Caruso Carlsen considered herself an expert on voices. She had spent years writing about them, working with singers – one very famous opera star at that! Nothing could captivate her more than a singular sound, and she knew what made a voice special. There had only been a very few in all her six decades that had taken hold of her imagination and her being in that undeniable way that could only be called transformative. Like Orpheus’, these voices had led her to discoveries and adventures, and like Orpheus’, they had each cast a spell over her.
She opened her eyes and continued to listen – no, to ABSORB…
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with
Why was she so moved? Ever the critical analyst, she told herself it was the technical grace of the performer – his purity of tone that somehow retained a vibrant resonance, creamy lushness, velvety legato, crisp, elegant phrasing and diction, perfect intonation, clean attacks – in short consummate musicianship.
But musicianship was not the whole reason. There were the unquantifiable qualities which filled the sound that held her most in thrall – the melancholy, an abiding goodness, a generosity, an openness that held out its arms to the listeners and called them into that world of love and loss, living and dead.
‘Tis I’ll be there in sunshine or in
Oh, Danny Boy, oh Danny Boy, I love
And then, the verse turned mournful as it shifted to a vision of the grave; the voice became that of the sleeper reaching out to the still vibrant loved one.
And when ye come, and all the flowers are dyin’
If I am dead, as dead I well may be.
You’ll come and find the place where I am lyin’
And kneel and say an ‘Ave’ there for me.
And from the grave came the heart-wrenching, gentle plea to hear the living pierce the veil and return the balm of those words...
And I shall hear, ‘tho soft ye tread above me
And all my grave will richer, sweeter be,
If you bend and tell me that you love me
Three little words… words which Camilla herself had spoken so many times – to Nils now gone, to her family, to her friends, - words which in the wake of so much personal loss seemed to wither on her lips – until, until….like the sleeper in the song she found the joy to say them again.
Her reverie was interrupted by the visceral feeling that washed over her. The tenor, descending gracefully from the climactic high Ab, tenderly delivered the last verse. His tone spun the phrase with liquid beauty, yet there was that tiny tremolo that signaled the flood and the fury beneath the surface calm.
It was the word “come” – that heart-catching syllable sung piano which betrayed the singer’s seeming stoicism, which bravely acknowledged his vulnerability in his own identification with the song. That single note that faded into a gossamer diminuendo seemed a fragile thread connecting two worlds – of the living and the dead - each existing on a separate plane of meaning and time. But somehow, in the hushed beauty of the singer’s voice, these realms seemed to coalesce and to offer an embrace of all that had been and all that might yet come to be.
Camilla took several deep breaths as her car service neared the Portland Jetport. She was trying every technique she knew to keep herself focused on her goal and to stay present - in the moment – enough to avoid a meltdown. On the ride down she had chatted amiably with the driver, confiding to him that she had not flown for many years, but not admitting it had actually been fifteen! She had dressed trimly in her best, but comfortable jeans, a preppy wool blazer and scarf that had been a Christmas stocking present from the friends she was on the way to visit. She carried her laptop bag so that she could immerse herself in some work if she needed a distraction, and she had loaded her iPhone with her current music favorites. And, most of all, she had tried – God knows she had tried to relax!
Camilla had not been sleeping well since Nils had died seven years before, but she had learned Reiki and meditation exercises to guide her sleepless thoughts to productive places, and she often stayed awake fielding creative ideas on the many exciting people and projects that had slowly come to fill her life.
So, the night before the flight – a short eighty-minute jaunt to Philadelphia to spend a weekend with her two dear friends and see a show – she willed herself to focus on everything else except the sheer terror of taking off and being an airborne captive. She had undergone several months of hypnosis, but those techniques seemed to work less well than simply to do the Reiki relaxation and put up mental roadblocks whenever the terror presented itself.
She was creating a new state of mind, she had told her one friend. He had been the impetus for her to seek a way back. He had not pushed her, merely encouraged, suggesting gently and repeatedly that she should try. And Camilla, knowing he was right, knowing the time had come, and touched by the caring, did promise to do just that. And so, there she was on that crisp, sunny January morning ready to undertake what had once been routine for her before it had become a self-destructive phobia. The skies were cloudless and brilliantly blue. Thank God, Camilla thought, before the memory of the same bright skies more than fifteen years ago came back to her.
* * *
It was 8:48 a.m. and Camilla had left for work – a little temporary job in a vet’s office in Lyndhurst - and was driving down Route 3 away from Manhattan when Nils called her cell phone.
“Where are you? A plane has just hit the World Trade Center, and there’s a huge fire. Put on the radio,” he commanded with an air of ominous urgency.
Camilla did as she was told and said she’d call him back as soon as she got to work. Within minutes, Camilla heard a barrage of frantic initial reports: “ A small plane – the top floors on fire – help on the way!” But then the already shakily informed NPR announcer suddenly shed all journalistic equipoise and blurted out, “Oh my God! Another plane has just flown into the South Tower! All we can see are huge balls of fire!”
Camilla gasped, but she could not alter her course as she had just merged onto the busy New Jersey highway. She clung to the right lane, frantically listening for details and trying to decide whether to pull off and turn around or continue to the office. As she approached the flat stretch of road that crosses the Meadowlands, she saw cars pulled up on the shoulder. One man was standing next to his vehicle snapping photographs. Camilla looked up into the rearview mirror and saw what had prompted this risky behavior.
Clear as the day was across the waving grasses the Twin Towers were visible against the azure sky, but instead of gleaming in the sunlight, they were engulfed in billowing clouds of gray smoke which poured like a dragon’s fierce blast from gaping holes in the sides of the steel and glass edifices. Trembling, Camilla decided instantly to pull off at the next exit and see if she could make it back home.
The remainder of the ride that would normally have been a five-minute run turned into an horrific nightmare. As she approached the Lincoln Tunnel, which she inevitably had to do to head home to North Bergen, Camilla realized that the traffic had suddenly bottled up. Had they closed the tunnel? Would she be trapped here, unable to move indefinitely? What in God’s name was going on? This last question was rhetorical because Camilla knew in her heart that whatever had happened was nothing short of a catastrophe.
Her flight instinct told her the first thing she had to do was find a way out of this maze, get home, make sure her pets were all right, make sure Nils got home, and then together…. She cranked up the radio as she inched her way onto the shoulder – she knew it was illegal but that seemed of little consequence at the moment - and wove between cars until she reached the Secaucus exit. It was a little out of the way, but she knew the back roads through the Meadowlands which would take her to their North Bergen home on the Hudson.
The news snippets from cable - the only broadcast outlets not knocked out by the planes – were short and often conflicting. The planes were jets – not the small aircraft originally believed. Both towers were filling with smoke. The upper floors were already infernos. Rescue workers from the entire tri-state area were speeding to the scene. Workers in the towers were urged to wait for assistance.
Camilla, trained as a journalist herself, felt sorry for the reporters who were desperately trying to piece together a story in a swirling chaos. It seemed an interminable wait before Mayor Giuliani finally made it to a CNN microphone and spoke with an air of authority that brought a momentary sense of relief. For what seemed like an eternity, President Bush was silent, and when he did respond, he seemed befuddled and equivocal.
Camilla called Nils back, but all of the circuits were busy. She hoped he, too, had had the good sense to head back home. She kept punching automatic dial as she wove her way through the ghostly quiet industrial park and up the hill to her cliffside home. Finally he answered.
“Nils, I’m almost home. Come home right now before everything is locked down. We’ll decide what to do when you get here.”
Nils agreed. “I’m on my way. Did you hear? Another plane hit the Pentagon,” he asked with a ring of terror in his voice.”
Camilla had not heard, but before she could say anything, the line went dead. The radio also faltered for a few seconds before the announcer came back on and said, with as much composure as he could muster, “We are getting reports that a fourth plane has just crashed in a Pennsylvania field. At the towers fires are raging out of control. We have some eyewitness reports that individuals have been holding hands and leaping from the burning building into the Hudson.”
“Was the world coming to an end? What other horror would rain from the sky this day?” Camilla asked herself these questions as she pulled into her driveway. She left her car there and hastened up the front steps of their house where she had a full view across the river. Before she could put her key into the lock, she glanced across the Hudson to lower Manhattan. It was then that she received her answer.
She heard a voracious roar and felt a rumble across the mile-wide watery expanse. Standing rooted to the spot in speechless shock, Camilla saw the second tower erupt in a cataclysmic explosion and slowly sink into the earth. A cloud of ash darkened the sky, and for a moment the world – Camilla’s world –stood entirely still.
The images of that day and the subsequent nightmarish ones that followed burned holes into Camilla’s and Nils’ psyches. For weeks they dealt with the immediate consequences of the tragedy. There was a strange solace in being so close to the epicenter of the terrible drama.
New York City remained inaccessible for almost three days. All the nation’s airports were closed. Only Air Force jets droned on patrol overhead. Traffic in the shadow of Manhattan moved at a crawl. Paranoia ran rampant. Camilla and Nils kept packed suitcases in their front foyer and lined up the cat carriers there as well. Then after the initial days of noisy confusion, things suddenly became eerily quiet, palpitating with an anxious tension, as if another shoe would surely drop any minute. Camilla remembered how on the fourth day, as she emerged from her house, she felt enveloped by a strange acrid smell. It hovered like a smothering blanket – an indefinable and yet horrifically recognizable odor rising from the still smoldering ruins. Though nothing in her own personal experience could tell her this, Camilla immediately recognized it as the unmistakable
smell of a crematorium, as the ashes of the thousands lost continued to drift across the Hudson and hover above the city in a melancholy refusal to depart.
The sound and the fury of the aftermath left no room for cogent thought, only blind action. Nils, who worked as a financial manager for the Salvation Army, found himself overwhelmed by the charitable giving, and he worked day and night helping to put the aid mechanisms in place. Camilla, having just a little while before experienced a meltdown of her own when her decade-long dream job working for baritone Derek Howe had gone up in its own kind of smoke, found herself a welcome diversion to this career collapse by volunteering alongside Nils. But when a few months later all things gradually settled back into routine – because adhering to routine was deemed the best antidote to terrorism – Camilla, if not Nils, found herself having trouble getting into step with that concept.
Perhaps it was because she had experienced the first of her own losses just before this tragedy. She and Derek had dissolved a creative partnership that had been her raison d’├¬tre for more than a decade, and she was, despite any rationalizations, feeling rejected and unvalued. The parting with the famous singer had been amicable. Derek had decided to divest himself of his American management, which included his longtime, devoted agent, and Camilla, as his personal assistant, became part and parcel of that decision. But his explanation, however civil, did not really compensate for the years of collaborative devotion and her sharing (without much recompense) of her intellectual and journalistic gifts.
“Your own fault,” Nils had told her when the split occurred. “Let it go,” and however unsympathetic that sounded, Camilla knew there was truth in it. But because she no longer needed to be in Vienna on Tuesday or Kansas City on Wednesday and because the world seemed to her to be upside down, Camilla retreated to a place where she resolved to hide until reemergence seemed safe. This was, in hindsight, a poor decision. She could see that now fifteen years later as she steeled herself to fly again.
So much had happened in those fifteen years – so much more loss actually. Her best friend Francesca died of lung cancer far too early. Nils and she, in an effort to find new horizons and happiness, brokered a deal to move to Maine, where Nils would work from home and finish his career, and Camilla would “retire.” They had not occupied their lovely newly built home for more than a few months when Nils died of a sudden heart attack. Camilla’s game plan was once again in disarray.
Her spiral downward had perhaps been predictable, surely regrettable, and now strongly incontrovertible. The round trip back was more circuitous, harder, and truly more astonishing.
She began with the help of old New Jersey friends with whom she spent hours on the phone pouring out her grief. She hunkered down in the safety and quiet of her Maine home and let herself feel the weight of it all. Little by little like tiny pinholes of light piercing a vast, dark curtain, purpose and happiness forced their way back into her life.
A year after Nils died, Ruffian came into her life. A big, goofy bear of a Newfoundland with a huge personality to match, Ruffian made Camilla begin to laugh and to go out and join new activities. When Camilla took to writing about her adventures with her canine friend, she suddenly found herself with an appreciative audience for her first book of fiction. As if she had been tossed a life preserver, she embraced this writing with a fierce passion she had not felt in many years. Slowly, she rebuilt her journalism contacts and reclaimed her press credentials. She gained recognition for her arts byline, and before long she had secured a place for her work in Maine’s arts community. And this gave her purpose and joy and a way to give back.
And it was in that community that she made precious new connections with artists she understood and appreciated and who appreciated her. And as the years passed two of those ties deepened into special bonds of loving friendship. The couple became artistic inspirations and kind, supportive, caring friends. Working on theatre projects together, she rediscovered her sense of confidence, and she began to believe her work was far from done yet. Before long the trust grew, and Camilla was able to talk as openly as she had to anyone in a very long time – about the trauma of losing Nils, about her beliefs and dreams and goals. They made her laugh; they made her feel young and purposeful again. They were kind and generous and sensitive, and the friendship made her try to be a better person in everything she did. For the first time in ever so long, there was light and joy in her life.
After feeling derailed for so long, of being marooned in a limbo of stasis, Camilla felt herself moving forward. She believed she had come to a crossroads, and she knew it was time. She must choose the road that confronted her fear. Only then would she reclaim the life she had once loved, and there were strong motivations to act now.
* * *
The words of her friend replayed themselves in her head as she stepped from the car at the airline departures entrance. When he had learned that she planned to fly to their visit, he had encouraged her saying, “You will do it, Camilla, because there is so much more left for you.” And Camilla knew exactly what he meant. It was time to live again.
All the night before as she tossed and turned, she told herself that she was going to pretend she was on one of those countless business trips from a decade ago. She would will herself to be calm no matter the hassle – something she hadn’t always done so well in the Derek Howe days – and she would focus on the destination: a weekend she looked forward to with all her heart.
Happily, the airport was relatively deserted at 10:30 a.m., and she made her way to the American check-in counter. She paid the surcharge for the bag and mustered her best air of professional confidence as she headed to security. Again, the line was short, and the TSA agent was polite, but he orange-flagged her passport and waved her to the body scan line. The woman operating the machine said rather apologetically, “It’s random, Miss,” and Camilla summoned her best insouciant look. Clearing that hurdle, she reassembled her carry-on and computer, put her blazer back on, and headed to locate the gate. An hour and a half early, there was no one else there, so Camilla decided to get something to eat and, more importantly, something to drink. She had resolved not to take the valium the doctor had prescribed unless it was absolutely necessary because she knew a Bloody Mary would be gentler, more
predictable, and probably just as effective.
So she settled herself at the bar of Linda Bean’s and ordered one together with a brunch burrito. Balanced by the hearty meal, the tall drink worked its magic. The waitress must have sensed Camilla’s nervousness because she asked if she wanted another drink, which Camilla sensibly declined. She paid the check and took a seat at the gate. Thankfully, the flight was on time because waiting would surely have thrown her into a panic. The skies were clear, and the ordeal would be underway – and over – soon.
While waiting to board, Camilla tuned into a live stream interview her friend was giving in Pennsylvania. It seemed a good omen and a reassurance that she would soon be there, talking in person. Ever a little superstitious – that was the Caruso in her – Camilla avoided doing the Facebook check-in until she actually boarded the plane. Having treated herself to priority boarding and seating, she found her place easily, stowed her bag and computer under the aisle seat and kept her phone with her for the comfort and companionship it would offer.
The plane filled quickly and taxied away from the gate a few minutes early. Camilla took the precaution of alerting the older gentleman sitting next to her that she was a jittery flyer, but she managed to say that with as much nonchalance as she could. He remarked kindly that his wife was too and if she needed someone to take her hand, to feel free. Camilla smiled wanly and gratefully, resolving, of course, to do no such thing.
It was just a matter of minutes before the Embraer 175 reached its spot in the takeoff cue. The engines revved as the aircraft waited in anticipation. It could only have been a few seconds, but the moment felt like a few hours to Camilla. Poised on the brink of propulsion, time seemed oddly to stand still. Her thoughts swirled in her head. They danced in circles.
How many round trips had brought her here? Endings and beginnings, Nils, her Aunt Anna, her parents, and just this last winter her beloved Ruffian …losses and victories - forward, back, round –seemingly endless circles that were trips to nowhere. Yet strangely, in that suspended instant of anticipation and sheer terror, this round trip seemed to become a destination. There was joy to be had on arrival, happiness in friendship, discovery, and fun. Focused on the narrow pinpoint of the horizon where the runway disappeared into the sky, this takeoff was Camilla’s chance at a new freedom.
The aircraft gathered speed. The runway vanished behind them. Camilla felt herself become airborne. The plane shook a little, and her heart fluttered. As the pilot steadied the aircraft, Camilla switched on her own steadying device – the music she had brought with her. Music had always been Camilla’s secret weapon, the inspiration and the balm, the catharsis of her soul.
As the pilot leveled the plane off at its cruising altitude, Camilla settled back in her seat and drank in the voice that filled her ears. It was that same tenor voice that had captivated her not so long ago. It rang out with purity and goodness, a sadness and euphoria, a feeling of love and light. She closed her eyes and listened with her whole being. She knew she was going to be fine. In the embrace of its beautiful sound, Camilla felt something deep within her stir – something that had long been dormant, but was just about to be reborn.
Oh, Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling…….