When I was eighteen, absurdly, I sang the Brahms Requiem.
I was fresh out of high school, paddling through my first long, confusing semester at college. I wasn't giving much thought to death. I was taking Russian history, moral philosophy, music history, music theory, private lessons, choir, and, in an ill-advised attempt to meet nerdy boys, beginning chess.
It was a scattershot array of classes, as if I'd fanned through the course catalog and dropped, from the palm of my free hand, a smattering of pins. In fact, my course selection, like my dorm selection, like my selection of that first troublesome boyfriend, had been agonizing, a sweaty marathon run over many days and nights. That the ultimate result of my labors resembled nothing so much as random variation was characteristic, if frustrating.
Much ado about nothing.
It's what I thought about the Requiem, too. It's what most of us thought. We were eighteen, nineteen, twenty-two at most, a hodgepodge of majors and minors. Some of us had lost someone significant, but most of us had only glimpsed loss through the lens of fiction, stared at it moving there, under the scrim of words, like a strange, single-celled organism caught beneath the microscope. We were there to sing, yes, but also to flirt, to mingle, to speculate on who we were and who we would become. Doctors, lawyers, artists, activists, musicians, movers and shakers.
Dead wasn't on our list.
Of course, it should have been. It was the only thing any of knew with any certainty we would be. Though we didn't really know it, not in our bones, not in any way we could feel. Death entered our mouths and sat on our tongues before reemerging, whole, undigested, with perfect vowels. Tod, wo ist dein stachel, we sang, and laughed. The words were lumpen, amusing.
On the night of the concert we put on the most attractive black and white clothes we could dredge from our closets. We giggled. We strode out onstage in front of our fellow students and the busloads of old folks from the home and plowed, joyfully, through the requiem. Finally, something we knew! Out of all the confusing new somethings required of us during our first year away from home, here, at last, was something we had actually rehearsed.
Death, where is thy sting?
I'd sing it differently now. More fearfully. All flesh is grass, meaning you will die, meaning I will die, meaning my parents have grown old and my teachers are dying and I've boarded that long, slow train of loss. I suspect, too, that I'd sing it still differently if I were forty, or fifty, or seventy. Maybe Brahms's masterpiece isn't finished, really finished, until you've sung it again, and again, and again, like dye bleeding through layers of cloth.
As absurd as it is to sing about death at eighteen, at least you've gotten it in your ear. You've learned the way death stands and sits and swells, the rhythms of it, the way it buzzes against the bones of your skull. You won't remember until you need to, until you hear Brahms on the radio and realize your loss isn't singular and new but plural and very, very passe.
Requiems, after all, aren't for the dead. They're for the choir. For anyone who sings together, lives, grows up. Selig sind die Toten: Blessed are the Dead. It's the rest of us who remain onstage, mouths wide.