By mid-March, our daily trips to Des Moines had become a familiar routine. We would need to leave the house by 9 AM at the latest, which would give me just enough time to get the kids to school in the morning, return home, gather medical supplies and pillows, and then help Yvonne to the car. There we’d fuss for a few seconds – getting the pillows and seat belt just right, plugging the phone into the charger, cuing up the audio book – before I would back out of the gravel driveway, turn the steering wheel hard to the left, pull the shift lever back two positions, and then settle in for the hour-long trip into the city. We preferred to take Highway 6 to Kellogg instead of heading straight to the Interstate as this allowed us to see more of the natural beauty of the rolling Iowa countryside. We watched as the snows from a long winter melted to reveal the stubble of last year’s harvest, saw the mist rising from the North Skunk River in the cold air, and felt the constant wind, hard from the North, pull at the car and drive drifts of sparkling snow across the road into greening trees. By the time we got to the Interstate, the strengthening sun would be warming red-winged blackbirds perched on dried cattails in the marsh next to the on-ramp.
Yvonne had been secretly worried about a lump she had felt in her right breast, but hadn’t told me anything because I had been preoccupied with a health concern my mother had. She didn’t want to trouble me unnecessarily, she said. I first found out about the lump as we drove to a bi-annual checkup with our new oncologist. I remember standing in the examination room, my eyes moving between my wife in a hospital gown, the deformed breast and lumpectomy scar, and the look of concern the doctor was trying to conceal. He peppered us with questions as he began triangulating where we were on the medical map: When did you first have cancer? Which treatments did you receive? When did you first feel the lump? Did you accidentally bump into anything? Old medical records were ordered and new scans were performed. Eventually we landed in the surgeon’s office, where we were relieved to learn that the lump was most likely just residual scar tissue from the previous operation and radiation treatments. “The only thing I’m slightly concerned about,” he told us, “is this small rash next to your nipple – it’s probably nothing – but I would like to be absolutely positive and take a punch biopsy to make sure it’s not Paget’s disease.” A phone call a few days later informed us that, although it wasn’t Paget’s disease, the laboratory tests had come back positive for cancer. It was the day before Christmas 2016.
And so began our descent into the maw of the disease. The oncologist wanted to attack the cancer aggressively and suggested a treatment of adriamycin in conjunction with some other chemotherapy medicines, the names of which elude me now. Perhaps it is the humanist in me, but I was always interested in the genealogies and etymologies of the drugs that the doctors put into Yvonne’s body: adriamycin was first isolated from soil-based bacteria found close to a medieval castle near the Adriatic Sea in Southern Italy, taxotere is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, and cyclophosphamide is chemically related to the mustard gas that killed soldiers in the trenches during World War I. Perhaps connecting the names of these drugs to the story of their origin gave me a feeling of hope and control. As if understanding the words of a secret incantation would help me fathom the mystery behind its magic, or that by naming the unknown I could bring order to chaos and banish uncertainty. But all hope and control quickly fled as Yvonne tangled with the Red Devil, the name that cancer patients who had experienced adriamycin gave the drug. Large doses of ondansetron and benedryl kept the nausea at bay, but Yvonne wrote in her journal how she could feel the drug eat at her from the inside, and for days after receiving an infusion she didn’t have the strength to climb out of bed. After two treatments the rash had become an angry red color, spreading out over her breast and reaching down obscenely into the intermammary cleft. At a consultation to discuss the upcoming mastectomy, the surgeon pulled back the gown Yvonne was wearing, took one look at the rash, and quickly left the room. Shortly thereafter the oncologist broke the news to us that the treatment had been unsuccessful and the cancer was spreading rapidly through the skin. When I asked what our chances were of us beating the disease, he put them at less than ten percent. I made a weak joke about those not being odds that I would take to the track and held Yvonne’s hand as she walked sobbing across the dark parking lot toward the car.
Because Yvonne had already received external beam radiation, it would not be possible to treat her in a similar fashion this time. Radiation would hopefully slow the cancer’s spread in the skin, but, if delivered as a beam, would also irrevocably damage bones and internal organs. Looking for other ways to push back on the cancer, the oncologist put Yvonne on a combined targeted and hormone therapy. In support of a daily oral Ibrance regimen, once a month Yvonne would need to receive a Zoladex injection underneath the skin on the stomach and two painfully slow Faslodex injections that would be delivered directly into the muscle of both buttocks. The oncologist hoped that the Zoladex would shut down Yvonne’s ovaries, thereby putting her into an artificial menopause that would halt the production of estrogen that the cancer was using to grow, and the Faslodex would block the action of any residual estrogen that remained in her body. To receive the Faslodex injections, Yvonne would stand in the doctor’s office while balancing on one foot to relax the muscles in the other leg. The nurse, having warmed the syringes under running water, would then kneel down behind her, carefully ease the shaft of the needle into her buttock, and slowly depress the plunger to release the drug. During this process I would stand in front of Yvonne to hold her steady. Thinking about it now, it was almost like a slow dance circling inexorably toward a sad and bitter end: Yvonne, kicking up her leg, would lean into me and I could feel the curves of her body as she pressed close, her arms around my neck, her head on my shoulder, her breath on my cheek. I never felt more like a man – nurturing and protecting – as I did during our dances in the doctor’s office, but also weak and vulnerable knowing that there was nothing I could do to relieve her pain or bend the course of fate.
We were always impressed by how hard our doctors, nurses, and technicians worked together as a team, coming up with innovative approaches to wrestling a disease that twisted and turned maddeningly. A few weeks after Yvonne had started the combined targeted and hormone therapy, the oncologist called and enthusiastically related that the radiologist had devised a possible way for her to receive radiation. Instead of using an external beam, the radiologist and her team would craft a mesh of catheters to lay directly on Yvonne’s skin and then feed high-dose radioactive seeds through the tubes. This approach, although it would require us to travel daily to Des Moines for over one month to receive the treatment, ensured that the radiation would target only the skin, thereby sparing the bones and internal organs. Initially we saw no change in Yvonne’s skin, but after a few weeks of receiving radiation it began to burn. Soon the entire right side of her body – from clavicle to hip, from sternum to side – was was unrecognizable and covered in painful blisters that would open up and weep. Yvonne would pop hydrocodone tablets, slather Silvedene on the burns, and carefully apply a dressing to cover them, but this soon became too much for us to manage alone and home care nurses were called in. Days and then weeks passed like this. Eventually we were again able to visit with the surgeon, who, through a series of painful punch biopsies into the burned skin, was able to confirm that the cancer had indeed stopped spreading and that he could find clear margins to perform the mastectomy.
This brings me to what I consider the most painful part of my account, yet also the reason for me writing about it. For although other points along our slow and inexorable descent – the failed skin graft, the attempt to reconstruct the chest wall with a muscle flap, the emergency room visit to stop uncontrollable bleeding, the cancer metastasizing, and Yvonne’s eventual death – are all painful in their own way, this one day and its events are permanently etched in my memory. Perhaps by committing my thoughts to paper, so to speak, I can begin to make sense of them and, hopefully, derive some good from it.
The mastectomy removed what little remained of the breast and most of the skin on the right side of Yvonne’s body, laying bare the pectoralis major muscle and exposing ribs. I was struck by how small and frail the human chest actually is without these coverings. Yet before a skin graft operation could be performed to cover the wound, there would need to be enough granulation tissue in it to support new skin growth. The plastic surgeon likened this to having enough nutrient-rich soil in a garden to allow seeds to sprout and grow. To facilitate the growth of this granulation tissue, a vacuum assisted closure, or VAC dressing, was applied to the wound right after the operation. The VAC dressing would drain fluids from the wound bed and increase the flow of blood to the area, thereby promoting the growth of new tissue. Yvonne would occasionally need to replace the container on the VAC pump unit when it became full and home care nurses would come every other day to change the dressing. I can’t recall the particular details of what caused it, whether a setting on the pump had caused too much negative pressure or the dressing itself had been incorrectly applied, but granulation tissue had grown into the open-cell foam of the VAC dressing. When the nurses attempted to remove the dressing, it would tear the tissue away from the wound and pull at burned skin.
Yvonne screamed in excruciating pain. Holding her right arm close to her chest, as if to protect it, she raised her left arm toward the nurses to ward them off. Sobbing and with tears streaming down her face, she implored them – begged them – to stop. The nurses, the wood floor, the white walls, the table with medical supplies on it. I stood at the foot of the bed, watching this scene of misery unfold before me, feeling as if I were not there and not knowing what to do. I recall seeing arcs of light flashing at the periphery of my vision and, holding my hand in front of my face, not being able to see it. I moved over to Yvonne and knelt down by her. Taking her hand, I kissed her forehead and told her that I loved her. I felt the sweat on her brow and her hot breath on my cheek. The stench of her wound filled my nose. To this day I can’t remember how the nurses finally got the dressing off.
In the year since her death, I have often wondered why a person as good as Yvonne had to endure so much pain. What was it all for? Why did this happen to us? Why did she have to die? I have no answers for any of this. Nothing can even begin to justify the cosmic unfairness of it all: being declared cancer-free, only to have it metastasize six months later; struggling so hard for five years to stay alive for the family, only to lose it all in the end; and now being left alone to raise two children without a partner and far from family. The most I can do is fumble in the dark for scraps of answers, and this fumbling is an intensely personal and lonely ordeal. I certainly don’t think I could speak for Yvonne, although I suspect she might agree with me, and other people in similar circumstances would undoubtedly come to different conclusions or find my observations unsatisfactory. Such is life, I suppose: we all have to make our own way through it.
For me – dare I say for us? – a way whereby I could begin to process these questions opened up one day on the Interstate just outside of Des Moines. To pass the long hours on the road while traveling to and from our radiation treatments, we would frequently listen to audio books. We had attempted to get through Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island, but got bogged down with long descriptions of metallurgy and geology halfway through the tome. “What do you want to listen to now?” she asked me. “Why not The Silver Chair?” I said, suggesting the children’s fantasy novel by C.S. Lewis that we had purchased earlier to entertain the kids on a long road trip but never got the chance to listen to. For those unfamiliar with this work, it tells the story of Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole, two English children whom Aslan, a talking lion and Christ figure who rules over the animals and people living in the magical land of Narnia, has called out of our world to perform an important task. With the help of Puddleglum the Marshwiggle, a frog-like human creature who has a pragmatic outlook on life, they are to seek out Prince Rilian, sole heir to the Narnian throne who has been missing since departing on a quest to avenge the death of his mother, and return him to Narnia so he can ascend the throne before his father dies.
On that day outside of Des Moines we had arrived at that critical scene in the book when Eustace, Jill, and Puddleglum have located the Prince, who is being held against his will by a wicked witch, the Lady of the Green Kirtle, in her underground kingdom. They free the Prince from the silver chair, to which the Green Lady binds him every night and which holds him in an enchanted captivity, but are blocked from escaping the palace when the witch enters the room. Strewing a magical powder on the fire, which fills the space with a heavy sweet smell that dulls the senses, the Green Lady then begins to strum a musical instrument while persuading the group that there is no Overworld, no Aslan, no grass, no sun, and no sky. In fact, she continues, all of these are pale ideas derived from objects that can readily be found in her dark realm – Aslan is simply a large cat, the sun is like a lamp hanging from the ceiling – and therefore are not truly real. There is, she concludes, no other world than her own underground kingdom and escaping it would therefore be senseless. With the children and Prince almost lulled into a complete stupor, the entire quest hangs in the balance until Puddleglum does something very brave:
The Prince and the two children were standing with their heads hung down, their cheeks flushed, their eyes half closed; the strength all gone from them; the enchantment almost complete. But Puddleglum, desperately gathering all his strength, walked over to the fire. Then he did a very brave thing. He knew it wouldn’t hurt him quite as much as it would hurt a human; for his feet (which were bare) were webbed and hard and coldblooded like a duck’s. But he knew it would hurt him badly enough; and so it did. With his bare foot he stamped on the fire, grinding a large part of it into ashes on the flat hearth. And three things happened at once.
First, the sweet heavy smell grew very much less. For though the whole fire had not been put out, a good bit of it had, and what remained smelled very largely of burnt Marshwiggle, which is not at all an enchanting smell. This instantly made everyone’s brain far clearer. The Prince and the children held up their heads again and opened their eyes.
Secondly, the Witch, in a loud, terrible voice, utterly different from all the sweet tones she had been using up till now, called out, “What are you doing? Dare to touch my fire again, mud-filth, and I’ll turn the blood to fire inside your veins.”
Thirdly, the pain itself made Puddleglum’s head for a moment perfectly clear and he knew exactly what he really thought. There is nothing like a good shock of pain for dissolving certain kinds of magic.“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.
I sat in the driver’s seat, listening to this passage being read aloud, enthralled by its meaning. Although I had read it numerous times as a young boy and was very familiar with its content, on this day I felt that I understood its message for the first time. C.S. Lewis was professor and chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, and many aspects of medieval culture, philosophy, cosmology, literature, and religion find their way into The Chronicles of Narnia. What to me, as a young boy, simply looked like verbal dueling between the heroes of the story and an evil sorceress, is actually a deep theological discussion couched in a clever adaptation of Plato’s allegory of the cave. In the allegory, Plato describes a hypothetical situation in which prisoners, born into captivity in a cave and chained in such a manner so that they cannot move their heads or turn around, spend their lives looking at shadows cast on the wall of the cave. As they are immobilized, they can neither see the fire, which is the light source causing the shadows, nor even the actual objects casting the shadows. Such prisoners, Plato concludes, would mistake these dark outlines on the wall for reality and know nothing of their real causes. Only by breaking free of the bonds and exiting the cave can the prisoners apprehend reality for what it truly is.
The reception of this allegory during the Middle Ages helped to support a worldview in which objects, days, people, animals, and events – in sum, all of Creation – had both a literal meaning and a figurative one. Medieval bestiaries, for example, describe how the pelican, which was believed to tear open its breast in order to bring its young back to life with its own blood, was a living representation of Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice on the Cross raises humanity from physical and spiritual death. To the medieval mind, the world was permeated by the divine and richly infused with sacred meaning. The earth, although filled with shadows, also gestured beyond itself toward deeper spiritual truths. Life was imbued with a sacramental religiosity that reached beyond the impermanent moments of temporal existence toward an eternally present and unchanging now. When the Lady of the Green Kirtle says there is no grass or trees, she is really asserting the nihilistic perspective that there is nothing transcendentally holy, beautiful, or good in the world. Puddleglum says there is. Pain, C.S. Lewis suggests, is the means whereby his eyes are opened to this fact.1
So, how has the pain of Yvonne’s cancer opened my eyes and cleared my thoughts? Not that now, when I see a flock of Canada geese flying South for the winter, I think of, say, John the Baptist. But rather: despite the disease – or perhaps because of it? – is it possible for me to see how the sacred and divine permeate my life and infuse it with meaning? Can this pain reveal something holy? Can I move from the shadows into the light? Here I must tread cautiously, lest one should mistakenly draw the conclusion that any lessons I may have learned are worth the cost. They most certainly aren’t. Yet, then again, not to appreciate their value would, in my mind, dishonor the high price that Yvonne paid for them and squander an opportunity to welcome the spiritual into my life. Even worse would be the very real possibility of using pain as the Lady of the Green Kirtle perhaps would, as proof that there is nothing holy, beautiful, or good in the world: “See! You watched your wife die a painful and wretched death because of cancer and what do you have now? Emptiness! Nothing!” Like Puddleglum, I don’t hew to this worldview; I stamp on this fire.
All the doctor visits, the thousands of miles driven, the painful injections and infusions, the lab tests and biopsies, the hands that were held and the kisses that were shared, the sweat on foreheads and tears on cheeks – all of this over the years effected a slow change in me. Looking at Yvonne one day, after cancer treatments had ravaged her body and she was approaching the end of her life, I realized that she was more beautiful and radiant than the day when I married her. The suffering and pain had opened my eyes to something in her – in us – that I had not seen before. I told Yvonne this, and she, pointing to her twisted and bent frame, quickly demurred. But I persisted. I felt closer to Yvonne and more spiritually connected with her than ever before, perhaps more so than would have been possible without the disease. My uncle, who lost his first wife to breast cancer, also experienced something similar. Their shared struggles with cancer, he told me, allowed him to see the beauty of his wife’s soul and sense the true depth of their love. Based on my experiences with Yvonne, I would agree with him. Perhaps I saw, through a glass, darkly, the transcendent love that God has for all of us. Or perhaps I caught a faint glimpse of the perfected condition that Mechthild of Magdeburg describes in The Flowing Light of the Godhead when all the holiness and goodness that God has poured into us, through our suffering and pain, will reciprocally flow between us all and none will ever be empty again.2 I wish to God every day that I had not learned this lesson, and I would give anything to have Yvonne back, but I am thankful that I could, in my feeble and imperfect way, be present to help her. I know it makes very little sense, but I am thankful that the pain of cancer opened my eyes to the deep beauty of our relationship and love, to the spiritual connection that had begun to flow between us. Having grown so close to Yvonne in this manner, her early departure only stings me that much more. But what’s the point in developing these relationships and feelings, if they are only to fade into ashes and nothingness upon death? I sense something larger and grander at play in this loss, a future reunion and fullness that is signified ex negativo in this life through aching absence.
Being a cancer caregiver for Yvonne was one of the most painful and exhausting paths I have ever walked. I can’t even begin to imagine what Yvonne must have endured. And although at times I felt so alone on this path, I realize now that all the while we were actually walking it together, lifting each other up. Maybe we still are. Being present for each other in our time of need and shared suffering made it one of the most sacred and beautiful experiences I have ever had. I’m reminded here of the scene in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, when Tamino, standing before the closed doors to the Temple of Ordeal, declares himself willing to be proven worthy of Pamina’s love by submitting himself to a series of trials that will test his resolve to overcome even the horrors of death. At the very moment when he believes, falsely, that he must walk this path alone, he is surprised by the appearance of Pamina, who promises him that she will never leave his side. In fact, Pamina assures Tamino, the love she has for him will turn their thorny path into a thing of beauty, one that is strewn with roses.3 It is their willingness to be present for each other in times of trial and walk a shared path that sanctifies and elevates the love that they have for each other and makes them worthy to ascend towards the divine. As we move towards God in this life and strive to develop our own divine attributes, this work is perhaps best facilitated by wanting to improve ourselves for our intimate partners, and to support each other in adversity.4 I know I wanted to be a better person for Yvonne, and I look forward to seeing her again.
Can something holy, beautiful, and good come of pain? Again, it’s ultimately a matter of personal perspective and will, but I believe it can. Like it did for Puddleglum, pain has opened my eyes and cleared my senses: I’m slowly coming to realize that it has granted me a powerful opportunity for introspection and growth. And, if I allow it, pain can teach me something about the spiritual aspect of life that I tend to overlook or ignore when I become numb through daily routines. Although I regret profoundly that Yvonne paid the price of these lessons for me, maybe someday I will be called upon to return the favor and let someone else learn and grow. Such is life, I’m also coming to realize: we love each other and help each other ascend.
1 I’m aware that C.S. Lewis has written a book on this topic (The Problem of Pain. New York: HarperCollins, 2001), but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet. I found his A Grief Observed (New York: HarperCollins, 1994) most helpful in the days and weeks after Yvonne’s death.
2 Mechthild of Magdeburg was a 13th-century German mystic and nun. The passage I refer to here describes her vision of the Resurrection, when Christ, taking the ashes from the bodies of all the blessed saints who have died, will form the most beautiful chalices out which he will drink all the holiness he has poured into them. The circulation of flowing light and goodness between people and God is a central metaphor of her text:
Des vúres geneiste sint gestoben und sint ze nihte worden, das sint alle seligen lichamen, die in ertrich noch beitent des himmelschen lones. Dis vúres meisterschaft sol noch komen, das ist Jhesus Christus, dem sin himmelsch vatter die erste lo[e]sunge und das jungest gerihte hat bevolhen. Der sol an dem jungesten tage us von den geneisten die allerscho[e]nesten ko[e]ppfe machen dem himmelschen vatter, da er in siner ewigen hochgezit selber us trinken wil alle die helikeit, die er mit sinem lieben sune in únser sele und in únser menschlichen sinne gegossen hat. Ja, ich sol trinken us von dir und du solt trinken us von mir alles, das got gu[o]tes in úns behalten hat. Wol dem der nu vaste stat und nit hie verstúret, das got in in gegossen hat.
[The embers of the fire have been scattered and extinguished. These are the bodies of the blessed waiting in the earth for their heavenly reward. The rule of the fire is yet to come, that is Jesus Christ, to whom his heavenly Father has entrusted the first redemption and the last judgment. On the last day, out of the embers, he shall fashion for the heavenly Father the most exquisite chalices from which at his eternal wedding feast he himself shall drink all the holiness that, together with his dear Son, he has poured into our soul and into our human understanding. Ah, I shall drink of you and you shall drink of me all the goodness that God has preserved in us. Happy is he who stands firm and does not let spill what God has poured into him.]
The citation gives the book, chapter, and line numbers of Mechthild’s text in the Neumann edition, the numbers in the parentheses the page number of Tobin’s translation. Although Mechthild of Magdeburg does not explicitly make the connection between pain and holiness in this passage, this connection is readily evident elsewhere in the text:
Do sprach dú pine alsust: “Herre, ich machen manigen selig und bin doch selber nit selig, und ich verzer manigen heiligen lichamen und bin doch selber bo[e]se, und bringe manigen zu[o] dem himmelriche und kum doch selber niemer dar.” Hie zu[o] antwúrt únser herre alsus: “Pine, du bist us dem himmelriche nit geborn, darumbe maht du nit dar in komen; mere du bist us Lucifers herzen geborn, da soltu wider in komen und solt mit im eweklich wonen.”
[Then pain said this: “Lord, I make many blessed and yet am not blessed myself, and I consume many a holy body and yet am myself evil, and I bring many to heaven yet do not enter it myself.” To this our Lord responded: “Pain, you were not born from the kingdom of heaven; therefore you may not enter it. Rather, you were born from Lucifer’s heart; there you shall return and shall dwell with him eternally.”]
For an edition of the Middle High German manuscripts, see: Mechthild of Magdeburg. Das fließende Licht der Gottheit. Edited by Hans Neumann. Munich: Artemis Verlag, 1990. An English translation has also been prepared: Mechthild of Magdeburg. The Flowing Light of the Godhead. Translated by Frank Tobin. New York: Paulist Press, 1998. For more detailed readings of the role that the body plays in Mechthild’s mystical theology, see: David Neville, The Chalice of the Flesh: The Soteriology of the Body in Mechthild von Magdeburg’s Das fließende Licht der Gottheit. (PhD diss., Washington University, St. Louis, 2002) and David Neville. “The Bodies of the Bride: The Language of Incarnation, Transcendence, and Time in the Poetic Theology of the Medieval Mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg.” Mystics Quarterly: The Academic Journal Of Medieval Western-European Mysticism 34 (2008): 1-34.
3 The German reads:
Ich werde aller Orten
an deiner Seite sein. –
Ich selbsten führe dich –
die Liebe leitet mich! –
(nimmt ihn bei der Hand)
Sie mag den Weg mit Rosen streu’n,
weil Rosen stets bei Dornen sein.
Spiel du die Zauberflöte an,
sie schütze uns auf uns’rer Bahn.
Es schnitt in einer Zauberstunde
mein Vater sie aus tiefstem Grunde
der tausendjähr’gen Eiche aus
bei Blitz und Donner – Sturm und Braus. –
Nun komm und spiel die Flöte an!
Sie leite uns auf grauser Bahn.
PAMINA und TAMINO
Wir wandeln durch des Tones Macht
froh durch des Todes düst’re Nacht.
The English translation:
Wherever you go,
I shall be at your side. –
I myself shall lead you –
Love is my guide –
(takes him by the hand)
She will strew the way with roses,
for roses are always found with thorns.
Play on your magic flute;
it will protect us on our way.
In a magic hour, my father
cut it from the deepest roots
of a thousand-year-old oak
amid thunder, lightning – storm and rain. –
Come, now, and play the flute!
It will guide us on the dread path.
PAMINA and TAMINO
We walk, by the power of music,
in joy through death’s dark night.]
German and English librettos of The Magic Flute can be found at: http://www.murashev.com/opera/Die_Zauberflöte. The Royal Opera House production of Die Zauberflöte (Directed by Sir Colin Davis, performances by Simon Keenlyside, Dorothea Röschmann, Will Hartmann, Diana Damrau, and Franz-Josef Selig. BBC, 2003) is beautifully done and well worth viewing. I’ve often wondered about why Mozart and Schikaneder chose The Magic Flute to be the name of the opera since this object appears so infrequently in the work. Its creation story, I think, provides insight into how we can read it: carved from an oak tree during a frightening storm, the magic flute could potentially serve as a metaphor for the beauty that can be wrought out of chaos and destruction. In this passage its appearance complements the willingness of Pamina and Tamino to be present for each other in their shared trials, thereby proving their love for each other and making both worthy to be initiated into the temple and ascend toward the divine.
4 A notable passage from The Magic Flute expressing this idea is the duet sung by Pamina and Papageno. The German reads:
Die Lieb’ versüßet jede Plage,
ihr opfert jede Kreatur.
Sie würzet uns’re Lebenstage,
sie wirkt im Kreise der Natur.
Ihr hoher Zweck zeigt deutlich an:
nichts Edler’s sei, als Weib und Mann.
Mann und Weib, und Weib und Mann,
reichen an die Gottheit an.
The English translation:
Love sweetens every trouble;
all creatures sacrifice to her.
She seasons our daily lives
and helps Nature’s wheels go round.
Her higher purpose is our guide,
and nothing is nobler than Wife and Man.
Man and Wife, and Wife and Man,