Chapter 6 | The Slap

Updated: Jan 22



The songwriting legend, Paul Williams, once said you get to keep the miracle of recovery when you give it away. It was December 25th, 2018, and I was listening to him on a podcast. For over six years, I'd obsessed over getting my singing voice back. I’d seen every doctor, agreed to every procedure and spent a King’s ransom to find a solution. I felt like a fool. But I couldn’t stop chasing the dream of my five-year-old self. I am a singer! But if that was true, why had I deleted every recording, trashed every CD, and shredded everything documenting my old voice just two days prior? Is that what he meant? I wondered if I was still a singer after all.


It was March 2013, Winnipeg, and I was too embarrassed to warm up at the fancy hotel. Instead, I rented a practice room down the street because I didn't want the other soloists to hear me before our Mozart Requiem rehearsal with the Symphony. Not a good sign. I’d officially felt off about my voice since May 2012 when, in a rehearsal, it suddenly flipped off a note mid-aria. The effort of singing effortlessly should feel like you’re scooping up an emotion and pouring it out with your sound. For a brief moment, that scoop was empty. By the time I tried to sing again, somehow, I scooped and poured out the sound exactly as I’d practiced. You were just distracted. I wonder now if it’d had anything to do with a memorial I’d attended in Winnipeg a few weeks prior, and a visit with my mother.


At the time, my mother lived in a noisy, downtown hospital. “Don’t send her nice things,” the nurse had said, “They’ll only get stolen.” My mother’s sketchy living situation started in October 2011 when she fell. It was probably a hip fracture. Within three weeks her hip injury had reduced her to a number on a waiting list for a spot in a dementia ward because her level of care had increased beyond what her home could provide. Officially, she was homeless. At the time, I was in town for a production of Salome with Manitoba Opera. In between rehearsals, I packed her life into bags. Some to donate, others to store and the rest to trash. I was furious. I was there to sing. Instead, I slammed drawers and stuffed jewelry into grocery bags. I had to release my raging fear so I pounded the furniture to ensure I didn’t bring it to rehearsals. I couldn’t afford to lose my job. I wasn’t helping my mother either. Each way I looked I was failing.


My mother could no longer speak normally. She had trouble swallowing and controlling her temper. On the next visit in spring 2012, between garbling and saying yes or no, suddenly she tilted her head and slapped me across the face so hard I nearly fell out of my chair. I froze. I sucked back my tears while she babbled on like nothing had happened. I wrote The Slap on my calendar to recount the visit like it was the title of a play I’d seen and wanted to remember. I perceived it as a scolding from my mother, even though I now know she was mentally incapable of expressing herself.



On Christmas eve, 2012, I was told that my mother would finally be transferred to a dementia ward. I was flooded with relief for both of us. But, the anxiety around my invisible vocal dilemma only continued to build. By the time the Mozart Requiem came around in March 2013, I found myself hiding in a practice room across the street from the concert hall. Sometimes, my voice felt perfectly fine. And sometimes, my tongue jammed itself in the back of my throat mid-phrase. There was no rhyme or reason to it all. A responsible singer would have pulled out of the gig. Instead, I held on tight to the good notes, tiptoed around the notes that threatened my career, and marched across the street to my dress rehearsal like I owned the sidewalk.


On the day of the performance, a man wearing a crisp suit came up to me backstage with a program in his hand, “I’ve never heard of you, you know.” I looked at him with wide eyes and a rectangular grin, “Well, that makes two of us.” I laughed, but it chipped away at my already fragile sense of confidence. At the dress rehearsal the day before, the super-famous conductor, who was also a Dame of the British Empire, whipped her head in my direction when I started to sing. It felt like the slap. I walked out on stage and prayed my voice would behave. I had people in the audience who had watched me sing since I was four. I couldn’t let them down. It wasn’t a train wreck, but no one who knew anything about music would have hired me again after that performance. I’m sure if I asked the other soloists about it now, they wouldn't remember a single note that came out of my mouth. Typing this, however, my throat instantly tugs. It hasn’t forgotten a thing.



visit MarciaWhitehead.com