I’m sitting in a metal chair, getting ready to sing Joseph Haydn’s lovely Saint Nicholas Mass with my community choir on the night the DC sniper is scheduled to die by lethal injection.
Staring at the knotty pine walls of our practice hall, I draw as much air into my tight lungs as I can hold just to support the series of vowels we sing at the start of each rehearsal. I try to remember to stretch the muscles of my face into an O, to make my mouth a hollow chamber so the sound can reverberate from it. As she directs us, Carol’s hands move very precisely. She curves her right fingers to urge more volume. Then she twists her wrist into a sharp cut off. I exhale with a little puff.
A huge clock hangs on the bare wall. It’s 7:45. I’ve always been terrified by executions, obsessed by the condemned man’s knowledge of what is about to happen, his powerlessness to prevent it. My imagination jumps to death row. I see myself in a cell there, feel my arms clench my knees to my breast as I rock back and forth, bleating on my bunk. I’ve never known how to calm this fear, to reassure myself that I’m a decent woman, a poet, in no danger of dying in prison.
I’ve heard that families of sniper John Muhammad’s targets will watch him die. At this moment, are they walking through the corridors of the Greenville Correctional Center in Virginia, some tight-lipped, some weeping for loved ones who had no chance to finish their lives? Muhammad’s ten victims died doing ordinary things like pumping gas or mowing the lawn. He trained his Bushmaster high-powered rifle on random people, pulled the trigger and cruised away in his Chevy Caprice. Then he consulted maps and worked out plans to do the same thing the next day.
What about his own family? Maybe his grown son, Lindbergh, has come to see him in the hours before the execution. What do you say at such a moment, in a small room, with the relentless noise of the prison clamoring around you? Is Muhammad telling his son not to do as he has done, or is the father just making small jokes to cover the minutes they have together until his son must leave? Before he goes, I imagine the young man grasps his father’s shoulder, feels its warmth beneath the slippery scrubs.
Stretching my legs out, I look up at Carol. “Let’s work on the Haydn,” she says. We stir in our chairs and open the Mass. I flip through the score, full of joyful music. Although I don’t yet have a feel for the dramatic structure of the piece as a whole, I’m beginning to understand where Haydn speeds it up and where he slows it down—and why. I glance at the end of the Credo, admiring the way Papa Haydn handles this central statement of belief. After about a minute of rapid amens, the movement ends quickly on two simple chords. The music doesn’t fade into the distance. It ends strongly, confidently, a testament to Haydn’s sure faith.
“Sit up tall,” says Carol, tensed to begin. “The body is your instrument. You can’t sing with it slumped over.” A singer herself, she knows. I uncross my legs and hold my music out in front of me so I can see it. But my mind wanders. I think of John Muhammad standing in his concrete cell, in his orange jumpsuit. They have to check to be sure he has plump veins so the poisons will go into his body quickly. Does he flex his muscles to show the technicians his best vein? If it were me in that cell, I would jerk my arm away, slide down the walls, crouch in the corner, and claw my face bloody.
We start with the Kyrie, Lord have mercy. Haydn gave it a dance-like tempo, but Carol rehearses us slowly, meticulously going over every single note until we tune across the entire choir. We sing the same phrases again and again until we get them right. I reach for the high A, even though it’s a little out of my range, and try to pitch my voice so I come down right on the F sharp in measure forty-five. I sound slightly sour. I remember when I first joined the group twenty years ago, how I hadn’t sung since tenth grade, how I was always a beat behind the others, who kindly didn’t point out my mistakes. When we perform this music, I think, I’ll let the first sopranos take that high A. I can hear them now, many of them trained musicians, singing strong and sure in the row behind me.
I look at the clock again: 8:26. Sometimes the condemned man takes a final shower, to help keep the IV sites sterile, I guess, in case he gets a last minute stay of execution. I wonder how John Muhammad feels in his naked body for the last time. Is it sexual? Or is he just numb? I don’t see how I could even stand up in the stall.
Although he joined the Nation of Islam as a young man, Muhammad probably hasn’t asked for an imam to meet him in the holding room and walk with him to the execution chamber. He’s a hard man. During his killing campaign, he and the seventeen-year-old kid he had with him sniped from the specially-made hole in his trunk, shattering brains all over the parking lots of Home Depots and shopping malls. In the car, they had a list of schools in the Baltimore area. Near one of the murders, police found a note in a Halloween plastic bag, saying “Your children are not safe anywhere at any time.”
What does it even mean to be safe if we all die? Walking, shackled, one last mile down a green cinder block corridor, he is alone and surrounded by people who intend to kill him. Surely he is frightened. The lethal drugs are supposed to obliterate your consciousness, then shut down your breathing and stop your heart. But if these drugs don’t work correctly or fast enough you can suffocate slowly, fully conscious for a while.
We are at the fugue at the end of the Gloria. I love the way the basses introduce a theme and then each of the other three voice parts takes it up, one by one. It reminds me of children chasing each other across a park until they all collapse in a heap, laughing. My voice is warming up and we are only singing the word amen, easy enough to remember. However, I stumble when I have to sing a string of notes on a single syllable. There are so many notes in a row and I have to sing them so fast I can’t possibly look at every one, so I just glance at the first in each clutch and guess at the sequence, hoping it goes up.
At 8:48 a tenor quietly starts the solo in the Credo: passus et sepultus est, he died and was buried. The bass soloist joins him, echoing sepultus est very slowly in his lowest register. I see John Muhammad’s grave, dug deep in red earth. Then with my voice finally strengthened by the night’s singing, I join the whole chorale in a triumphantly fast resurrexit tertia die, he arose again on the third day. Here, in the Latin of my Catholic childhood, is the core belief: Christ died for our sins and rose again with the promise of salvation. Carol once told us to sing these words with our whole hearts whether we believed them or not. I don’t know if I believe them; perhaps I don’t. The story of the resurrection can seem like a fantasy. But tonight, with my mind flooded with the vision of John Muhammad’s unwilling death, the music gives these words an urgency I can’t deny. Resurrexit, to rise again. Maybe tonight won’t be the absolute end for Muhammad. I find myself wanting him to be redeemed, to be made whole in the sight of the Lord.
They are bringing him into the death chamber. Blood pounds in his forearms. He blinks against the hard florescent lights. He steps up onto the gurney, bending his knee under his thigh, and turns around to look towards the audience before the curtain is drawn between him and the witnesses. The lethal needle feels cold as it punctures his vein. He closes his eyes. Blackout slams his brain. His lungs start to lock.
As 9:00 P.M. comes, I stop looking at the clock. I hang on to the music for dear life, lose myself in it. Carol asks us to stand up and sing through the entire Credo. She gives us every cue as we pass the sound around our circle in that plain room. Standing between two basses, I miss having other sopranos near, but rely on my own body as the notes rise on a round column of air. I sing the soaring allegro and the ancient words: in remissionem peccatorum, for the forgiveness of sins. My sins and his sins—will they be forgiven? If I just keep singing, the terrible moments will pass when the lungs and heart of a vital forty-eight-year-old man are stung to death by drugs, when life goes out of his body and leaves it empty. If I can just hang on to the inexorable rhythm of the music, those moments will pass. We sing as a chorus, for some measures in unison: Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum, to expect resurrection from the dead. For him, perhaps and perhaps for me. He dies as I ride the music, singing the triumphant soprano line: Et vitam venturi saeculi, and the life of the world to come.