On the final Sunday of our 2003 trip to the Czech Republic, my partner, Michael, and I were strolling along one of Prague?s cobblestone streets when we saw a hand-lettered sign on a cathedral door. We?d studied enough pages in our guidebook to decipher the words: A local choir would be performing during that morning?s services. Michael looked at me, and I nodded. While neither of us is particularly religious, we decided to change that morning?s plans and attend the concert. The music, we thought, might prove a memorable and soothing end to our trip.
To that point our days in Prague had been anything but relaxing. Although I?d tried to have a good time, I could only focus on events from the recent past. My entire autumn had been spent in Kansas, caring for my mother during the final days of her life. Since the funeral I?d felt numb with guilt for choosing to go forward with our trip. Weren?t there still important things to do at home? Michael had tried to console me by reminding me of my mother?s words just weeks before. ?You are not canceling your vacation,? she?d insisted. ?After you come back I expect to see all the pictures you?re going to take.?
Indeed, I?d been taking hundreds of pictures I knew my mother would have loved. Given her interest in art and architecture, I?m certain she would have closely examined my photos of Prague Castle: in sunshine, with its oddly harmonious Gothic and Renaissance styles, or at night, towering its bronze spires above the city. In addition, she would have praised the city?s gleaming, streamlined metro stations. She would have marveled at the Dancing House, (alternatively known as ?Fred and Ginger?), the downtown office building designed by Frank Gehry and Vladimir Milunic with twisted towers that seemingly dance.
Michael and I entered the cold cathedral, took our seats in the stiff-backed pews, and listened as the choir started its first hymn. But I couldn?t concentrate on the music. Even in the crowded space, with the Czech parishioners and my boyfriend so close beside me, I felt completely alone. The stark vaulted ceilings and antiseptic odors made me dizzy and nauseous. I thought about the hospital room back in Kansas. I thought about my mother, so frail in her bed, struggling to smile while I held her hand. I shouldn?t have come, I told myself. It?s just too soon after her death.
As the hymns continued, sweat began dripping from my face, and my heart was pounding faster. Perhaps I was having a panic attack. I was shaking now, fighting the urge to weep. I had to leave, to hurry out of the church. And then, at the height of my discomfort, a curious thing happened: An elderly woman, previously unnoticed at the end of the pew, reached across the space and took my hand.
The woman was tiny, bundled in drab clothes, her hair knotted behind a gray scarf. She smiled and slid nearer, nodding as though she somehow knew the events of my recent past. For a while we looked into each other?s faces. Her eyes were green, like my mother?s. I stared, then turned away, focusing on the choir?s harmonies until my breathing began to steady. Even as I grew calmer, the Czech woman would not release my hand. She waited throughout the remaining songs, her fingers intertwined with mine, until the music ended and I felt safe.
Once again, I am not a religious person. That elderly woman who took my hand in that chilly Prague cathedral was not one of heaven?s angels. Neither do I think that the spirit of my mother had overtaken her. I know only that for that brief, peculiar interval of time, I?d felt peace from recent events. The woman had released me from my panic and grief, delivered me past the boundaries of geography and language. I wish I?d had time to thank her, perhaps even to take a photograph to accompany all my others from our trip. But the hymns from the choir had ceased. The smiling woman had stood, looked back to me one last time, and slowly stepped away from the pew.
Scott Heim is the author of the novels Mysterious Skin and the recently released We Disappear.