I was blind-sided by grace on Inauguration Day, January 20, 2021. I say grace because I don’t have a better word. It was unexpected. It was not earned. It was something I didn’t know I was missing until it came my way. And it was wonderful.
I didn’t have much expectation for the Covid-curtailed Inauguration. I wanted to witness Joe Biden taking the oath of office in view of the violent attempt to thwart that on January 6th. I didn’t care about the preliminary ceremonies. I went on my usual walk around the neighborhood and got home shortly before 11 o’clock St. Louis time.
Bill said, “You’re just in time.” Before the swearing in, Lady Gaga would sing the National Anthem. She came out in a black top with an enormous, poufy red skirt that started not at the waist but at her hips. A gold pin of a peace dove perched on her chest.
With the briefest lead-in by the U.S. Marine band, she started the familiar lyrics, “Oh, say, can you see? By the dawn’s early light…” She sang slowly, phrasing the lines to make them feel fresh.
When she landed on the words “through the perilous fight,” the scene of the rabble smashing through the windows and doors of the Capitol popped up unbidden.
Then she got to:
“And the rocket’s red glare,
the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night,
that our flag was still there.”
Lady Gaga turned and pointed to the flag-draped Capitol Building.
An earthquake of emotion rocked my body. My chest heaved. I couldn’t catch my breath between spasms of sobs. I couldn’t suppress my movements but I tried to do it quietly. I glanced at Bill’s side of the couch, tears blurring my vision. He was having a moment of his own.
Like every American, I have heard the Star-Spangled Banner a million times: at ballgames, at ballgames on TV, at outdoor concerts, even at the Symphony. The St. Louis Symphony starts the first concert of the season (or used to) by playing the Star-Spangled Banner. I always hoped someone in that nattily-dressed, demure crowd would yell “Play ball!”
I have more familiarity with the anthem’s music than most. As a kid, I chose the Star-Spangled Banner as the final flourish to my daily piano practice. Sometimes, I would sing, too. Every day, I felt a surge of pride to know of our country’s courage and triumph. It was also my way of letting Mom know that I was done.
Watching Lady Gaga, I was overwhelmed by a jumble of feelings. I felt catharsis – a release of emotion – that our country made it through, not just the insurrection, but the last four years of mayhem. We had dodged the bullet of another Trump term. Living under the threat of Covid for months and months intensified every emotion – including this one.
Then it hit me that our escape was so close! As a physician, I’ve had patients who walked away from car wrecks or some other near-death accident just to come into the office the next day in a complete meltdown. It finally dawned on them how narrowly they had avoided death.
The words of the Star-Spangled Banner took on a new meaning for me. They were relevant to this historical moment! To 2021. I wondered if this was the first situation when the words applied since Francis Scott Key wrote them during the British bombardment of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812.
But more than anything, I felt an elation, a melting of the heart. I am reminded of the scene in the movie Dr. Zhivago when the sun melts ice crystals on a window pane to reveal a field of daffodils outside.
Since coming to America from China as an eight-year-old more than six decades ago, I have never looked back. There have been periods in my life when I have been intensely interested in how our government and country were functioning. Other times, my focus had been on family, work and fun. All the time, I was – I AM – fiercely American.
Yet there were periods when I felt like our national anthem, that theme that symbolizes all of us, was not mine to hold. As protestors against the Vietnam War, we were branded as unpatriotic. Nothing was further from the truth. We only wanted America to live up to its own ideal, the one that we fought our revolution for: that people had a right to decide their own form of government. Including the Vietnamese.
I admire Colin Kaepernick and the athletes who took a knee during the national anthem. They were not disrespecting the flag. To the contrary, they wanted America to live up to its promise that all people are created equal. Trump and his followers have deployed our flag (so many, many of them) as a weapon against them.
It’s hard to explain being marginalized by society, although most of us, Trump supporters too, have felt the sting at one time or another. It’s being unfairly defined. It’s being told, “Accept these political/cultural/social views or you can’t be a full American.” This was especially fraught for me during the Vietnam era because of my Asian face. “Go back to where you came from,” some pro-War advocates said to me. I think of marginalization as the flip side of “privilege,” where a person is given the benefit of the doubt because they are, as I call Bill, “an old white guy.”
Through the years, without my awareness even, I’d built up a shell, a wall, against being treated as “less than.” A wall of ice around my heart.
Then, as Lady Gaga gave her full-throated rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner, I felt a seismic shift in my body. The shell that had encased my heart cracked and then disintegrated. My heart threatened to burst out of my chest. The emotion came out in heaves and sobs. It felt like my blood circulated more forcefully. Now, it feels like I can live a fuller, less encumbered, less guarded life.
They call it the transformative power of art, the arrow that targets emotion and not intellect. I think of it as grace. Unexpected, startling and welcome. I experienced the Star- Spangled Banner that wintry day as an invitation, a recognition, an embrace by my country. That day, the United States truly became for me “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Tell me: What are your memories of the Star-Spangled Banner?