Songs for the dying

January 7th, 2013 § 0 comments § permalink

[this post should have been published on December 16, 2012, but obviously it was not. My site was down and it’s only just (today!) back up again. The internet mystifies me to the point of staunch procrastination, even when all I need to do is email a couple of much savvier friends. Thanks, friends!]

Yesterday marked a year since my father died. The first anniversary is the worst. If you’re managing well, you’re afraid the anniversary will tear you apart again (and inevitably it chafes little). If you’re still mired in grief, the first anniversary draws attention to the slowness of the process; you worry that you’ll feel sad forever. If the day feels overly difficult, you’re exasperated with the endlessness of your longing; if you don’t feel much, you suspect your emotional centres have been irreparably damaged. The anticipation is almost worse than the actual event, which, as it turns out, is not an event at all. It’s just a day that you wish would go back to being just a day.

In keeping with my general quietude around celebrations and holidays, I don’t tend to mark death dates in any grand fashion (though I do usually spend the anniversary of my mom’s death with her next-oldest sister). I tend not to alert friends (though a few of mine seem to have recorded the date of my dad’s death in their calendars) and keep to myself (though I did go out and drink too many glasses of wine at a Christmas party on the evening of this first anniversary).

What came back to me in the general quietude of yesterday were the songs. I’ve mentioned before that my older brother and I spent much of my father’s last day playing CDs we found in the hospice library. Neither of us had thought to bring albums with us in the early morning rush out of the house, and why would we? Yet, when we arrived, one of the first things the nurse told us, after updating us on the circumstances, was that he could very likely still hear. I presume they tell you this so you feel less strange in pouring out all your last words and wishes, but we didn’t have much to say, and for a certain type of personality—the type my brother and I both are—speaking to an unresponsive conversation partner is difficult, dying or not. So, music seemed appropriate: distracting for us and potentially soothing for him. He had always liked music. Once upon a time he had played the accordion and, in my memory, the harmonica. He also hummed to the point of driving those around him to put on the most atonal music they could find. Luckily for us, humming was no longer an option.

Of all the Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra and Woody Guthrie we played that last afternoon, the song that’s stayed with me is “Islands in the Stream.” When the track came on, both my brother and I laughed out loud. It seemed so wildly inappropriate. We turned it off at the second chorus. It’s stuck with me, though. And now I can’t hear the song without tearing up (which is dangerous, since it’s played with some regularity on the satellite stations they pump into grocery stores).

So, yesterday I marked the anniversary by emailing my brothers a video of Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers performing “Islands in the Stream.”

Sure, there’s a lot of talk of lovers in the song and some brutal rhymes (“peace unknown… fine tooth comb”), but there are little glimpses of something else. Yes, we might be islands in the stream, but we rely on each other, uh huh. I can’t really explain it, but for some reason, I find the song soothing as much as heart-wrenching (or perhaps I find it heart-wrenching because it’s soothing). I think it’s this line, in particular: “No more will you cry, Baby, I will hurt you never. We start and end as one…” Or, maybe it’s just the reminder of the relief I felt to laugh with my brother that day. It might be an odd song to associate with your father’s end of life, but for me, he’s forever locked between Dolly and Kenny, which is perhaps not the worst afterlife one could imagine for a man who loved to hum.

That wasn’t the only song. In the weeks of waiting before he died, the song I listened to most on my walks to and from the hospice was Great Lake Swimmers’ “Changing Colours.” It is so eerily apt to the experience that I wonder if they wrote it for someone who was dying. The whole song is elegiac, but it was this line in particular that rolled around in my head: “Try not to think and I will try, too. And when you let go, I will let go, too.”

Another thing the nurse said to us that day is that the dying often need to be given permission to die, to give in, to stop struggling against the inevitable. I think I needed that too, from the moment I arrived. Not permission to die, but permission to let go of my yearning for our relationship to be something that it was not and would never be. I haven’t really lived up to the song. Not yet, and particularly not when I get caught watching an especially redemptive family drama, but, maybe someday. The letting go is aspirational, as is the idea that we can remain connected, even to the things or people we let go of.

On that last day, in the few moments I had alone with my dad, I played a bit of that song for him through the terrible speaker of my iPhone. I’m sure it tested the limits of the “he can hear” dictum, but I played it more for me, in any case.

My brother’s partner responded to my “Islands in the Stream” email with the song that’s stuck with her, a song I’d forgotten was a huge part of that day and the week leading up to it, a song so apt it’s almost a cliché: The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”

In the hospice where my dad died, a local musician volunteers once a week to play patients’ requests. In the week I arrived, we wheeled my dad out for his visit. We were the only audience. He ended his set for my father (which also included “Alice’s Restaurant”) with “Here Comes the Sun.” We all teared up, cliché or not.

It has been a long, cold, lonely winter and we’re now in the midst of another one (seasonally, at least), but, I guess you have to believe that the ice is melting, even when it still seems like the lake is one solid, frigid mass. You must have to believe that, or no one would live in Canada.

In listening to these songs again, I was also reminded of a song from the popular music class I took in my undergrad. The prof—whose name I can’t remember now, but he was a young, very cute sessional—played Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” and told us about how he’d listened to the song with his father as he was dying in the hospital. The entire lecture hall was riveted—particularly the heterosexual women and gay men, who were all misty-eyed. You could hear the collective breath leave the room at this line, “When you reached the part where the heartaches come, the hero would be me. But heroes often fail…” (Excuse the bad audio, but who could resist a ’70s era show called Burt Sugarman’s The Midnight Special.)

I love that the song admits failure and unresolved, unrequited love, since I suspect more deaths remain fixed in those kinds of patterns than end up in cathartic reconciliations. It seems one of the more honest songs to grieve to.

A lot of these songs are supposed to be love songs, but grief relationships are expressions of love, and so songs that deal in the complications of love can say a lot about how we try or fail to work through our grief.

I haven’t really asked questions on this blog, since I’m afraid it will only highlight a lack of readership—without interacting, I can pretend either no one or everyone is reading, depending on what kind of ego boost or protection I need—but I’ve been building various oddly themed playlists lately and this seems like the start of another one. I’m sure it’s not just me and my pop music prof who’ve shared songs with our dying fathers, so what songs have you played with or for loved ones as they were dying?

I’m more curious about the songs that came up in these moments and then stuck with you afterward, since, at least in my experience, these aren’t premeditated soundtracks, but instead come together through availability and happenstance. Of course, there may also be songs you’ve chosen for these moments, and these would be interesting too. However they come into it, songs can do strange things to grief: give it a shape you didn’t know it had, siphon off some of the feeling when it seems too much to bear, commiserate over the unfairness of human failing, or else just remind you how much you were irritated by someone’s habit of humming along.

But, have you heard of The Beachcombers?

July 5th, 2012 § 5 comments § permalink

I’m not a very good Canadian, whatever that might mean. I don’t really watch hockey; though I sometimes get caught up in the fever of the playoffs, I prefer the three-week commitment of the Tour de France, not to mention the scenery. I drink more imported than local beer. I’m tired of the snow after the first storm and I’m irked by what the veneer of multiculturalism allows us to ignore. On the other hand, I wake up to the CBC. I consume healthy quantities of maple syrup and I continue to read the Globe and Mail, such as it is after the unfortunate redesign that stripped out most of the content in favour of photo spreads featuring $100+ toques one can purchase at one’s local Holt Renfrew. So, although I don’t consider myself a particularly good Canadian, I am, perhaps, typical as far as Canadians go: content enough to live here, complain a bit, go to the doctor without fear of bankruptcy and paddle around in a canoe once a summer, though with dreams of relocating to California, if only for the avocados and temperate climate.

Since my relation to this nation seems a sort of an accidental, if filial, love, rather than passionate affair, I’m surprised, kind of appalled, and yet, admittedly, totally primed, when I travel and find myself inevitably slipping into the role of Canadian. I enjoy telling people what’s different (weirder, better, worse) about Canada: ketchup chips!, it’s not illegal to deface the flag!, healthcare!, the LCBO!. Even I think this is obnoxious. How can I presume to know what anyone else’s national experience is like compared to mine? How can I pretend to know what Canadians think or feel, what Canada is like? I’m no authority, and yet, there I go, explaining Coffee Crisp, the draconian structure of the LCBO, our (who is this “we” of which I speak?) relationship to the British monarchy and the concept of First Nations. Why should anyone care?

Apart from an anxious (and I’m sure somewhat disenchanting) tendency to try to fill blank spaces in conversations with things I think I know for sure, my insistence on parsing Canada to non-Canadians comes in part from my fascination with a system of identification that’s so naturalized and yet so arbitrary, so absurd. When I leave the land of beavers behind, I’m compelled to look at it, at my place in it, its place in me. I become conscious of my “ehs,” my tendency for self-effacement, my pronunciation of “about” (I still don’t really hear that one). Why should longitude or latitude or climate or population density or national media production influence how you present yourself to others, how you are perceived by others? And yet they do. One of these factors, or all of them, some strange thing we call Canada, or America, or Croatia, these national entities get under our skin and into our cells, quite literally shaping the way in which we place our tongue against our teeth to spit out vowel sounds. I find this compelling, I guess, particularly when it’s thrown into the relief of travel, and so I use my time away to measure the distance between myself and others, to find the places at which something called Canada sticks to me, the places at which it falls away, to try to identify the bits of nations clinging to the people I meet.

I’m sure not all Canadians seem so, well, Canadian when they travel. It’s a bit annoying. I’d rather be mysterious and alluring than a know-it-all nationalist. Alas, mystery was not my fate, at least not in terms of nationalism. I’m far too interested in it. In this, I suppose I’m a product of my nation, an anxious space obsessed with the idea that it might have no identity at all, and so a nation that overproduces itself in every outlet. This is, after all, the same country that created The Beachcombers.

Have you heard of The Beachcombers? For those of you who didn’t watch it on Sunday nights after Fraggle Rock, The Beachcombers was a show about two beachcombers, as the title would suggest. That’s right, it was a nationally broadcast television show about two rival log salvagers, two guys who zip around the Sunshine Coast in motor boats looking for the rogue logs that escape from logging booms in order to salvage and sell them. Of course, one is upstanding and honest (Nick) and the other (Relic) is shady and opportunistic. Of course they get into regular tiffs and even, occasionally, have to learn to work together. Of course the lead character is identified as Greek Canadian and of course the cast includes many First Nations actors who reinforce the idea that this town represents the ideal coastal hamlet, the ideal Canadian space in which we all just get along. Of course the show takes place in one of the most beautiful bits of natural landscape in Canada. The Beachcombers, perhaps even more than Kids in the Hall, more than Little Mosque on the Prairie, is quintessentially Canadian. It’s a show about community more than family and it’s about forming a community out of very little, almost nothing, it’s about forming a successful show out of very little, almost nothing.

The Beachcombers not only managed to remain on the air for 19 years, but was also wildly popular in this country. And so I can’t help myself but talk about it to an audience who inevitably hasn’t heard of it (though the show was syndicated in a number of different countries). The Beachcombers is too simultaneously bizarre and banal to have been made anywhere else, and, in a huge way, I’m proud to be from the country that produced it—I want The Beachcombers to be the thing people think about when they think about Canada: an absurd and yet earnest show that ran for season after season on an impossibly thin premise. I want to be from a Canada that is known for its weirdness, its attachment to mundane scenes, just because they’ve been collectively declared its own, its perpetual desire to laugh at its own attachments. That, and I’d like Canada to be celebrated for its bold insistence on the rationality of the metric system, even against the monumental pressure to succumb to the Imperialists to the south.

In fact, I think nationalism in general would be a better thing if it were exercised through a process of trying to one-up each other’s odd national habits, productions and attachments, preferably over beers. If every nation were identified by its most absurd cultural production, rather than it’s flag, anthem or national bird, the Olympics, at least, would be far less weepy and much more entertaining.

**If you’d like to participate in a moment of Canadian nostalgia and harbour a blind faith in the democratic process, you can sign the petition to CBC to return The Beachcombers to the airwaves, or at least to release it on DVD, which for me would provide some much needed proof that this show (and by extension perhaps also this country) really does exist.

I see dead people

April 18th, 2012 § 2 comments § permalink

It used to be that when someone died, a photograph would be taken of the corpse. Children and infants died with some regularity in those days, and parents would often commission a photograph as a memento, their only image of the child lost. In these portraits, a dead infant is posed in a cradle, held by their mother, or sometimes by an older sibling, and usually appears to be sleeping, if sleeping involved donning one’s Sunday best and clutching a bouquet of flowers.

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Not exactly okay

March 30th, 2012 § 5 comments § permalink

I haven’t been able to write in a long time. Well, that’s not entirely true. I’ve started and stopped sporadically, writing with urgency for a short time, staring into space, abandoning the urge. These pieces have so far not made it onto the blog. I’m not quite sure what they’re saying.

Things are not exactly okay with me, though they’re not exactly not okay either, if by saying, “not okay” I conjure visions of ledges and medical intervention. But, I’m not entirely okay. That’s just a fact of life for me right now. The last few months have been rough, raw, emotional, chaotic, without precedent and in the midst of all the shit just happening, it’s hard to know what to say, or, even how to say anything at all. In the sprawling feeling you get when your life shifts drastically, there are no edges to write up against. There is nothing by which to measure a feeling of okayness.

And yet, this is what those who care about me seem to need most of all. Out of my silence, they need reassurance that I am okay. This is the question, the desire: are you okay? You seem to be okay. I hope you’re okay… And, of course, I am okay, which is to say, I’m functional, getting out of bed, eating fairly regularly, exercising a little, appearing to the outside world as a capable human person. For me, so far, there has been no option outside of this kind of okay, though sometimes it seems like a little bit of crazy, a binge with the unhinged, an experiment with my life as a John Waters movie would be cathartic. Instead, for me, all that is not okay seeps into the unspoken: an inability to concentrate, a sense of humour worn through, chronic rumination over the loses that have come before, my unwillingness to tolerate banality, pettiness or superficiality, above all my need for vast tracts of empty space and time, long walks through winter suburbs.


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Embracing the silver vixen

October 25th, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

"Senior citizens find that Ulm, Minnesota is a good place to retire..." From the U.S. National Archives.

In the past year or so, my grey hair has gone from novelty to reality, from the odd rogue strand to a topic even new friends now feel it is appropriate to comment on: “Wow, you’re really young to have so much grey hair!” or the more considerate, “I really like that you have some grey in your hair!” In other words, “grey” is quickly becoming a definitive adjective in describing my hair colour.

None of this is particularly surprising in and of itself. My mother was leaning towards more grey than brown by her late 30s, like her sisters, and, as late-night slumber party whisperings declare, you inherit your hair woes or blessings from your mom. What’s more shocking, really, is the fact that I’m now beginning to look like a version of my mother that I actually remember.

I’ve had a pretty fraught relationship with my hair. My grandfather was a barber, so for years he cut my hair. Given that his barbering repertoire was developed in the 1950s and limited to men’s styles, this meant my hair was cut into a slightly longer version of the popular men’s bowl cut. In an era and neighbourhood in which young femininity was defined around bobbles and banana clips, the bowl cut did nothing for my sense of self. I was forced into a vague tomboy-dom that I didn’t have the moxie or athletic chops to really own. When I hit puberty, I finally convinced my father to let me get it cut at a real salon, but my hair betrayed me. Along with acne and growing pains, I developed an irregular curl-pattern that I battled valiantly (though according to remnant snapshots largely unsuccessfully) with a round brush and blowdryer. By my mid-teens, exasperated and inspired by Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, I hacked it all off, doused it in too much gel and began a spate of hair dyeing that would last into my 20s: orange, red (more fire engine than handsome shade of auburn), dark brown almost black, a regretful period of badly-striped highlights, finally followed by an acceptance of the mousey brown that so many tow-headed kids grow into. After eking out some sort of truce in this decades-long battle (though I’ve yet to make peace with my hair’s odd curliness), I can’t quite fathom the fact that it is changing on me again and I don’t know how to respond. » Read the rest of this entry «

The coming jellyfish invasion

October 22nd, 2011 § 1 comment § permalink

You may have heard: in recent years, the coast of Japan has witnessed unprecedented blooms of jellyfish. Nomura’s jellies, to be precise. Massive, flesh-coloured hoods with dense tangles of scalloped orange and blood-coloured tentacles trailing behind, they can grow up to two metres across and can weigh more than 450 pounds (which is more than a lion, if you’re keeping score). Each bloom produces immeasurable swarms, gelatinous masses slowly drifting into the Sea of Japan from unknown points of origin suspected to be located in the oceans off China and Korea.

Fishermen are frustrated. If their nets don’t break, they bring up massive hauls of gelatinous ooze and stinging threads instead of anchovies, salmon or yellowtail. Any fish they do catch are crushed to death or poisoned with venom. Some now drag razor-wire nets through the sea, slicing through the coagulation of jelly-bodies, but this just creates a viscous soup that’s no more amenable to fishing. Besides that, there’s a theory that trauma might cause jellies to release their ova and sperm, so the slice’n’dice approach might be seeding an even greater future invasion (if a drifting collection of bodies can constitute an invasion).

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Hold your tongue

September 16th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

It’s not something I’ve been doing intentionally, though my long silence on this blog might suggest otherwise. No, the dearth of posts is due to other factors: workload, bike rides, moving across the continent. But, particularly being in a (perpetual) “proto-career” phase in my life, whether or not I should open my mouth is something I’ve spent some time thinking about. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I want to start using this space to bad mouth all the people who might one day employ me (those could never employ me are another story…). But, as anyone still very far from a seemingly ungraspable career will know, opening your mouth can be a dangerous thing and opening your mouth into the archival void of the internet is more risky still.

No matter what field you’re in, there are bloggers, career counselors and outspoken dentists to warn you against saying the wrong thing in any kind of public forum. You will pigeon-hole yourself, they caution, give people a false sense that they know you and a propensity to be disappointed when your real-life self doesn’t live up to the persona they’ve imagined for you. Worst, you might offend someone in a position of power—the online equivalent to inadvertently sleeping with the boss’s beautiful robot daughter. And yet, this same cadre of folks is just as likely to encourage you to start a blog (well, perhaps not your condescending dentist). As I’ve said before, an online presence is increasingly seen to be a part of one’s marketable package of distinguishing characteristics, both on the job market and in life. The advice then seems to be: say something, say it well, but beware! Presumably one is supposed to anticipate and avoid those tracks of thought that might intimidate, offend or otherwise give the wrong impression. Don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to the face of a curious Googler, or your mother, I suppose. » Read the rest of this entry «