[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.