Category Archives: music

Grief Songs

When my mother was dying, I listened to Patsy Cline. “Crazy.” I Fall to Pieces.” Sweet Dreams.” Her songs set the soundtrack to my grief. I listened to them when I wrote in a D.C. apartment I shared with two Scripps Howard interns.  At the time, my mother was not yet dead. So my grief was anticipatory. But we didn’t have that concept back then. Anticipatory grief.  I had no language to orient me. I kept silent.

Patsy’s songs vocalized what I could not say. She sang of lost loves and unrequited loves and vanished dreams. She sang of desire and brokenness. She sang of memory’s cohering power.

Patsy didn’t write her songs. But she made them her own. When she sang them, she sounded like she was on the verge of weeping. The word I’d use now to describe her sound is mournful. Her voice ached, and that ache mirrored the pain pulsing in my own heart, a pain I could barely acknowledge as true.

I’ve always found it difficult to listen to music when I am grieving. So many songs and artists have felt like an affront to my sorrow, or like betrayal. But Patsy’s music feels like an affirmation, like I have permission to be happy and sad in the same breath. She relieves my guilt. She assures me I am not alone. She reminds me we all have something to mourn.

I now live a few blocks from an apartment where Patsy lived with her first husband, the one from whom she acquired the Cline name. I have walked the same streets she walked. I have seen the same architecture, the same trees.

I find it strange to think of myself sharing a literal path with her, even if her music has accompanied me on the path I’ve walked alone for fifteen years, a path that started when my mother began to die.

We often think of death as an event, and sometimes it is. A terrible accident or crime. But death can also be a process that takes years or days or months to culminate. In my mother’s case, we had three months from when her kidneys began to fail until she died. Three months where neither of us said the word dying. If we spoke it aloud, we would make it true. Also, the word dying felt false.

Because even as she experienced deadly organ failure, my mother was alive. She was living in the same ways she’d lived most of her adult life, although restricted by dialysis and insulin dependence.

She woke up each morning and made her Dunkin Donuts coffee. She watched “Good Morning America” and read The Baltimore Sun. She clipped Susan Reimer columns for me. She called her mother. She called me.

She listened to me complain about the roommates who didn’t like me for reasons neither of us could discern. She supported me in my refusal to date an extremely nice boy. How could I develop a relationship with someone else when she occupied so much of my attention? What was the point of loving someone new as I stood on the edge of losing the one person I loved more than anyone? I never voiced these questions to her. They languished in the silence between us.

When I visited her, we watched “The Golden Girls,” and she cooked for me. She baked me cookies from a Pillsbury roll. She made vegetable soup from a box mix, then sent me home with a Tupperware container full of dinners for the week. She took care of me, even as I began taking care of her.

In the midst of all this normalcy, it was easy to pretend things were normal, to pretend appearances could equate with experience.

In suburbia, where I was raised, normalcy is an aspiration. So is being okay. In the worst moments of her life, my mother clung hard to these myths of normalcy and okayness. And I affirmed them by staying silent.

I knew how to perform normalcy. I did not yet know how to mourn.

***

I visited Patsy Cline’s house in Winchester, Virginia recently. This was the first trip I took after losing a pregnancy that came after two years of waiting for my body to be able to sustain conception. I am not exaggerating when I say I wanted this baby as much as I have wanted to resurrect my mother. I am surprised by how much I want, how wanting compresses me, constricts me.

Mourning, too, is a kind of wanting.

I am mourning what I’d thought of as a baby growing inside of me, even though doctors used different words. Embryo. Fetus.

I am mourning the baby I wanted, and who did not come to be.

I am mourning the baby I want and might not ever have.

***

I find myself listening to Patsy’s songs each morning before I start my day. She sings me into my sadness, the way she did when my mother began to die.

So many people ask me, “How are you?” Or they send me texts like, “Are you feeling better?”

And I feel pressured to give the answers I suspect others want for their own relief. Fine. Yes.

But Patsy lets me be.

It is hard to tell the truth when we are grieving. And this makes me feel more alone, the pressure to perform normalcy.

The truth is I am sadder than I’ve been in a long time. The truth is grief has no finish line. The truth is grief is the shadow side of love.

Grief is what we inherit as a consequence of our love. It is proof of how powerfully we have loved.

This is why so many love songs are really about loss. This is why Patsy always sounds like she’s about to weep. She understands grief and love as separate sides of the same brilliant coin.

I listen to her at night now too, the same way I did years ago when I could not yet acknowledge my grief.

Now I let her sing me to sleep. I let her remind me of how terrible and beautiful our sorrow can be.

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Paul Simon & the Mother-Child Reunion

At 12, I listened to The Concert in Central Park with my mother, cassette wheels spinning in rhythm to snow falling outside. We sang all winter: “Mrs. Robinson,” “America,” “Homeward Bound,” and “The Boxer’s” lie-la-lie chorus. She could never carry a tune, but sang because she loved Simon & Garfunkel, and I loved them because she did. I didn’t know The Concert in Central Park happened the year I was born or that Simon & Garfunkel were no longer a duo. I didn’t understand most of the playlist, but I loved the songs’ mama-pajama beat and their mystery.

Years later, before she died, my mother and I fought about music. I was 20 and home for a weekend and listening to a mix CD one of my roommates made. Who Stopped the Rain came on and my mother said, “That’s my music. I can’t believe you’re listening to my music.” She was remarking on how strange and beautiful it can be when children adopt the best interests of their parents, but I didn’t want to be likened to her. I wanted to be different. I wanted to be my own person, not a copy of my mother, not her life repeated, and I didn’t understand how she was really complimenting me.

I was angry in a way I’d never been before or since. I knew she was dying —I’d made her death real by writing it down in my journal. By giving what was happening to us a name, I sanctified her death with power. No one ever needed to say the word death because I already knew she might not see me graduate college. I already knew she would definitely not see me marry. I already knew she would never know a grandchild. She was still alive, wouldn’t be dead for another year, but I was grieving the mother who was going to die. My grief came out in anger. It came out in fights with her about inane things like her music and my music. It came out in me lying: The cigarettes weren’t mine. The beer bottle caps in the back of my car belonged to someone else. It came out in the only socially acceptable culturally conditioned way I knew, as one woman turning against another.

The summer before, we’d had Dylan tickets, but she was too sick to go. So I went without her, already resenting the many more places I’d have to go without her, a life full of her absence and my presence. I was enraged because she was leaving me, and enraged because I wanted her to leave, which was a thousand times worse than her leaving. To this day, I wish I’d just smiled and sung along with her to CCR, the way we used to when I was a tween, the way we sang to Simon & Garfunkel.

Last week, I saw Paul Simon at Wolf Trap. I danced the whole time with my husband, a man my mother never knew, a man who loves Paul Simon and Dylan, and is my husband nonetheless. The concert overflowed with energy and summer abandon. People danced all over the lawn. We danced from the first song, The Boy in the Bubble, to the last one, The Sound of Silence. We danced in the rain, our umbrellas bobbing to the beat. We danced as the sky blazed red and purple and lightning sizzled beyond the trees.

No question, I thought about my mother. How could I not? I love Paul Simon because his songs entwine life with death, joy with loss, and make plain how each amplifies the other. I know I live with more vigor and vivaciousness because my mother died, because I know how starkly short a life can be. The Wolf Trap performance was the last leg of Paul Simon’s 2016 Tour, a tour that could be his last. I think he gave it everything he had. There was a moment when I looked at the stage, directly into his line of vision, and felt as if his exuberance flowed into the crowd and our exuberance flowed back onto the stage, uplifted him, just as he uplifted us.

I knew I’d have seen this concert with my mother, had she lived. I know that last clause holds all my life’s desires in three words. Had she lived. My mother is dead —her ashes, scattered in the Chesapeake Bay, swam away from me long ago. She was not at my wedding. She does not know her grandchildren. But she is also alive in the same way Paul Simon’s music will be alive long after his last concert.

Her exuberance lives in the music I love, the music we sang and fought about. Her love for me lives in the choices I make each day to be honest and to steer clear of destruction. I do not believe in clear categories of afterlife, but I do believe I am the full sum of my mother’s life. I am everything that eclipses her death. My life, the life I live without her, unfolds in rhythm to all she showed me, and her hope runs beside me, as constant as a heartbeat, as steady as breath.