I wonder what song will make my kids think of their mom after I’m gone.
Not even gone gone, just not in their daily lives anymore. When they’re grown and off to who knows where, what familiar yet distant strains of which random tune will come on in the grocery store and call me to mind, the way “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” instantly conjures up my mother, her permed hair framing her smiling face singing to me in the wallpapered kitchen of my childhood home.
I’ll be fine when you’re gone
I’ll just cry all night long
Say it isn’t true and
Don’t it make my brown eyes blue
My mind is a twisted mess of lyrics and people, and if someone laid them out in two columns, songs on the left and faces on the right, I could draw lines connecting them faster than my third-grader connects continent names to their land shapes on his social studies worksheets.
The magical thing is that they’re mostly hidden; I don’t make the connection until I’m driving home after dropping off the kids at school and “Fade Into You” comes on the radio. Then suddenly within the song by Mazzy Star there’s Amy, with her golden locks and gorgeous smile, from a friendship that was once so intense and all-encompassing I’m pretty sure we were closer to each other for a time than we were to our spouses.
I want to hold the hand inside you
I want to take a breath that’s true
I look to you and I see nothing
I look to you to see the truth
“Fade Into You” plays and I remember Amy and I sharing sordid secrets, boozy late-night talks around countless bonfires, road trips and sailing excursions and football games and baseball games and theater performances. Amy holding my hand while I wait in the ER in the wee hours of Jan. 1 for an X-ray on my separated shoulder, a crazy end to an epic New Year’s party. Me holding Amy’s hand a couple years later as she lies in a hospital bed, her eyes watering through another contraction. “Just breathe … you’re doing great … he’s almost here …”
I get home and send Amy a message, telling her of the song I just heard on the radio and how it had her face in the notes, and later I wonder whether my face is in any notes for other people. I wonder if there are songs they remember me liking, or songs that played when we were together, or songs whose lyrics somehow match the time we shared.
For some I bet it’s a band. I can see my friend Shawn’s face in a mental collage of parties and bars over the years from our college friendship and well beyond, whenever the first notes of “Black Dog” or “Ramble On” or “Traveling Riverside Blues” hit the room and he scans the crowd and points at me. “ZEPPELIIIIIINNNN!” he yells in a way only Shawn can, dancing toward me, swinging me around, his Zep buddy for life. I hope these days when he’s driving to work listening to some classic rock Pandora station and Robert Plant’s high-pitched wail bleats through the speakers, my smile is there with it.
And if you promised you’d love so completely
And you said you would always be true
You swore that you never would leave me, baby
Whatever happened to you?
When I pick up the boys from school Evan hands me a piece of paper. On it he has scrawled two song titles: “Beat It” and “The Final Countdown.” I smile. “This is for the ride,” he says. Their music teacher is always introducing them to new songs, which are old songs, and so we queue them up on the way to and from school and they marvel in the backseat at how I already know the lyrics to songs they just learned.
We’re leaving together,
But still it’s farewell
And maybe we’ll come back
To earth, who can tell?
I guess there is no one to blame
We’re leaving ground (leaving ground)
Will things ever be the same agaaaain?
I beat on the steering wheel and belt out the chorus to a song I never liked but right now sort of love, because this time it’s different, this time it’s ours. And then it occurs to me how possible it is that someday this could be the song. “The Final Countdown” could be the thing that brings me to mind, dear god, and for a moment I freeze, no please not this song, not something as cheesy as Europe’s poor excuse for a Space Oddity.
But we don’t choose these things, do we. It’s completely up to the way a random moment gets wedged into our memories, the way our subconscious finds a connection to a string of notes or lyrics that just feel like someone we love. Or lost. Or miss.
There are so many people I have loved and so many I miss, in so many ways. They are in “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Respect” and “Tangled Up In Blue” and “You’re My Best Friend” and “Take Five” and “Budapest” and “The Greatest Sum.” They’re in “Get It Together” and “My Backwards Walk” and “The Beauty of Gray” and “Two Princes” and “The Aspidistra Flies” and “The Search Is Over” and “Joy To You Baby” and so many more. They are embedded in The Wall and Soulrocker and New Jersey and Everything Now and Nebraska and in the soundtracks to Pulp Fiction and Singles.
They live inside the music of Sting and U2 and The Killers and Garth Brooks and Billy Joel and Uncle Tupelo and Muse and Edith Piaf and Bruce Springsteen and Kenny Rogers and Peter, Paul & Mary and on and on and on, and they will be in those singers’ hooks long past the day I’m not around anymore to hear them. Music is bigger and louder and stronger and longer than any of us, and it bears far more than we know how to hold and express on our own, thank god. All I can do is keep listening and, when someone’s face appears, smile at them, sing to them, send an intention of love and light in their direction and, whenever possible, reach out and tell them, like I did with Amy, that I see their face in the notes.
I bet that, too, is a nice thing to hear.
A few days after “The Final Countdown” car ride, Kostyn and Evan start up a dance party in the living room after dinner. They don’t go for Europe, much to my relief, instead opting for the not-much-better “Cotton-Eye Joe,” a ’90s remix of a folk classic. They pull me in and teach me the line dance they’ve learned to the song, and we tap, tap, tap our feet and spin to the left, spin to the right.
If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe
I’d been married a long time ago
Where did you come from,
where did you go,
Where did you come from Cotton-Eye Joe?
It takes a few times for me to get it right, but that’s because part of me has pulled away and is standing off to the side of that makeshift dance floor marveling at how they’re choreographing the dance parties now, quite literally, instead of the other way around.
Our dance parties used to be carefully choreographed by me. Not the moves, but the timing, the setting, the props. I’d break open a bunch of glow sticks, get the kitchen and living room cleaned up, turn off all the lights. In the early months of separation, of two homes and split time, I was desperate to build traditions and make memories they’d remember as fun and happy. I wanted to give them the feeling of wholeness when we were all a little broken.
And man, it always worked. Jumping and spinning, they’d fly into my arms, first taking turns and then challenging me to hold them both, my arms and back and core straining to “Jump In the Line (Shake, Senora),” the dog repeatedly darting out of the way.
After we master the moves to “Cotton-Eye Joe” they choose “Beat It,” and then I pick another MJ classic, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” Our moonwalks are sorely lacking but it doesn’t matter, we’re working up a sweat now as they queue up old dance party favorites like Maroon 5’s “Sugar“ and Eels’ “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Livin’).”
Have you ever sat down in the fresh-cut grass
And thought about the moment and when it will pass?
Hey man, now you’re really living
Now you’re really giving everything
And you’re really getting all you gave
Now you’re really living what
This life is all about
Eventually my attention is pulled back to the messy kitchen and dirty dishes, but they want to keep going. Kostyn is asking for a particular song but he doesn’t remember the words and I can’t place it based on his valiant attempt at speaking the beat. We try a few but he nixes them all, and my enthusiasm for the whole thing begins to sag.
“You used to play it when we were littler and we would dance. Before the last house we lived in.”
I search my memory for songs from their toddler days, before glow sticks and line dances. “’Thank God I’m a Country Boy’?”
“No, it’s a rock song. The guitar starts it like this – du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du…”
I squint at him, trying, searching, blank.
“That singer you love sings it too, with the band,” he says.
Singer I love? A rock song. Du-du-du-du-du–
“‘The ’59 Sound’!” I yell triumphantly. I dash to my laptop and search for it. The guitar starts – du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du – and then a drumroll spills in and the bona fide rock song crashes through the tiny speakers on my desk.
“Yes! This is it!” he exclaims. I used to play a video of The Gaslight Anthem playing this song live, and in the clip the band introduces Bruce Springsteen to come onstage and play it with them. That singer I love. We perfected our air guitars to that video many moons ago.
“You guys were so little then. That was in Palmyra, so you were about 2 and 4,” I marvel. “I can’t believe you remember that.”
But they do, and I notice their air guitars are still in tune. I smile then, realizing for the first time that maybe my face is in these notes.
Well, I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go.
I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow.
When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms,
I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life.
‘Cause the chains I been hearing now for most of my life,
The chains I been hearing now for most of my life.
Did you hear the ’59 Sound coming through on grandmother’s radio?
Did you hear the rattling chains in the hospital walls?
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over?
Did you hear your favorite song one last time?