Song of Life
When my sweetheart Joanne finally came to the end of her 10 years living with cancer and moved towards her death, I was astonished to discover that I was ready. Not ready like I wanted it to be happening, but ready like I knew I’d find my way through. I’d allow my grief, even be grateful for it because it was a direct result of how much I loved her. I’d learn something about myself and what I was made of because I knew, after ten years of facing cancer with her, that only learning from my deeply difficult experiences made them livable for me. And then, there would be the memories.
I met Joanne when I was sixteen and she was involved with an unconventional school several of my friends were attending. She wasn’t much older than me and we became friends. This early time is associated with two songs, widely different yet for me, connected. The first is We Are Family, by Sly and the Family Stone. I remember singing out loud, dancing full on and somehow connecting her in my heart with this sense of family even before we knew each other well. The second, even more prescient, is Sisters of Mercy, by Leonard Cohen. We both sang it, at this early time in our relationship and all the way through, past the end of her life (because it is still a song I revisit often).
"They brought me their comfort
And later they brought me this song
Oh I hope you run into them
You who’ve been traveling so long"
We sang it to each other, to our friends, to our community. In a sense, it set the course for our time together on this earth; we would be sisters of mercy to each other regardless of what things looked like at the moment.
Through all the ups and downs, friends or lovers or spouses, we maintained this quiet attitude towards each other, this merciful countenance towards each other. Or I could say, we gave each other the benefit of the doubt, we trusted each other, even when we had reason not to. This was the essential character of our life together.
Maybe that’s why when she was a few years into her illness and insisted (quietly, but still, insisted) we should have another child, I found it hard to discard the idea. It persisted and grew a life of it’s own, despite my serious attempt to ignore it (because I didn’t consider myself crazy enough to willingly live with a dying wife, a teenager and a BABY). But finally, this undeniable knock on the door of my soul resulted in a most miraculous happening when, just as I was coming to terms with the fact that I felt the same as she did, a baby needed a home. The young woman who had given her life wanted us to parent her.
And so, the songs turned to lullabies for this precious little baby who somehow found her way to us. Some were what we’d learned over the years, like the beautiful African chant Nita Kumta Na Na, a soothing cadence filled with love even though we didn’t know what the words meant. And there was the little song we made up,
"Let’s get cozy in the bed, cozy in the bed
cozy in the bed that’s what the pumpkin said
cozy in the bed, lay down your little head
cozy in the bed that’s what the pumpkin said!”
I wrote a song for her older sister around then called May You Be Blessed as I struggled to find ways to support her with all that was happening; Joanne’s illness and the sudden death of her father.
Then there were the songs that were for us alone, like Tuck and Patti’s You Take My Breath Away or Heaven Down Here. I still sing those songs, with added meaning because I have been blessed to love deeply again.
I remember during her wake I was singing the song Heaven Down Here:
"I don’t want to wait for the angels
Let’s bring heaven down here"
The people who had helped us over those many years were in the house, some in the room with her body, some circling the yard with drums or making sure to keep the room cool so we wouldn’t be rushed to send for the cremation company. But at that moment as I started to sing, several of them held me in a circle while I sang and cried. I hardly remembered how to talk; I had sung everything to her since she went into a coma a week before. I was in a kind of uplifted euphoric place and it was as if I was saying in my mind, “so THIS is how it is”. It was weeks before the pain completely hit and yet I was not in shock. It was just that I had, somewhere along the line, entered the sacred.
It has taken me many years to fully realize the things that supported me then. There were good teachers and kind friends, generous family and warm relationships. There was, most of all, love. But I have come to see that there was also a creative outlet. There was a song, a playlist, an expression for all that we experienced.
Only this last year, as I have offered music as a healing creative outlet at workshops for grieving people, has this become clear to me. In the past I would sporadically draw a picture, or write a story, or make a quilt. But beyond any of these, it is song; song that walks by me, holding my hand, and song that loves me through the days of my life.
When I met my second wife, it was a song that came into my mind, born complete, that most captured that incredible experience. It was called Lightening Striking Twice:
"Without even a second thought
You just reached in and touched my heart
Right before my eyes
Lightening striking twice"
(Because indeed, I could not believe I would be loved so deeply twice in my life.)
Songs make me notice, they carry my emotions, they connect me to the underlying rhythm of this earth and they heal me.
I used to regret that I don’t write more blog posts, or make more art, or any one of an uncountable number of other ways I might express myself. But now I’ve realized; for me it is the sounds of life, lending my body to the creation of tone, that truly brings me back to myself. Always available, always capable of bringing more breath and life to the moment, if I just remember to sing.