Just Listen


“A long long time ago…
I can still remember
How that music used to make me smile.
And I knew if I had my chance
That I could make those people dance
And, maybe, they’d be happy for a while…”

When I was a small girl, I believed wholeheartedly that I would one day grow up to be a singer. This is the only thing I can remember ever dreaming of; not of being a wife or a mother, an nurse, or a teacher. Not even of being famous. I just wanted to sing. Childhood dreams don't often pan out though , and these days I only give private concerts for one inside my car. Music is sacred to me. The realization that I wanted to keep that to myself was one of the first hard and fast lessons of my adolescence. 

I still get the questions, and each time it will breaks my heart– are you still singing? why didn’t you pursue it? How do people expect me to answer questions like that? I want to tell them to mind their own business.

The truth is, music does something for me that nothing else in life can do. It connects me to moments gone and people that i've lost. I can close my eyes and just listen:

“Did you write the book of love,
And do you have faith in God above,
If the Bible tells you so?
Do you believe in rock ‘n roll,
Can music save your mortal soul,
And can you teach me how to dance real slow…”

I’m on my way to work, i’m listening to the oldies station, and Don McClean comes on the radio.

It takes me instantly to the back seat of a purple mini-van, hip to hip with my childhood best friend, the first person outside of my family that I ever loved. We know every third word, but man do we love crooning along. Our other favorite song to sing is My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion. My mouth is sticky sweet. Our tongues and lips and teeth are stained dark blue. Her smile is a mile wide. That smile used to light up my life. I haven’t seen it in a long, long time.

I didn’t know until recently that Don McClean’s song American Pie is actually about Buddy Holly; about his death, and the subsequent supposed death of music. There are websites where you can find each line analyzed, and it really makes a lot more sense that way. The Beatles and Janis Joplin and Mick Jagger all make appearances. Don McClean loved good music. It was sacred to him the way it’s sacred to me. Who would’ve known.

“Well I know that you’re in love with him
‘Cause I saw you dancin’ in the gym
You both kicked off your shoes
Man I dig those rhythm and blues…”

It takes me now to a smokey wood shop, a glorified shed really, filled to the brim with walnut and cherry. There are safety goggles and many many Marlboros and the incessant sound of a table saw. There’s a radio older than me in the corner and when this song comes on, it’s turned up as loud as it will go. We’re singing loudly now, our lungs fill up with air and sawdust on the off beats. I still don’t know all of the words, but that doesn’t matter. I tap my foot just like him on the blue floorboards.

“But I knew I was out of luck
the day the music died”

Like most people, I find it really hard to talk about cancer.

I know cancer well. I’ve heard a lot about it a lot and learned a bit about it and watched people I love suffer through it. Yet, I still don’t know what to say to other people about it. I still don’t know what the right thing is to say to someone with cancer. What’s worse is that I still don’t know what to tell myself about it. I’m not sure how much I’m allowed to talk about it, or when it’s appropriate to bring it up, and whenever new people come into my life, its always in the back of my mind, anxious thoughts about when and how and if they’ll find out.

True, we are all able to talk about cancer in particular terms. We can define it medically. We can quantify it in percentages. We can discuss death rates and grasp at timelines. We can diagnose until we run out of breath. But can we really talk about cancer?

The last month I’ve woken up every day and pinched myself. The diagnosis and the doctor’s visits and the chemotherapy. I can’t believe any of it, but I take every day as it comes; with anger and confusion and pain and doubt: Am I still doing this wrong? Are we, as a family, still doing this wrong? We cant control cancer, we've learned that much, but I have to think that maybe  we're not very good at talking about cancer. About the things that matter. I’m not very good at saying the things I need to say.

“And in the streets: the children screamed,
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed.
But not a word was spoken;
The church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most:
The father, son, and the holy ghost,
They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died…”

It takes me to my hometown, on the street, right in front of Town Hall, where Waterloo and High intersect. Dusk is upon the crowd and late summer is settling into all of our bones. The music blares over loud speakers, and the air smells sweet and fried. It’s my favorite three days of the year. I am eating infinite amounts of food on sticks, and beating my mom at skeeball and dancing in the streets with a crown on my head. My daddy picks me up in his arms because the song is ending now. He has on his straw hat and his Stetson original cologne and while we rock back and forth, he whispers the words in my tiny ear:

“And they were singing,
bye-bye, Miss American Pie.
Drove my chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’, this’ll be the day that I die.
this’ll be the day that I die….”

I will always have regret, things left unsaid. I will always wish that I’d given those I’ve lost experiences or songs or days that I cannot. And I wonder if other families, if even my own family, feel like they need a lesson in this too? A lesson in talking?

I think that maybe it goes a little like this:

“I love you.”

“I’m sorry this is happening.”

“I will keep you in my heart always.”

I think it’s about making memories while you can, and also letting them be alone when they want to be. I think it’s a little bit different for everyone. For me it’s about listening to music. About reaching backwards in time through a song. So, I’ll ask him what song he wants to listen to today, and instead of talking, we’ll just listen:

“And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singing’, this’ll be the day that I die…”

*This piece was originally posted on my previous blog, Bloomuhble, in June of 2015.