Songs for My Father

One of the things that surprised me most about when my Dad was sick last year was that while he was in the hospital over about 5 weeks he lost any interest in music, TV, movies, anything on a screen. Music was particularly surprising given that he had music on at his desk pretty much all the time, and really enjoyed loading a new CD or record into the media library he had set up at home. One of the songs I remember playing for him was from a band, Manhattan Transfer, that we used to listen to a lot when I was younger and just learning about jazz, I chose Tuxedo Junction because it might cheer him up.

I remember him smiling faintly. (I wish I had played him more music. I wish I had recorded more of his stories, ideally before he got sick. I wish I had figured out how to navigate the hospital and health care system better.)

What I didn’t anticipate was how after his death there would be aftershocks of grief that would hit me over and over again, especially while driving or in a plane. I went from crying maybe three times in the past decade to breaking down at the end of a company town hall, when talking to family, when my Mom found out about the anniversary present my Dad had been looking at, and with any number of songs that unexpectedly took on a new meaning.

Wiz Khalifa & Charlie Puth’s See You Again, is obvious, and was in heavy rotation every public place I went; Lukas Graham’s 7 Years completely broke me down when it talked about children — if I ever have any my father will never meet them; Kayne & Paul McCartney’s Only One, the tribute to Kanye’s daughter and passed mother and I think perhaps his best song; Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud, about growing old together, turning 70 as he was so close to doing; Kanye’s Ultralight Beam snuck up on me, I didn’t expect it, but the questioning and gospel and anger and hope in it captured something I didn’t even realize I was feeling. Even jazz wasn’t safe, Horace Silver’s lyric-less Song for My Father had the same effect.

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John Mayer’s Stop This Train is a song I’ve probably heard a hundred times since it came out in 2006, but all of sudden these words meant something completely different:

So scared of getting older
I’m only good at being young
So I play the numbers game
To find a way to say that life has just begun

Had a talk with my old man
Said, “Help me understand”
He said, “Turn sixty-eight
You’ll renegotiate”

I almost had to pull the car over: he was sixty-eight. What I would give for just one more conversation with him like the one the day before he passed. I wish I had written more down, recorded more of his stories, learned more about his journey.

As the year has passed, the surprise crying is much less common even when one of these songs comes on the radio. Usually when I think of my father it’s with a smile. I’ve even had a few treasured dreams where we’ve been able to talk, nothing that made much sense (it was a dream) but I remember waking up with an overwhelming feeling of enveloping love. While the “new normal” is different, I can’t say it’s better — he’s still gone.

30 thoughts on “Songs for My Father

  1. First time hearing John Mayer’s “Stop This Train.” Great song.

    Sorry you lost your dad.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this story Matt.

    I’m visiting Vietnam, a place that shaped much of who my father is. I’ll take your post as a reminder to call my father, and not take today for granted.

  3. Thanks for sharing Matt, I’m sorry for your loss. Your thoughts compelled me to share a few words.

    Music is so amazingly powerful. It’s such a wonderful gift, one of the loves of my life. When my grandfather passed (i was very close to him) I had these songs on repeat…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0EVeeR41aGw
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s-KAvPbO8JY
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zv4JhrrTwx8

    My favorite thing about music is its ability to change my emotion. When my grandfather passed and i was in tears, every once in awhile a song would come on and totally elevate my mood. It would make me think of the many great moments we’d shared & that he’d be proud of what I’m doing with my life.

    I never met your Father, but from knowing you – I can assure you he’s proud. You’re a great person Matt.

    – Neal

  4. Wow… I have never checked out your blog before, but somehow I saw this post in my dashboard and it spoke to me because I suspected this might be the subject matter. My mother died about 6 months ago and as a grown man, I had no idea it would hit so hard. Like your dad, my mom too was in the hospital for almost 5 weeks. It was not as sudden as the hospitalization was as a result of a stomach cancer surgery. We knew there were risks, but it was not supposed to go down like that… It looked like she was getting better, then the crash. The she was gone. Until that day, I can not remember the last time I had cried.

    In my culture (I am from a Jamaican family and now live most of the time in Toronto Canada), crying and not acting “manly” is not an option. I can really identify with the aftershocks of grief. It has only been 6 months, and most days all is well, then suddenly you hear a song, you smell some perfume, you drive by a location and the reality that you will never see your parent again gets so overwhelming you feel like you can not breathe… For some reason It helps to know as a tech guy that losing a parent can affect other tech guys similarly. Thanks for sharing this story Matt. And by the way THANK YOU for giving the world WordPress. It is because of this platform that I have been able to make a great living developing plugins and sites for clients running my own business.

    When my mom died, I was useless for like the first 3 months. If I had a regular 9 to 5 job they would have let me go for sure, but being able to do work sometimes at 3am in the morning when I could not sleep and felt restless, or being able to go on a trip to Vegas and earn some money from plugin sales while I was grieving allowed me to continue to take care of my family when I was simply too mentally weak to do the job. The way you have helped change the world with your creation is nothing short of incredible, and I am sure your father is looking down and so proud of what you have become! Maybe one day I will get out to one of your WordCamp events and be able to shake your hand in person and hear one of your stories about your dad, and I’ll share one about my funny Jamaican Mom named Winsome…. Till then!

  5. My father has died in December last year, so it’s been 4 months now and I can totally relate to everything you’ve said. He was sick and I will always cherish the 25 minutes one-way conversation I’ve had with my father. It made me cry a few times but it does bring a smile on my face more often. He was a role model, I love him so much!

  6. Dear Dad

    Sorry, this is arriving a little late for ‘Father’s Day’, but I hope things are
    going well. Your three great grandchildren are fine… the kids send their
    regards.

    I’ve come across a lot of your things during our current move.

    I found your official black and white 8×10 navel photograph: full uniform
    and double-breasted overcoat, with your cap slightly cocked to one side –
    your broad smile reminiscent of a young, handsome 1940’s movie star.

    I see that you enlisted early in the 2nd of the “great wars” – upholding a
    proud family tradition. Yet, I found papers indicating that, in less than a
    year, you were discharged as medically “unfit for duty” due to an epileptic
    seizure. How devastating that must have been for you… the loss of self-
    esteem!

    As a kid, I remember how frightening it was to see you shaking
    uncontrollably on the floor while shocked adults tried to subdue your
    convulsing body. Thankfully, drugs were developed to control these
    seizures. I know your generation didn’t like to talk openly – choosing to
    keep things locked inside – however, I feel I would have better understood
    “you” if you had.
    “Crumpled bits of paper
    Filled with imperfect thought
    Stilted conversations
    I’m afraid that’s all we’ve got”
    – The Living Years by Mike & The Mechanics

    Reading through your diaries – back during those nasty divorce years –
    I remember dealing with my own issues as a young teenager; never
    realizing how you suffered as well… especially missing mum. Your
    words convey a sense of loss and fading hope: you wanted her back; she
    said it was too late; I struggled on.

    “Say it loud, say it clear
    You can listen as well as you hear
    It’s too late when we die
    To admit we don’t see eye to eye”

    But, I also remember the fun times: you letting my band practice at home –
    windows wide open – entertaining the neighbours, whether they liked it or
    not. And, after all these years, we’ve reunited as “Reunion.” Your
    determination, then, made our music possible, today.

    “I know that I’m a prisoner
    To all my Father held so dear
    I know that I’m a hostage
    To all his hopes and fears”

    And, because of your influence – especially through your writings – I
    learned not to prejudge people. Being imperfect, you’d think we’d know the
    folly of stubbornly expecting perfection from others.

    “I wasn’t there that morning
    When my Father passed away
    I didn’t get to tell him
    All the things I had to say…
    I just wish I could have told him in the living years”

    So, finding my father’s navy kit-bag, I mentally pack it full of memories
    of both the good and not-so-good years… proud to “carry” it the rest of my
    life. But, if I could, I’d write, “Dear dad, I miss you … would give anything to
    have you back… have the talk we never had.”

    “And if you don’t give up, and don’t give in
    You may just be O.K.”

    Love,
    Fred Jr.

    PS … dedicated to Matt – from the website http://www.fredparry.ca

  7. Great write up. My pops just turned 70 and I’m intuitively pre-grieving, sob sessions based on a mariana’s trench like depth of gratitude and sorrow. The old man’s ticker ain’t doing so hot and I’m grateful to still have opportunities to be with him while he’s kicking. There’s something to be said about a father’s love and wisdom…it completely blesses our lives.

  8. Matt: your honesty and willingness to show your rawness about the loss of your dear father is very moving and soulful.

    It reminded me of a powerful song by the great Johnny Reid (many people have not heard of this talented singer and writer because there are copyright restrictions in the USA — that for some odd reason — don’t allow his music to be played or purchased in the USA), the rawness of the performance is heart-wrenching, yet deeply soulful.

    I am leaving a link to the song because I know that you travel and perhaps you can see and hear the song when in a country where the copyrights allow for streaming the song.

    The song is from the album: A Place Called Love

  9. My father died 8 years ago.

    For years afterwards I would reach for the phone to call him when something that would have interested him arose in my life or my reading.

    It hasn’t entirely stopped, the frequency is less now.

  10. Your post touched my heart. I lost my Mom this past December. No matter how prepared you think you are the fact is, you can not possibly be prepared for the journey grief takes you on. It is unique to every individual. No one travels the same journey, no one grieves the same. There is no right or wrong way, there is just moving forward day to day, knowing that one day, although you will always miss that person, the memories will bring smiles in the place of tears.

  11. Hi Matt. My own father died about sixteen years ago. What I found early on was, as you imply, that grief comes in waves — and mercifully the waves get further and further apart over time.

    I still think about my father most days — although essentially never with strong grief anymore. Mostly such thoughts are about being thankful for something he did for me, or to recognize some new aspect of his life I had never thought about much before as I experience getting older myself, or to wish he was around to tell him something or ask him something in relation to my own son. One thing that surprised me — beyond the finality of the death of a loved one — is how a relationship you have with someone can still grow and change even if the other person is not around anymore as you continue to reflect on your times together and that person’s own life.

    Thanks for sharing your feelings and those songs. I have a video that I treasure of my father and mother singing Dame Vera Lynn’s 1939 song “We’ll Meet Again”. The line “But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day” I have reinterpreted in relation to having my own “sun” and the circle of life because — even if sadly my father was not around to see his grandson — having a son has definitely helped me connect with my father in new ways as above. I remember how he used to say “my son, my son” which now I see he may have meant more as “my son, my sun”. 🙂

    Wishing you sunny days in years to come.

  12. I don’t know what to say. This is the world our souls chose to live in. I don’t know why it is this way, but I would suspect it is for our own sake. If we weren’t able to leave and hit the reset button I don’t think we would ever overcome some things.

    I haven’t lost anyone as close as a parent, but there is some stuff that I know you could read or at least think about (like legitimate esoteric perspective stuff). Although I suspect you may have read it already, even if it isn’t mainstream. Hit me back if you are interested, I’m happy to share.

    “Society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.”

  13. It seems through the process of grief, your father was trying to communicate with you the entire time–through musical messages and dreams. Beautiful!

  14. Matt:
    Great post. My dad’s getting up there in years. Maybe I’ll record a thing or two for posterity. Separately, I remember playing Song for My Father back in high school jazz band. One of the few songs I remember playing.

  15. Your beautiful post brought a tear to my eye. My mother passed on in 2006 and there are still certain songs that bring up memories or make me think of her. I too have thoughts and regrets of how I could have done some things differently when she was ill. I think it’s natural that we always want to do better, but, as I’m sure you’ve realized, the most important thing is that we were there caring for and loving on them. It sounds like you two were very close. Many blessings to you and your family at this tender time.

  16. maybe give dreams a chance 🙂 maybe they have a different reality to them … especially if something as real as an “overwhelming feeling of enveloping love” can be carried over from a “dream world” to a “real world”.

    when I read your post I wanted to share with you these two exceprts from two authors on love and death … especially the quote from Rober Pirsig about his son:
    http://iamronen.com/blog/2010/07/06/two-authors-on-love-and-death/

    what dies? what lives on? it seems we can relate to people who have departed the physical world … what is it that we are relating to? is it just “memory” or is there more to it?

    wishing you softness in the “new normal”.

  17. I lost my mom aged 63, about 5 months ago, who among many things shaped my musical tastes by introducing me to different songs from around the world. Recently, a very heartbreaking yet healing thing to do for me is to listen to music she liked or we both liked.

    Thanks for opening up about how you are dealing with grief and healing.

  18. Oh, BB, I know. You’re trucking along just fine, and then you hit a pothole of grief. Sometimes its a little bump, sometimes it swallows you whole and you emerge days later wondering what happened. I almost missed a flight this year because I heard Peter Gabriel’s “Mercy Street”, and had to curl up in a ball. It is particularly difficult with Daddy because of how immersed he was in music; some of my earliest memories are sitting under his desk while he played records. Pink Floyd (esp. “Wish You Were Here”), Yes, Chicago, Fleetwood Mac, Cream, The Stones, The Animals, Van Morrison (how I wish that we had just splurged on those tickets and gone!)…I look at it as a way to deepen my understanding of music. It took me five years to be able to listen to Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever” after J died, but when I finally did it, I understood it so much better, and it meant so much more to me. Maybe one day I’ll be able to listen to Poe’s “Haunted” or the Finn Brother’s “Won’t Give In” or any of a million songs that Daddy and I shared. But not today. Soon. In the meantime, I’m climbing out of this pothole to face the day. I love you. I hope you’re having fun. And I’m here for you whenever you need me.

  19. <3
    hope you are finding peace, love and lots of support throughout the way. grief is an ocean and the waves a non-stop cycle, sometimes mellow, sometimes very unbearable.
    none of us are ready or will ever be ready to losing our loved ones. much peace to you and yours, meli.

  20. Hi Ma.tt,
    I lost my mother at the age of 68 years on January 11, 2017. I am identifying with you, completely. Best memories, reminiscent waves of her love and faith in God settles me down.
    You will be fine.

    Take care.

  21. Dear Matthew, I wonder if it will ever be better because you’ll miss him, always. I am convinced however you’ll meet him again in heaven (that mysterious place) once you’ll enter there. I do hope it won’t be anytime soon. You still have a lot to do. In my prayers.

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