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.
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
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.