I got home last night, after a very long meeting at the kids’ school and feeling more than a little stressed out. Homework, food, lunches, breakfasts, all of that were put on hold for the few hours the meetings at school lasted. Abbi had practice for her play . . . it’s “hell week” and they are scheduled to rehearse from 4pm to 9pm. That means, of course, she gets home around 11pm since they never end on time.
We finished at the school around 8:10pm and I knew I was already in for a longer bedtime routine. You see, with Abbi at practice and the meeting for Hannah, my 13-year-old, the twins had to come with us. These meetings always have a plethora of candy, cookies, lemonade . . . and Sam is a sugar magnet.
“One glass of lemonade, Sam, that’s all.”
But as I sat at the work table for Hannah’s first project I saw Sam go to the lemonade dispenser 3 times.
“One time. That’s all you go up to the table to get a treat, Sam. One. One treat.”
But from same said work table . . . Sam did indeed go to the table once. He came back with the most colorful fall-like assortment of candy and cookie treats. He knew that I couldn’t get up . . . I was rooted to the spot.
Understand, where sugar makes most kids hyper, for Sam it’s like you’ve hit Bruce Banner with gamma rays all over again. One bought cookie and he’s nuts. A plate full? I have to peel him off of the ceiling. He was already walking in circles for no reason other than it made him dizzy. He was bouncing off the walls. He couldn’t even focus long enough to play his videogame . . . which is attention deficit incarnate.
So imagine my surprise when I got home, exhausted, thoroughly disgusted with my kids’ behavior (Even Hannah, during instructions for the night was telling jokes and talking back to the teachers – because her friends were there with her) when I spotted a brown tube lying on the front porch. I picked it up and tried to open the lock – an impossibility because every time I moved Sam moved in front of the light so I could see the lock. It was like Groucho Marx had walked up behind me and was intent on driving me to the asylum.
Getting inside I assumed it was a simple little thing Abbi had ordered or something. But it was addressed to me. No return address other than the company it came from: “Who Merch.”
Opening the tube inside was a reproduction of a concert poster from 1973. From my favorite Who album, Quadrophenia.
This is the third time in about a year someone mysterious has affected my life so positively.
Now, keep in mind, this isn’t just a gift. I know, it’s a concert poster, very teenage years kind of thing. But it’s not the gift itself, it’s the thought process behind it.
Let me go back . . . the gift before this? A box set of the complete remasters of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that this is my favorite album of all time. Slowhand, Duane Allman, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Gordon, Carl Radle . . . it’s musical perfection with a Persian love story at its center. How could I not?
But before that? I received, again anonymously, a deluxe edition of Traffic’s John Barleycorn Must Die. Other than my brothers, few people knew how much I love this record, and Winwood’s annoyingly amazing talent for lyric, melody and performance. Anyone could have sent Layla though it was really expensive. But this? This was . . . touching. In the middle of when I needed to be touched.
So tonight . . . when I have so clearly indicated how we’ve transitioned in our lives – after all the emotional pitfalls and my head trying to translate all its feelings – this shows up.
You might see this as a silly little concert poster. But then you have to look deeper.
While Layla was an emotional tie for me, The Who’s Quadrophenia was terribly easy for me to relate. The opening salvo going to Pete Townshend’s The Real Me immediately touched a chord with me. Can you see the real me, can ya’
A simple line, a musical shout, but when you feel like you don’t look at the world the same as others . . . that’s very powerful. From the misunderstood kid at the beginning to the pleading close of Love Reign O’er Me I connected with Quadrophenia nearly as much as to Layla. I can easily put on an act for those around me in my day job, or in my sphere of influence. I have friends, but dear friends – those whom you trust with everything – those are few. Very few. My brothers. I can think of one friend from grade and high school – whom I hold very dear.
None of them sent this. None of them sent any of the three musical ties to my emotions.
The journalist in me is dying to find out who sent it. But the transition into this change of seasons – the change in our lives again, this new story . . . has taught me that it’s okay to have a bit of the mystery. Three anonymously given, heartfelt and well thought gifts . . . someone knows me all too well. Hannah called it my secret Santa. I call them my “mysterious benefactor.”
It’s always good, once in awhile, to have a little bit of a puzzle, shrouded in mystery and wrapped in an enigma.
A couple weeks into our new life I was still having a hard time coming to terms with the fact that everything was upside down. It’s not a surprise to any of you, I’m sure, since everything was so sudden and crazy. I don’t think I need to go into the tragic details all over again. Still, there was a small (well, huge, actually) kindness that I had never expected in the weeks after the funeral.
But let’s start with yesterday. Sam, one of my twin sons, was sick at school on Monday. I got the call from the school, again, saying he was in the office, even joking a little about how much I’ve been talking with them lately. They also seemed to think Sam was hamming it up just a little in order to go home. I couldn’t really deny him the trip home, of all the kids he’s the one who complains the least and endures the most. Fortunately, one of our friends was heading up to the school already and she picked up Sam. My oldest daughter was only an hour from getting out of school so she picked him up.
So today I had Sam at my sister-in-law’s house. He may not have been sick but I just couldn’t take the risk. I cannot take the time off right now, there’s a lot of work to be done, and I have to be able to concentrate on my job. So I drove from my house to the far side of suburbia where his Aunt lives and then back into downtown. It’s a long trip, probably 1 1/2 hours of driving in the morning. All the podcasts and stuff I’d normally listen to for the week . . . burned through those on the radio in the drive to drop Sam at the house.
Knowing this, I looked for other material on the radio. Standing out in the middle of the stack was a bright yellow box.
It’s no secret, I know, that the one album I’d take on a desert island with me would be “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” by Derek and the Dominos. But prior to my writing a blog or getting on Facebook or other media it was something reserved mainly for someone who knew me intimately, not random people on the street or mere acquaintences.
Yet a couple weeks after the funeral, I got two random packages. The first was a remastered edition of the Traffic Album “John Barleycorn Must Die”, the second, a $100 box set of the 40th anniversary edition of Layla. I had seen them, I had drooled over them, I had thought about them, but never in a million years had I thought about buying them. I asked my brothers, neither bought them. My Dad and Mom hadn’t. Nobody I knew fessed up to sending this amazing gift.
In case you don’t know the story, Eric Clapton, falling madly in love with George Harrison’s wife, starts reading a Persian poem called “The Tale of Layla and Majnun”. It inspires him and he writes one of the most amazing double-LP’s in existence. Duane Allman’s on it. The rhythm section is amazing, and for a kid growing up with unrequited love it’s an anthem of an album.
I listened to it that first day, but hadn’t really listened much since. The reason? Where the album speaks of unrequited love, it applies very well to losing it as well. I listened in misery all those months ago, both marveling at the remix and the clarity and crying at the message because it applied so well to my situation. It was almost a pleasure to wallow in misery. But I had to stop. It’s my favorite album of all time. If I continued beyond that day it would forever be tied to this event, my loss, and I’m stuck with never being able to listen to it again without thinking about Andrea.
But today I took the CD with me in the car. I listened on the way to meet my sister-in-law and get Sam. I hadn’t really listened to the record much before today. It made me think of Andrea, how could it not? But it didn’t make me think about her death or my horrific loss. It made me think about how much I loved her, chasing after her, and the fact that she’s out of reach. It’s much like the Persian poem itself. If you haven’t read it, it certainly isn’t a happy ending, it’s Romeo and Juliet years before Shakespeare, but an amazing poem.
I listened the whole drive, sang along, felt the guitar solos, it was like listening to it all over again.
I also thought back to the person or persons who might have sent me these to me. Someone knew me well enough that they sent not just the LP they knew I would like, but from another band that they had to know me to know I’d like it. Yet they sent them anonymously, not looking for credit, not looking for thanks. Maybe they knew eventually I would get here, able to listen to them again. Maybe they just wanted to give me something for me, that I would want to listen to and be able to enjoy. A ray of sunlight in the darkness that surrounded us at the moment.
Regardless, I arrived with the last harmonics of the guitar on “Thorn Tree in the Garden” and I picked up my son, smiling, thanking his Aunt. I thanked her for the help and she brushed off the thanks like it was nothing. To her it may have been nothing, but to me, it was peace of mind that I could get through my day.
I drove home with my son, another hour drive home, the radio on this time, and realized that I’d gone through my day and managed to get through things without too much stress. We’ve had a hard time up to this point, sure. But we’ve gotten this far . . . father than I thought we would by this point. Like the LP, I’ve learned to listen without pulling me into one day ten months ago. Now, it seems, I can get through difficulties without wondering why I have to do this without her.
I Am Yours by “Derek and the Dominos” from the album “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.”
The days after Andrea passed away we had to go through everything. I have been accused in the past of trying to just erase the problem, not deal with it, and erase all indications that there were problems that we were dealing with. I didn’t respond to those claims because it was just so ridiculous that I couldn’t see responding without losing my temper and just cold-cocking the critics. What they did NOT take into account was the fact that we had to move. We could neither afford the house we were in nor would the bank allow us to stay. We had to get rid of the house and move somewhere we could afford. So whether I wanted to deal with getting rid of Andrea’s old clothes or empty out the closet in a slow, emotionally delicate way, it wasn’t possible. Realistically it was stupid to move a bunch of clothes and other items when I wasn’t going to keep all of it.
So within just a week or two of the funeral, with my Mom and Dad’s help, I went through everything. We didn’t keep old, tattered clothes. I did keep fancy stuff, things that might someday fit Hannah, but we got rid of all the stuff that was far too bug and far too depressing to have around. There were a number of things we did keep: the jewelry.
Around my neck I wear one such piece. You might think it’s an expensive piece of silver or a diamond, maybe her wedding ring or the myriad of Tiffany pieces I gave her over the years, but you’d be wrong. It’s actually a medallion I never knew she owned. Apparently she’d been given a St. Anthony medal as a kid and either never wore it or put it away somewhere after she got older. The thing is, she never seemed to lose her connection to that particular saint. Around the edges of the medal are the words “St. Anthony, send me help and guidance.” When she needed it, she prayed to Anthony. He never seemed to leave her hanging, either. Now, I’m not preaching religion or trying to convert anyone. But when we had something missing, something critical, she always seemed to find it after saying a silent prayer to him. Now, bear in mind, Andrea found solace and help from Anthony. I, however, never got help from the saint.
So why do I wear the medal? If I never got any help or signal, sign from the man why would I wear it? I should think it’s pretty obvious. I need some peace. It gives me some calm to know that she’s no longer fighting her own demons. She’s not trying so hard to prove herself to anyone. She very well might be being guided between whatever planes of existence by the man who seemed to speak with her when she needed peace.
I have said before that I don’t seem to get signs, signals or hints of Andrea’s presence. That both makes me happy and maddens me. It tears me in two to think about the fact that she’s happy but that she’s happy out there somewhere without me. When you get married you never think much about the line “’til death do us part.” In today’s society we think of marriage as such a temporary or throwaway institution. I see marriages that last nearly no time, or people who think of this as just some sort of little thing, never realizing that someone like Andrea will take it so seriously.
I wear this medal because I am proud of the fact that I was married to Andrea. I am even more proud because of the fact that so many people thought we didn’t stand a chance. Andrea and I, you see, were only dating, officially, for a few months before we were engaged. I had had enough experiences, enough intense, amazing time with her, to know that going back to being alone without her was something that I was unwilling to risk. We went on that first date, that first concert, and spent nearly every waking hour together. We worked together. We were an amazing pair. We went out, ate dinner, stayed in, enjoying every waking moment with each other. We didn’t want anyone at work to realize we were together because there were so many examples of people who had done it wrong – gone out at lunch and come back flushed with their hair all messed up, or disappear in the middle of the day, get angry with each other and break up making working together impossible.
I remember the day everyone figured it out. Every year at the station where we worked the staff had a Christmas party. Nothing fancy, no massive dinner or anything, just an opportunity to get together and say Merry Christmas. A few friends knew we were together, but not everyone. We walked into the bar where we were all to meet, the “Elbow Room”, hand-in-hand. We walked into the place, sat at a table together, and you could have seen everyone’s tonsils. Particularly given the proclivity I had as a director to lose my temper and yell and criticize. But Andrea wouldn’t put up with it. She stood up to me, even if she was wrong, with that big shine in her eyes that made me melt. I could see it in her face and hear it in her voice. She was amazing.
By this point, we’d already talked marriage. We loved each other, we truly did, and being together was the joy of my life, even then . . . even now. So when Andrea was heading off for Spring Break, now engaged to me, I told my friends that we were getting married, before she came back, partly because I didn’t want people freaking out, and partly because there was a piece of me that thought they’d believe she’d found someone else and decided to marry them while home in California. This surprised everyone and started the tongues wagging, telling each other we wouldn’t make it.
Here I am, eighteen years later, wondering that same thing. Technically, I suppose we did. But I didn’t want out of that contract. I didn’t want “’till death do us part,” I wanted to full ride. I didn’t want an escape clause.
Why? I’ve said before, she made me better. She even did it when she hated the thing she was helping me with. When Andrea and I were first married, she had to come to terms with living with a musician, even a part-time one like me. I was in a cover band that played music I didn’t love, performing in bars I disliked getting paid less than we deserved. One night, like a scene in a movie, we played a crappy old bar in Bellevue, Nebraska. It was a little old dive place, paying crap, our gig four hours long. Andrea was with a friend, sitting at a table drinking too much, getting buzzed to the point she thought it was fun to smoke and look “sexy” with a cigarette hanging off her fingertips.
A lightning storm had hit, hitting some part of the building. We were in the middle of a song and half the stage lost power. Only my amplifier had power. I looked out in the audience and our crowd was getting restless, moving for the door. Andrea gave me a look like “do something!” and I kicked into an instrumental section from an old Allman Brothers song, one that had drums and guitar only, and the drummer picked up on it. The crowd, turning around, seemed to take to it. My friend, smoking and drinking with Andrea, was a drummer and he loved it, having similar musical tastes. He was getting into it, as was the crowd, until power was restored. The bandleader shouted “Born to be Wild!” and counted off the song we’d played a million times and the crowd seemed to dissipate a little.
At the end of the night, we’d had to load all the gear back into the band leader’s van. I was going to meet the guys for breakfast, as it was 3am already, and Andrea grabbed my arm and told me to wait. It started to rain, the thunder and lightning crashing around us. My friend got into the car, Andrea in the back seat.
“Your wife is amazing,” he said. “She confirmed what I thought – that you didn’t think I wanted to play drums. But she told me something we both already know. She saw me drumming on my legs in the bar when you hit ‘You Don’t Love Me’ and we both realized something: that song, that music, is something I want to play. But more than that, Andrea realized you need to play it!”
They were right. There, in the dark, rain pouring, the lightning flashing, thunder crashing, we made a deal, while having had too much to drink, that we wanted to start our own band. In that car, until 4am almost, we made up our own first set list, thought about our own gigs, where we wanted to play. It wasn’t here, it was in nicer places, it was with crowds who appreciated our kind of music. Half of the setlist was from the album Layla. The rest were from blues and rock albums we both had in our collections. Andrea had shown us both that our talents lie in our ability to just play whatever we wanted. We could do this, it was simple, we just needed to start rehearsals.
The drummer headed home. So did we, but we didn’t sleep. She looked me in the eye, that mischievous twinkle there, smiling. Driving home she moved to the center seat, kissing me on the way home, telling me how amazed she was by the night. Without her, I would not have started on my own. I wouldn’t have moved on in my career. I wouldn’t have written and recorded my own material – material that the first band wasn’t interested in.
Now I make decisions that we would have made together. She would help me to see what direction we were to take, the words I needed for the page. In the last few months, I have had to find a new home to lease, get a new job, even look at our finances, all without her there to help guide me.
But she’s there. I wear this medal, the silver plate wearing off to reveal the brass beneath, the words fading with each month, but it won’t come off my neck. They can wand me at the airport or courthouse. There’s an ancient Persian poem, from the tale of “Layla and Majnun” that is simple, but brilliant:
I am Yours
However distant you may be
There blows no wind but wafts your scent to me
There sings no bird but calls your name to me
Each memory that has left its trace with me
Lingers forever as a part of me
I felt that way when we were together, in love. But I only now understand the significance, the horribly tortuous feeling whenever the wind blows a scent similar to hers. When a woman walks near and without thinking I sense a similar feel or scent and have to resist the pull of my hands to reach out and put my arms around her.
The medal isn’t religious, though that is the connotation, not to me. It hangs there, pressed against me, reminding me. Pulling that memory forth. Send me help, St. Anthony. I don’t need to find a lost article, no car keys, no phone. Find the memories, bring the wind and waft the scent.
The medal helps her to linger forever as a part of me. It hurts, it’s hard, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
There are a number of really strange things that have happened since our new story began.
Obviously, there’s the strange events of the hospital. When Andrea passed away, the doctors were fantastic, all supportive, worried that I hadn’t told the kids yet.
But After they took me into a room, I thought to give me privacy but now I wonder if it was so I’d stop being so loud and calling attention to the fact that someone died in their hospital, they showered me with platitudes, brought in a chaplain, asked me if I was OK, even gave me a glass of funky tasting water since I’d gotten a little dehydrated.
But the thing that bothered me the most was that about 20 minutes to a half hour later they just started inundating me with information. They wanted me to decide on a mortuary – then and there, no holds barred, immediate decision – and get them started in dealing with Andrea’s body. I know this will sound crazy, but it seemed like a bunch of little kids worried that they might get “cooties”. Oh my God, there’s a body in there! I hadn’t even had a chance to say goodbye.
Then they gave me a full list of everything I’d have to do. I have to be honest with you, they beat the mortuary drum loudest, and I picked one. The one closest to my house. I got insanely lucky that the people I chose were great people, worked with my church, and were sincerely wanting to help me.
But 20 minutes after Andrea’s death, I’m getting pelted with things I have to do. I haven’t even had time to fathom she’s gone. I didn’t know HOW I was going to go home and break my kids’ hearts. I didn’t know what to do.
I asked to say good-bye. I went in the room. I heard some nurse complaining that I hadn’t put on the scrubs, rubber gloves, all the crap I wore for days because she had some sort of infection on her leg they never figured out. I ignored her. They were in a gigantic hurry to get me moving so they could process her body, but she still had the IV hooked up, the syringes and wrappers still being picked up, and she had the tube in her mouth. I couldn’t kiss her goodbye.
I don’t remember what I said. I put my forehead on hers, said a prayer to myself, and told her goodbye. I didn’t want to stay, it was just so hard, but I didn’t want to go, either. This was the very last time I’d ever see her. I made my peace, took a deep breath, and steeled myself for the trip home and what I had to do.
Then the chaplain grabs my hand . . . clamped around my wrist, and just says “pray with me” . . . and starts chanting the “Our Father”. I’m sorry, I’d said my words. I had prayed to God, talked to Andrea, begged him to make sure she was finally safe and happy. I told the chaplain I’d said my prayers and stalked out of the room. I wasn’t going to let these people drag me through any more emotional sludge. I had enough pain to deal with now.
I got home and intentionally waited until right before their closing to call the mortuary. If they wanted her out that badly, they’d have to do it on MY timeline.
The next few weeks, though, showed some of the most amazing pieces of humanity I’d ever experienced. My parents were the first. You have to understand, my father absolutely despises California. He hates the scenery, the people, the attitude, everything about it. Just coming here is hard for him, I can tell, but he doesn’t stay away.
The night Andrea ended up on a respirator the hospital called me at two in the morning. I’d actually just gotten into bed, and Hannah and Noah were sleeping in there already. They told me the nurses laid Andrea, a patient who can hardly breathe and fighting pneumonia, the weight of her body pushing on her lungs making it harder to breathe , on her back to clean her up. Instead she went into respiratory arrest. They said she was on sedation and respirator but they couldn’t calm her down and could I come there . . . it was really bad.
I called my Dad and Mom on the way. It was raining, pitch black, and I’d had to leave Abbi to watch the kids. I was a mess. I didn’t know what to do and I was freaking out. I knew what respiratory arrest meant and they didn’t know how long Andrea had been without oxygen to her brain. I told Dad, near hyperventilation what had happened. Dad is usually my voice of reason, my calm in the storm. They had left Nebraska, were on their way to visit my older brother in Texas and had stopped in Norman, Oklahoma to spend the night. I knew I was in trouble when Dad just said “Oh, God.” That was it. Dad is never without an answer, but this night, he just said we’d have to hope she comes out of it and that the doctors are helping her fight. “Oh, God,” he said again. I told him I just needed him to calm me down, which he did.
“We’re on our way, son. We’ll be there in a couple days.”
While I was on the phone, they’d gotten dressed, packed up, and just jumped in the car, at 4am their time, and turned the car West. They got to our house just a couple hours after Andrea died.
At the funeral, it was hard. At the cemetery was harder. People wanted to crowd into the tent with us and I kept them back so the kids and I could be there. I got through the prayers. Andrea’s sister got us all flowers – roses, her favorite – that we could put on the casket. Everyone left, and something inside me just collapsed. I lost it, hysterical, to the point I started to fall. And there . . . was my dad. He grabbed me, held me in his arms tighter than he had in years. He told me he knew, it was OK. I could take as long as I needed. When I was able to stand up again, apologizing, he chuckled, picking up his handkerchief, saying “dammit, I thought I was going to make it through this. Showed me, huh?”
He knew just when and how much to lighten me up. He put his arm around me and helped me so I could walk back to the car.
They stayed until the weekend after they kids got out of school, literally months living with us and taking care of us until we could start walking again by ourselves.
Andrea’s best friend, a person I went to High School with, showed up and helped with the kids the day Andrea died as well. If she’d done nothing more than be the godmother to Hannah that she was, we’d have been blessed. Instead, she helped us get organized, and was yet another pillar holding up our foundations. I know it wasn’t easy for her. We were selfish, wallowing in our grief, and only now realize how insanely difficult in different ways this had to be for her, Andrea’s sister, all of them, it was.
That was the finite, emotional and physical help. We go so much help to pay for things from others. I didn’t have to cook for weeks after the funeral. We paid for the rest of tuition and expenses and bills with help from friends I haven’t seen in years. For every crazy, awful person that just wants to make themselves feel better by throwing cliche’d statements at me there was the friend who just wanted to take us out for pizza.
Then there were the crazy things – an anonymous donation to our bank account of a thousand dollars. A thousand bucks! Who does that?! I don’t know, but if I’m ever in a position to do it, I will. I was completely blown away by the support we got from our church community and those who loved and cared for us. It was phenomenal. I got two insanely expensive boxed sets – the 40th anniversary of Layla . . . the Deluxe Edition of Traffic’s “John Barleycorn Must Die”. To this day, these insanely expensive sets, filled with 180g vinyl, dolby surround mixes, bound books and artwork, sit anonymously given, no name attached. Sure, Clapton’s a given for me, but Traffic? Only someone who knows me will knows I have the respect I have for Winwood. I have no idea where these came from and I kinda like it that way. It is help selflessly given, and make no mistake, to listen to Layla, or hear the last phrases of “Thorn Tree in the Garden” (even if it is about Bobby Whitlock’s dog) are amazing things. Both albums gave me cathartic, new ways to look at this story of lost love. The Majnun, the madman, dying himself lying on the grave of his love because they’ll never be together. That’s profound.
I know I’m not the subject of a Persian love story. But I do have love around me. When I’m having an awful day and randomly this friend sends a text saying “love you, my friend,” I am pulled back up to ground level.
The old song says “I’m tore down . . . almost level with the ground.” That’s the thing I have to remember. I’m almost level with the ground.