I certainly have a lot of things that could make me insanely proud. Seriously.
Still, it’s the smallest of things that often make life worth living. For me…it was just the other night.
I will use the cheap, well-worn fire pit in the back yard as a bit of a sanctuary. I’ll often go out there with the kids and we’ll make s’mores. More often I’ll put on some Miles Davis or Brubeck on my turntable and go out there, after the sun has gone down, and have a glass of wine just to relax. It’s not horribly often, but when I do it, the evening goes very well. More often than not it is very late, much after the chores of the night, the dishes and the lunches are all taken care of for tomorrow.
But the other night, while out by the fire and reading a book, Hannah came out, excited, happy, and near stammering she couldn’t get the words out fast enough. She had, you see, figured out the chords to the song “Rainbow Connection”. (Admit it – you’re all sitting there trying to do your Kermit voice and sing it now…I know it!) Bear in mind, Hannah’s been singing this song for weeks, so I must have given her a bit of an eye-roll at the time because I was near sick of the tome.
But then she broke out her Stratocaster and decided to sing it with the guitar…and her brother sat next to her and broke in as well.
They were horribly off-key; the guitar was hideously out of tune; the timing was a bit off . . . and it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever heard.
Noah and Hannah, you see, are more often than not at each others’ throats. When they are it’s usually me who has to intervene and even at that I’m usually at full-volume with my blood pressure rivaling Old Faithful’s ability to blow a gasket.
But tonight, my shy son, who hates singing in front of people and who usually acts really silly and imaginative simply sat by his sister, on the arm of the outdoor chair, and sang. Sure, he was off-key, but he did it anyway with a huge smile on his face.
Most of you might think nothing of that. You might even poke a little fun at your kids for being silly. Maybe not.
I certainly didn’t.
Noah and Hannah coordinated, sang, tried to stay on-beat, and just serenaded me there during the cool night by the fire. I hadn’t seen them perform anything together…ever…unless I put it together myself.
It’s a tribute and testament to the two of them and their tenacity that we’ve gotten to the point in our lives where these little things – the Rainbow Connection – would be an event to remember. For them it’s probably a simple, silly moment.
For me, it’s a simple thing that makes life worth living.
I sit here, now, in the Denver International Airport, a woman lying on the floor to one side with painted toes and her best Jackie “O” sunglasses on hoping that I notice her trying not to be noticed while we survived the drunken sot who thought the best way to survive getting on an airplane was to drink himself to oblivion rather than a Xanax or a Benadryl, which would have been cheaper and let him stay on the airplane, and I realized things are hard, maybe harder than ever, but it could be a lot harder.
My whole point of going home to see my folks, brother, and avoid the anniversary of my wife, Andrea’s, passing was to get to a place where we could avoid being around the mass of people who might mean well but would inundate us with thoughts and well-wishes. In reality, though, we got inundated anyway and we looked at all the message because we just couldn’t help ourselves. It’s too easy to wallow in misery and hope that it feels that much better when you stop. The problem is, it doesn’t stop and you don’t feel better.
One thing that did cross my mind, though, as we walked down the security passageway at Eppley Airfield, was that it was harder to go back to California than it was to come to Nebraska and face the anniversary of what we lost. The day came and went, the kids surviving OK – partly because of the exercise of our video – and we weren’t better or worse. We were the same. The reality that hit me is how much I miss my family and the peace of mind of just being near home.
I don’t dislike California, let’s get that straight. My father has a soaring loathing of the state and all it stands for. He visits and stays there because of us and that’s all there is. At his age, hating to fly, driving to see us may not be an easy prospect for much longer. The kids go out every summer and spend a couple months with them. It’s not that I miss the break or want my parents to wait on me. They don’t, nor would I let them – and God help me if I thought to tell my Mom that I wanted her to. You’d find pieces of me floating in the Elkhorn River a few years from now. But I was able to endure and stand up, just like they helped me one year ago when I needed it.
I should never have made any decisions in the hours, days and weeks following Andrea’s death. So many of them had to be made, though, and as hard as it was for my Dad to be there and endure the grief and sadness that hung over our lives like a fog he knew it was easier to help me than to make me decide on my own.
This last week was no exception. I could have stayed home, taken the days off, sat there and wallowed, but I knew that’s exactly what I would do if I stayed. Leaving the checkpoint to the gate was harder than the week itself because I felt the distance weighing on me. My kids see where we are as home. That’s what matters and is most important. If the didn’t, I’d have probably moved home in a heartbeat. The offer was even on the table. My Dad didn’t see too many options before I got my new job. . .neither did I.
So as I left, knowing I had to, I realized it’s going to be a long time before I move on. Before we move on. I cannot tell you the things that trigger my sadness. The clock chiming 9pm in O’Neill reminded me of leaving my wedding reception on that day. Watching a documentary on the band “The Swell Season” makes me tear up and get goosebumps because it touches me in the same spaces that are still bleeding from losing that piece of myself when Andrea left. But a simple day, the turning from 11:59pm to Midnight did not, and I was up until then. Yet that night, remembering my wedding night, the lack of humor I had that night, being angry at her being hungover and then too tipsy on the limo ride to the hotel . . . those things weigh on my mind.
As I said, it will be a long time before I can exorcise the demons from my marriage, the pieces I wish I could forget but seem seared into my grey matter like a cattle brand.
So I sit in the airport seats, looking at my children moving on through the day, and I realize I don’t have it so bad. I could be one of the people I see walking around, tattoos in places that peek through like they’re trying to hide, but really hoping to get attention. The single people who look woefully depressed to be alone at the airport and realizing I had it good for awhile. The woman next to me, lying on the floor, trying so hard to act like she’s inconspicuously aloof but peeking through her sunglasses hoping others will notice her.
Me, I want to get through the day, knowing full well that for now – maybe I never will – I cannot see a moment tick by without thinking about her in sadness. I look forward to the day that I can be reminded of our wedding day and not see it as the day our marriage started and ended together.
I seem to be batting a thousand tonight. Where normally it would be the night where I pushed to finish everything for the morning, getting ready for the morning’s events, pushing to get the kids to school, all of that, I find myself in a bit of a whirlwind of offspring emotion.
This weekend I started the process for creating something to post for the anniversary of my wife, Andrea’s, passing. I had recorded something – a remake of a piece I’d written for her some twenty odd years ago. But even I hadn’t realized how knee-deep in the technical process I was. It so drove me to get it perfect or as good as I can that I hadn’t realized what the piece itself was going to do to everyone else. You see, they sat there throughout the weekend listening and I sat there with my ProTools system open, the guitar, the Dobro, all of it playing the same piece, over and over and over again.
It’s important to explain the recording process to you at this point. Being that I was recording alone, using my guitars and vocals, the rhythm line of the song has to be recorded over, and over, and over again depending on how long it takes to either get the track right, or in my case, record the Dobro line, the electric guitar rhythm line and then the guitar solo track. Mess up the 5 minutes of rhythm and you either have to “punch in” to continue the line, hoping you can’t hear the edit, or you record the five minutes of music again. After that, you still have to put vocals on there, duplicate that track and add reverb or other effects to your vocals, and keep moving the song forward.
What I had forgotten was how hard this was going to be. I powered through this. I pushed to make sure that I got it right, trying harder to focus on the technical, not the emotional. But I laid down one vocal line . . . just one . . . and I couldn’t go any more. I had written the song for Andrea and then . . . re-wrote it for me. I hadn’t thought how hard it would be to actually have to sing the lyrics and it wasn’t a great performance as a result. I couldn’t sing it more than once. I lived with the vocals, a little weak, a bit sharp, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I was trying really hard to make it perfect.
My momentary lapse of reason was that while I reviewed the piece I asked the kids what they thought. For the younger three, Hannah, Noah and Sam, there was little to think about. It was a song, one I’d written, sure, but for them it wasn’t a deep, hard-hitting connection. Unfortunately, though, I hadn’t thought about what it would do to my oldest. You see, I had written this song more than twenty years ago, but I recorded it much later. It even got some minor airplay in the Midwest. I was never happy with it – the arrangement, the tone, the lyrics, they all seemed to fall short to me. More importantly, it just didn’t seem the best tribute to the woman I loved and cared so much for.
My attempt to rectify that, to make it more the arrangement I wanted, what she deserved, I just hadn’t thought about the fact that Abbi had heard that song . . . the original piece . . . played. It was played in the house, in the car, on the CD we’d first recorded. It was the one song Andrea actually told people I had written. It was the one thing my being a musician created for her and she liked that. Hearing the guitars play it over and over again was probably bad enough. Hearing the revamped lyrics and the possible crack in my voice just hurt her to no end.
It’s rare to me that I see a reaction like that in the music I’ve written – a reaction so personal and deep. I had actually thought it was too simplistic, too basic. But seeing my daughter’s reaction she said it was beautiful. She didn’t want to change it. But she couldn’t keep listening to it. It was too hard on her. She broke down in tears and couldn’t stop crying. That was my first problem.
The second? I was a victim of the difference in the sexes. You see, men and women look at problems differently. It’s even worse if you’re a Dad and not a Mom or a daughter. Abbi had a problem with her homework. It’s that she had so much, had done an essay incorrectly, and just was frustrated as hell about all of it. She came in nearly in tears, stressed out, and just wanting to throw in the towel.
I tried my hardest to do what she really wanted, to listen and that’s all. I lasted as long as I could, but the more I listened and reassured the more she got upset at how much she was stressed out.
I couldn’t take it any more. I did what just about every other man in the world does, I tried to help her fix the problem. You see, that’s a big difference between men and women. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m not even saying that it’s appropriate, but where my wife would have hugged her and just reassured her, maybe found something comforting to do or say, I finally started giving her things to do to fix the situation. I told her to start another subject, start at one problem and work to the others. Get a few hours sleep, then get back up and finish her work.
Guys want to fix what’s wrong. When Andrea was sad or hurt I wanted to get rid of what was hurting her. I couldn’t do Abbi’s homework so I tried to help her solve how to get it done. When she just got more frustrated I got frustrated myself and started to do the worst thing in the world – I told her she’d had all weekend to do this stuff so it’s not like she had anyone else to blame. I was so good for such a good amount of time but then I ran out of patience. I became the stereotypical Dad and guy.
So by night’s end, I had her in my arms and reassuring her anyway. But she also took one piece of advice and got some rest before getting up really early and then moving on to the homework again.
It is the hardest thing I have to contend with, this change in how I approach things. As long as my lapses are momentary, though, maybe I can at least get my kids to believe I haven’t totally messed things up.
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.