“I don’t remember when my friends and I stopped asking the question of ‘why?’ around death. I understand what it is to be sad, even when everyone around you is demanding your happiness – and what are we to do with all of that pressure other than search for a song that lets us be drained of it all?” – Hanif Abduraqib, They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us
I never appreciated the Food Network until the day my mother died. The day before she went into the hospital for the last time, my sister and I sat in a home that didn’t belong to any of us, and watched food related television programming with her. Everything looked so perfect. The magic of staging and editing, I guess. Ree Drummond, better known as the Pioneer Woman, inhabited a world of her own. Her kitchen was color coordinated every episode, and would change from a bright sunshine yellow, to a blue too dark to imitate the sky, but still gave you the impression of home. A rehearsed home, too perfect to actually live in. I’m convinced that Ree Drummond’s kitchen is the culinary equivalent to Hill House, because no organism could continue to exist in that kitchen without losing its goddamned mind.
We sat and watched Trisha Yearwood make the strangest food I’ve ever want to eat. There were casseroles that didn’t resemble casseroles (who puts boiled eggs in their casserole?), pimiento cheese sandwiches, and asparagus bundles – recipes that reminded me of a pot luck family reunion featuring nothing but third cousins.
The inherent couch side irony of it all was that my mother couldn’t eat. She had cancer that started in her bladder, and migrated to her liver and stomach lining. The last meal I shared with her was on a Friday night at a sports bar called Busters. All she ate that night was a few slivers of lettuce, and chick peas, with a side of ranch dressing and nausea. I never saw her vomit once when she became sick, but every bite was a burden, and she was resilient to take it.
The environment that night was uncomfortable to say the least. It felt less like a sports bar, and more like a small rustic barn packed with too many livestock. It was uncomfortable for those of us without cancer, and toward the end of the meal I could tell that my mother was uneasy. Cancer made her a spectacle. Her belly retained fluid, giving her the appearance of a starving African child from a UNICEF commercial. The rest of her body had become frail. Her skin was darker, dried out. I feared to touch her at times, thinking that her skin would come off in my hand. She looked more like my grandmother than she did the woman who gave birth to me, but I never saw her that way.
I wanted to rise from my chair. I wanted to scream to the officious onlookers. “What’s the matter?! Never seen a person with terminal cancer trying to be normal for a night?!” I didn’t.
“Have you eaten yet?” she said in a voice that sounded like a sleepy Vito Corleone, and she had an offer none of us could refuse, pizza. “We’ll get something on the way home, mom, don’t worry.” I said. My sister echoed the same sentiment. We watched as a woman who’d spent the entire day napping in between episodes of Guy’s Grocery Games and Halloween cake decorating competitions struggle to pick up the phone and order a sausage, peperoni, and mushroom pizza. If she couldn’t eat, she was going to make sure that her children did.
Cancer never stopped her from being our mother, which makes me think that cancer is a disease that gets it all wrong, and yet is the most human disease we can suffer from. There is a cancer for everything! Breast, blood, brain, uterus, prostate, lung, and kidney – it infiltrates, and tries to learn from every inch of our bodies. It sees us when we’re sleeping, and assumes that we need more of it. Every breath becomes a labor, digestion damn near impossible; the body itself is consumed under a weight of jealous misunderstanding. People flood in to pray over your misunderstanding. Nothing happens, and time marches on.
The day after our Food Network watch party, she went into the hospital for the last time. She stayed for four days, went home, and died eight days after ordering my sister and I a pizza over the phone.
Death comes with so many trappings and signatures on dotted lines. It’s natural to drift to those moments where the disease took their greatest toll. I’ll never forget how my 6’3” sunglass wearing, leather jacket toting cousin walk into the room my mother would eventually die in and broke down at her bedside. I’ll never forget the days’ worth of faces that visited her and the ones too cowardly to make the drive. It’s easy to revert to these memories, because they are so fresh, but until I wrote them down I never thought deeply of them. My mind doesn’t run to them, instead I run to the music.
I consider my family a musical one. Not in the Partridge Family sense. We didn’t pack into a touring bus and hit the road to play whatever humble theater would have us. My father worked as a disc jockey for 1240 WNBZ, playing the best adult contemporary hits the 70s, 80s and 90s had to offer. If you’ve never heard the term before, think Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” or Elton John’s 1997 rerecording of “Candle in the Wind,” dedicated to Princess Diana after her death. It was the kind of music your parents listened to, full of schlock and soft tones, and as a child you were programmed to hate this music, because your parents loved it. This sentiment would only grow through my teenage years. If it wasn’t alternative rock it didn’t matter.
Our house was a sanctuary for adult contemporary music. WNBZ was all we listened to. When the kitchen wasn’t flooded with the aromas of cinnamon rolls and spaghetti, it was filled with the raspy tones of Brian Adams, Rod Stewart, and John Cougar Mellencamp from a small gray radio that always looked old. If it wasn’t made by “the Cougar” it wasn’t coming out of our speakers. When the radio wasn’t on in the house, it was on in the car, and when it wasn’t on in the car, you can bet there was an Air Supply tape or a copy of Journey’s Greatest Hits on hand to fill the void. I can honestly say that we owned Journey’s Greatest Hits on every single format possible, excluding 8 track. We had to repurchase the CD in 1997, because of a bonus track that had been added.
We didn’t just live in a four walled world; we were confined to a wall of sound. My memories are memories with teeth, because that’s what music is, stronger than any odor flung at your olfactory nerve endings. Every song generates a feeling, and every feeling becomes a memory that sinks its teeth into your hippocampus. For example, there are three songs that remind me of falling asleep in my childhood bedroom: “Constant Craving” by k.d. lang, “Just Another Day” by Jon Secada, and “Fields of Gold” by Sting. When I fell asleep, WNBZ was my night light. I remember each of these songs, like friends, that kept me company in my nine year old bedroom.
My earliest music memory is second hand. When my sister Mandy was only a couple years old, my mother would help her call my father at the radio station on Saturday mornings to request “Rainbow Connection” by Kermit the Frog. Dad was a one man show on Saturdays. He had to run around in between songs, grabbing the AP newswire, recording new commercials for sponsors. My father had one of the most distinct voices in all of Saranac Lake. It was deep, like Orson Welles. On Saturdays it didn’t seem to matter how deep his voice was, because dead air was the star. He once went a full 20 minutes before returning to the mic to introduce the next song.
When I was my sister’s age, I was too busy rocking out to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles original film soundtrack on vinyl, like a toddler with too much hipster cred. As my youth trudged towards adolescence, adult contemporary wasn’t my cup of tea. My friends were listening to edgier music, like grunge and indie rock. Adult contemporary resembled Ree Drummond’s kitchen more and more. Chicago Tribune writer James Warren put it best: adult contemporary was “as middle-of-the-road and unthreatening as modern media get(s).” We wanted danger. We wanted angst. We wanted to feel anything but love.
Our prayers were answered when a hot new radio station moved in to take WNBZ’s place, 99.9 the BUZZ. It was alternative and hard rock all the damn time, and we put straws in our ears to slurp it up. Nirvana didn’t exist until the BUZZ entered my life in the mid-90s. We believed them to be the myths of our brothers and sisters, passed down like the stories of the Titans and deities of mount Olympus before them. The BUZZ delivered us bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, and Candlebox, like an aural Prometheus. Their punishment was to play these same songs for eternity, and to this day we’re haunted by the same BUZZ cuts that haunted the airwaves in 1996.
My entire family discovered the mixtape in 1996. Dad had become the music director for WNBZ a year earlier, and every month they would receive a CD with the latest singles from a myriad of music artists. We’d beg him to make us mixtapes every couple of months, and would begrudgingly agree to set aside part of his weekend to make them. He put thought into the construction of each tape. The dead air between songs was the perfect length, and none of them were cut off due to a lack of tape space. The man knew what he was doing. He handed me my first tape with the words “Butt Scratch Music” written at the top. All-in-all, he produced six volumes of Butt Scratch through my teenage years. He hated my music.
Mom’s love for adult contemporary music grew on her tapes. It took me years to realize she mainly listened to strong female artists, like Cyndi Lauper, 4 Non Blondes, and Alannah Myles. I think of her favorite songs as a follower of Christ worships the trinity. The morning she died those three songs flooded my mind.
My mother was a year younger than the protagonist of ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” when it was released in 1976. The song went through a sort of revival in the early 90s, and I remember hating how anthemic it sounded. Its lyrics contain more than a trace amount of country music, Friday night sentiment. Perhaps the most shocking thing about “Dancing Queen” is that it was named John McCain’s favorite song in a 2008 issue of Blender magazine. He, too, died of cancer.
“What’s Up” by 4 Non Blondes is a song commonly misrepresented as a female anthem, when in reality it’s a song about existential crisis and a hope for something big on the horizon. Its kin is closer to “Imagine” by John Lennon than anything other song. As a teen I fell silent when it came over the car stereo, but inside I would scream out from the top of my lungs. Linda Perry made me feel included, and I appreciated her for it. The band broke up a year after their debut album, Bigger, Better, Faster, More! and “What’s Up” came out. I suppose nothing good can really last forever.
I have a strong memory of the first time I heard “Sally’s Pigeons” by Cyndi Lauper. My mother and I were dropping my sister Mandy off at a Christian youth group meeting. My mother forced Catholicism on us for her own mother’s sake, but if you asked her, she claimed she never got anything from it. It was fall, and I was playing Mortal Kombat on my Nintendo Game Boy. I had borrowed the game from a friend, and would play as the yellow ninja Scorpion, simply because I knew how to do his fatalities. When first delicate notes of “Sally’s Pigeons” came on, I was struck by how silent the car fell, as if a hushed crowd were huddled in the back seat. The song is about a friend of Lauper’s who became pregnant as a teen and died during a back alley abortion. I spent four minutes in rapture as my mother sang in a gentle tone that matched. “When I was eight I had a friend with a pirate smile.” And I believed.
My true musical awakening came in 1996 when I received my first CD player as a Christmas present from my parents. That year I received a number of albums I still hold near and dear to my heart.
No one truly understands the genius power of Hootie and the Blowfish’s sophomore album, Fairweather Johnson. 14 songs packed with the darkest shit you’ve ever heard, most of concerning failed relationships and one song about how war has a tendency to fuck you up. Oasis’ (What’s the Story) Morning Glory is a pop rock masterpiece overshadowed by the success of “Wonderwall.” I never really gravitated to that song as much as I did “Don’t Look Back in Anger.” One of my greatest triumphs was getting my dad to put the song in rotation at WNBZ. It was too good not to!
My mother and I had a soft spot for R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon.” It was a song we bonded over, and sang together in the car, and was in regular rotation at WNBZ for a number of years. The album that really fucked with me was their 1996 release New Adventures in Hi-Fi. It rewired my brain the same way a simple sentence written by Douglas Adams could. The critics praised it up front, but soon forgot about its existence shortly after. I had received the album from my sister in tape form, and wore it out within six months.
Many of my fondest musical memories were facilitated by my family in one way or another. I’d often ask my parents to buy me CDs if they were going out of town, and unless they didn’t have it, would always come through. When I got my first job, I briefly joined the BMG music club, expanding my classic rock collection for only a dollar.
My mother drove me to my first two concerts in 2003. We stood in the Beacon Theatre in New York City watching Widespread Panic, a jam band I would describe as the “Grateful Dead Lite.” Amidst a marijuana haze, my mother and I stood among a crowd of harmless people as the band played ten minute renditions of some of their classic songs, and a few new ones from an album they had dropped a week earlier. She stayed with me until the beginning of the second set, when she knew I was safe, and I didn’t feel scared anymore.
Two weeks later she drove us to Buffalo to see one of my all-time favorite bands, Pearl Jam. This concert served a secondary function as a first date with my second girlfriend, Rachel, and it did not disappoint. PJ played for nearly three hours, running through songs from their entire discography. My mother stayed in our hotel room alone, and I often wonder what she watched on TV that night, or ate for dinner.
During that trip she was partially responsible for my first kiss, and I know how that sounds. Before we left the next day, my mother, girlfriend and I ate at a Cracker Barrel next door to our hotel. After our meal, we shared our goodbyes in the parking lot. I hugged Rachel and that was that. As she walked away, my mother looked at me like I was brain dead. “Rob, go kiss her!” she said in a hushed, but fierce tone. In a survey of the least romantic locations on earth, I’m confident that the Cracker Barrel parking lot would come in a close second to the chocolate fountain at a Golden Corral. But on that day, for about five seconds, the faded white parking spots became a little brighter.
It’s only in the last five years that I’ve come to appreciate music for being able to capture moments where words fall short. The day after she died, I listened to the song “Supermarket Flowers” by Ed Sheeran on repeat. Say what you will about the artistry of Ed Sheeran. If “Ed Heads” are a thing, I wouldn’t consider myself one of them, but in that song he accurately depicts how delicate each moment is after someone dies. They’re the moments where you do tiny busy things that need doing just to keep yourself from crying or to hide your tears from a loved one.
I saw the music video for the Mumford & Sons song “Guiding Light” that same day. It’s a song about having a guide in the worst of times, and it spoke to me. I cried. I still cry sometimes when I hear it, which is every day. It sits comfortably on a playlist of 55 songs I listen to every day, sometimes twice a day, entitled “Gettin’ Me Through.” It’s full of songs that I love, and songs that mom loved, and they make the day passable.
There is a moment in my mother’s final hours that my sister and I still talk about. She lived out those final moments in a bed in the living room of the house that didn’t belong to us. It belonged to her boyfriend of half a decade, a makeshift log cabin he built by hand, and had no qualms about taking new people that came on a tour of it. It’s the kind of house that is perpetually cold, because everything in it is made of wood. Her bed was set up in the middle of the living room, facing the TV. To her left was a beautiful view of the outdoors through the windows of some double doors.
The day before she died, Mandy and I took a blue tooth speaker with us, and set it beside her bed, on a rolling hospital tray. It played through a list of songs my sister had made for a surgery my mother never made it to. One of the last songs was “Sally’s Pigeons.” I don’t know when my mother heard it last, but when the Cyndi Lauper sang the opening notes of the song – “when I was eight I had a friend with a pirate smile” – a woman who had been in and out of a painful sleep for days turned toward us and smiled. I hadn’t seen that smile in years, and I never saw it again.