If you said goodbye to me tonight,
there would still be music left to write...
"This song always makes me think of when my father died," I say casually, and my friend snaps her face toward mine as we sit at the traffic light. "I know," I cut in before she can say the necessary "...This song?"
I know it's a love song. It's whimsical and weird and meant to be accompanied by snapping fingers. I'd be hard-pressed to find something further from funereal. But his death remains one of the oddest events in my life--too many emotions and nowhere to put them but in the past--and there's a certain justice in associating it with such an unexpected song.
It was one of the first times I ever knew my thought patterns and my words to travel two different routes, because multiple times that day I went to say, "I found out my father died," and in my head all the words were calm and sad and slow, but as they left my mouth they were hijacked by a jumble of hiccuping sobs so the listener heard something like, "I found out my father dAAAGGHHhhhyyyykkkk--" before the place that makes the words yelled at my hands to stop my mouth.
But as the hours and days went by, those routes began to merge. I could say it with only choking up but no tears, or tears but no choke. I learned to insert "estranged," a word I'd never used, as that guided the listener in their response. I spent hours talking through the mess with my brother, my mother, my closest friends, forcing words through emotions like raw garlic in a press.
A couple weeks passed, and the summer trip to my uncle's place on the Cape suddenly seemed heavier, important. I tried to ready myself, to consider my words and looks so I could be truthful but not hurtful, allowing for all of our emotion jumbles to jumble in one house.
But there were no words about him. That first dinner began with a quiet toast, "considering recent events." The words seemed distant--a prepared statement--but you could feel the pain nearly choking them away in delivery. That same sort of traffic jam of words and emotions I'd been feeling, just in a different head. And that was it. A couple days later, some stifled tears, but my hesitant hand was shrugged away. And then nothing at all. We talked about everything else but him, which is the way our family has always handled something. Of the emotions I felt, I realized surprise wasn't one of them.
That last night I was there, we went out to dinner, talking and laughing--a medicinal, necessary kind of pretend. And later we were driving home in the dark woods of the Cape, four windows open and four faces looking out at nothing in particular. And gradually the quiet voices on the radio were joined by one, two, four more. Not singing together--no harmonies or shared looks--but not singing alone. Singing louder, voices pressing further out our respective windows, accompanied by Billy Joel and tears or laughter, it was honestly hard to tell.
Maybe this won't last very long.
- - -
I don't care what consequence it brings--I've been made a fool for lesser things.
- - -
Maybe I'll be sorry when you're gone.
About a year before he died, my father and I and a dozen other relatives from that side of the family were vacationing together near Rockland, drinking and reading and playing croquet and cards. And at one of my peak moments of frustration, when all The Unsaid Stuff was piled up to my ears, my father stopped me in the stairway and apologized. And for a second I thought we were going to have a Dr. Phil-style breakthrough, but he was only assuring me that if he'd seemed frustrated, it wasn't at me but my grandmother, who was driving him crazy "because she just leaves so much unsaid." Wired with a different personality, I might have said, "How fascinating--sit down for a second. I feel the same way about you." But I assured him (honestly--more honestly than I intended, in fact) that I hadn't felt anything from him at all.
When I think of that night on the Cape, I hope someone was walking their dog along the road that night, and as our car rolled by the song grew and peaked and faded, like a strange incarnation of yuletide carolers. I hope there was surprise, and then a quiet laugh. I hope that somehow four mournings equaled one small joy out there in the dark.
Or maybe the joy I'm thinking of is mine. Because recalling this seven-years-gone story to my friend, I remember the jumble and the tears, but not as fully and clearly as the laughing through those tears, as stumbling over lyrics that we mostly sort of knew, as letting words find their own way through the mess.
And it's more than I hoped for.