This is an “experience” I had back in… I think the early 1990s. I’m not sure, now that I think about it, much of that era blurs for me. A vision? Waking dream? Alternate reality experience? Who knows. I don’t think I’ve written it down anywhere, but it really moved me and made me think deeply about a few things, so having recalled it the other day when talking to a friend, it occurred to me that I ought to blog about it.
I’d been playing guitar with a guy named Tom Connell some time before. Highly intelligent, very talented, good looking guy and a helluva guitarist, he intrigued me. His brother Chris had been my best buddy for quite some time when we met. I paid him to give me lessons, of a sort; I’d never had any, which he found hard to believe. He taught me to play “Stormy Monday” which I considered worth all the cash combined, though I don’t even remember it now.
What I do remember is that after a life of being damnably influenced by the music I loved, trying desperately not to write songs that sounded like clones (no jokes about my 200 songs in A-minor, now…), one night I set out to deliberately, for the first time in my life, deliberately write a song to sound like another. I made a list of rules: it had to have these jazz chords, this kind of timing, and so on. I’d never written anything with any ‘rules’ in place, and it was actually very cool. (That one was called “Count to Ten and Leave You.” I imagined it being done on an acoustic guitar, sung by some appropriately black-soul-brother-of-blues, of course.) It came out different yet groovy, rather like writing exercises that are ‘structured’ sometimes do.
The funny part was, it sounded NOTHING like Stormy Monday, and in fact it would be difficult to sound any more UNlike the song if I’d tried. (Tom laughed like crazy.) So ironic, all things considered.
Anyway, one day when I hadn’t seen him in quite some time, for some reason I was fairly deep in thought about him. He was the epitome of passive-aggressive: both he and his brother got a good dose of it (thanks Mom). He’d been Valedictorian of his high school, for godssakes. He could have done ANYTHING with his life. At that moment he could have been a CEO, a creative architect, a professor, a scientist, anything. The guy was brilliant, with more potential than 98% of the population.
Instead, he packed up his guitar and left Phoenix for California… to play guitar. He didn’t want to be all those things; he wanted to play rock & roll.
So years later, there he was. A couple kids, a long-suffering, beautiful wife, a fantastic skill at guitar, yet-another band, and… and not much else. He wanted to play guitar, not work nine to five. He made very little money at his music-store day job, played whenever he could for money, and in a way, to me he summed up what I’d watched go past me my whole life: the faded fringes of the music industry.
I grew up on the fringes. Dad managed the biggest instrument store in the county most of my life, and played (guitar, steel and vocals) professionally since before I was born. There was a constant parade of excited musicians and new recording contracts and people hoping for that big break and, as any real musician knows, a whole world full of people with more skill than nearly anybody you’ll ever hear on the radio, who can’t get arrested let alone make much money to play.
And it’s a long road, and a weary one, and you’d better be in it for the love of music because most the time all it does is rob your wallet, your years and your optimism and leave you wondering, what the hell would I have done with my life, if I’d known this outcome?
(Which reminds me, I wrote a song called “L.A. Stone” about this idea and him, much later.)
Well I was thinking about him a lot one day. I had quit going to see him some time before. I really liked him a lot, but I started to feel like I had to pay him to associate with me. It sorta hurt my feelings, but he hadn’t done anything to make that happen, he’d been nothing but great to me. I just didn’t want to be his fan or his student only, but his friend. There wasn’t really the situation for that, is all.
I loved his brother deeply, far too much for decency given we were only friends frankly, so I gave him some slack just by virtue of being related to my best friend. But I was sad that on some level, he felt untouchable to me. He was a nice guy, a super smart and talented guy, loved his wife and kids, but you could almost feel the ‘wall of reserve’ around him, that invisible psychic buffer zone that P/As carry with them always. So I’d wandered off, and not seen him in some time.
I wondered why life turns out the way it does. I wondered if it was a bad thing that he’d given up college and a whole lifestyle to instead go play guitar and not really go anywhere with it. I wondered if that qualified as throwing his life away, or if maybe there was some other obscure reason why in the end, it might all be for the best. I couldn’t really think of one frankly. But I mused on this off and on all day one day.
It was another world, another life, a not-quite-parallel universe, you might say.
I was sitting on the perfect lawn, picking the grass that intruded on the edges of the marble gravestone set flush into the ground. I sat here every day, afternoons after school. I tried to cry sometimes, but usually couldn’t… not really. I just felt empty, passively angry and more than a little numb.
I felt like everything in my world that made sense had departed when dad died. My life of optimistic faith in how everything would be alright, was as inaccessible as my father, six feet under where I sat. There was no sense to it, no reason. He was just gone, dead for over a year, and I felt like my life, my mom’s life, my brother’s life, had meandered over to a depressing, dismal shade of purgatory.
Mom, who’d been such a cheerful part-time nurse’s aid when dad was alive, had gained too much weight. She was chronically exhausted, and looked so unhappy. The lines on her face and her look of bone-weariness and lonely resignation broke my heart anew every day.
And my brother, the sports hero, the good-grades good-boy I couldn’t begin to compete with, yet worshipped my whole life, had changed, first a little and then gradually far moreso. Eventually his grades had fallen, he’d quit the teams, and he’d taken up guitar and started hanging out with a different kind of people. Now instead of his handsome face in neatly cut hair and letterman’s sweater, he had long shaggy hair and a black rock & roll t-shirt most the time. He was still smart, with his bright eyes and pirate’s smile, but now he was droll, sarcastic and even biting. His songwriting reflected the deep turmoil inside him.
We had no money now. Mom worked way too much and we were still poor. Our yard was overgrown. Our screen door was hanging by a single hinge and banged against the door in wind. Weeds grew up the edges of the porch steps. Our house, like our clothing, like our lives and our hopes, was wearing out, too demoralized by the gaping hole in our middles to even pretend to be cheerful. Dad was the center of everything. I don’t think we’d ever realized this until suddenly he was dead, and there we were. Zombies in hell, pretending that life wasn’t irreparable, that it would be better someday.
I thought about the day before. I’d gone to see my brother, who worked at a small hardware store. There was a round low counter, and he’d been joking with some customers when I came in. I watched him there, his wicked white smile, his eyes of pain and light, his grungy concert shirt, his “intensity”, and I felt such love for him, and yet such grief. Dad’s death had destroyed us, I felt. My brother was the shining one. I would have given my own life to see him truly happy, my hero since I was four years old. But he wasn’t, he was filled with that pain, that rage, that “inner-driven” quality he’d taken on since dad’s death, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Nothing. I could do nothing.
Somehow, after months off and on of visiting the graveyard on the way home from school every day, for the first time I actually had the sense of my father’s presence. It shook me a little, and moved me.
I whispered out loud: “Daddy.”
And that was it: it all broke through, and I started crying, bawling with such long deep sobs it was like dredging the pain up from the cosmic depths of soul. I yelled at him. “Why did you leave us? Our lives SUCK without you!” I screamed in rage, pounding my fists on the grass. I finally found myself lying on my face on the headstone, crying with such body-shaking grief that eventually I couldn’t breathe.
I finally relaxed into occasional sobs and long sighs. I rested my head on one arm, and idly bent the blades of grass nearest my eyes, thoughtless and exhausted, yet somehow freed from the inability to grieve I’d had for so long.
It was a gradual realization, so subtle, that someone’s hand was on my shoulder. I sat up, and turned toward that, and my hands fell uselessly to my sides as I stared at him, wordless. My father sat next to me, his hand on my shoulder, looking so much like… well, like himself, that it was all I could do not to start crying again. I wondered if he was real. Maybe I was hallucinating.
“Are you real?” I whispered.
“For a little while,” he whispered back with a smile.
“Why did you leave?” I demanded.
“It was the way it is,” he said, as if that made sense.
“Everything is so BAD now!” I accused him, starting to sob again.
“Things are as they should be,” he said gently.
I stared at him, in surprise and anger.
“How can you SAY that?!” I demanded. “Why? WHY?”
He watched me watch him, as I cried silently but copiously, barely seeing his blurring image through my tears. And then he said softly, “Do you really want to know why?”
I nodded silently yes.
He stood up, and held out his hand, and I took it and stood, and we began to walk. Toward home, which was a block away and around the corner. I didn’t know what he meant, but I wanted my mom and brother to see him. I wanted him to tell all of us that it was alright. Even though it couldn’t possibly be.
We turned the corner and I stared quietly at the house as we approached it. It had been freshly painted. The weeds around the steps were gone. The lawn was lovely. The screen was fixed. It looked rather like it had before dad had died, in fact. I stared at him curiously but silently. Had he magically made everything alright? I thought I was bringing home a rather solid ghost, but how could that change my house?
We went up the stairs and into the house. It was different inside, too. Things were nicer. It was cleaner. And it just… felt better, somehow. It felt like a house where normal people live. Not like a mausoleum.
Mom came bustling out of the back room. She was supposed to be at work. But she was home–and she was thin again. Her face looked years younger, and I hadn’t seen her look that rested and happy since–well, since before dad had died. I stared at her open-mouthed, my heart feeling an actual pain, like seeing her how she had been, so happy, so loving, was killing me.
They kissed and talked of trivial things as he followed her into the kitchen. I watched them go, falling into an armchair feeling like things were a bit surreal, and it beginning to dawn on me that for mom, obviously, he had never left.
Maybe I had cried myself to death and this was my heaven: a world where mom was healthy and happy and dad was still alive.
Something felt wrong, though. Not like a bad thing, just like… something out of place. Something was missing from mom. I wasn’t sure what.
I heard the slam of a door on a truck, and through the window I watched my brother walk around to the other side of a beautiful black pickup. He looked like I dreamed he would, if things had gone on as they had been instead of our father dying. He opened the door and a girl climbed out, a lovely girl I didn’t know but who seemed to be his girlfriend.
They came into the house, dad and mom coming out of the kitchen at the same time. As they used to do, he and dad touched fists and then shook hands in a street handshake and a loving exchanged smile. That was before my brother became a rebel angry at the world. I watched him, feeling like I was in a little bit of shock. He had on nice clothes, and a sweater tied around his shoulders. He looked like a member of the yacht club now, with his clean-cut hair and macho grace.
He and dad stood and talked about his truck, and I watched him. He looked happier, for certain. Content. His face was much fuller, softer, and he had that comfortable ease with the world he used to have. The ease of a boy with paid college, a truck and a girlfriend and Friday night football… not that thinner young man of angry rebel-rock screamed in grungy little clubs and garages and basements.
I tuned into their conversation again, realizing he was in college now, not working the hardware store. Wow was his life different. Mom came back into the room and hugged him, and he talked about his girlfriend and their engagement. He grinned at me and I smiled back, feeling a little bewildered still.
It dawned on me slowly, but deeply.
He was happier, but it wasn’t him.
Mom was happier, but it wasn’t her.
It wasn’t just that their quiet desperation, their grief and loneliness, had vanished. It was that they had never been. And they were both… less deep, as a result. Less… intense, for sure, in my brother’s case, but I suspected in both. It was as if they’d been “simplified” somehow.
As if pain had made them both more alive.
Had forced them to ‘feel’ in ways they never had.
And in some respects, had made them more of the human beings that they had the potential to be, than they would have been, could have been, with dad there.
They might not be happier or healthier. The things we normally consider important, those were definitely worse without him. But some ineffable quality, some “spark of spirit”, some survival-skill inspired, pain-generated lighthouse of inner life had never been forced to grow in them.
And their souls were less for it. I could see it. I could feel it. That was the sense of wrongness. It was a sort of . . . “development” that they’d been deprived of. My brother and his girlfriend said goodbye and left, and mom kissed dad goodbye as she went off somewhere as well, and dad and I were left alone in the house.
He knelt in front of the chair I sat in, and looked at me with compassion. I had a couple of slow tears on my face. I understood, but almost wished I didn’t. I accepted his death now, for the first time, although I kind of hated that I did. I wondered if there was some equivalent in me, that I couldn’t see. Something that the void of him in my life had forced me to reach down into and pull out of my soul for survival.
He held out his hand, and I took it and stood, and we walked, hand in hand. Down the porch stairs, across the nice lawn, around the corner. Down the block, and into the small graveyard that I had visited too many times to count since his death. We walked slowly to his grave, and stood next to it, looking down at it, his hand holding mine.
I looked up at him beside me, my tears gone. I felt ok now. Although I felt a new kind of grief I didn’t fully understand, the keen sharp edge on the old grief was dull now, and it felt like something known for too long, something I could live with. I gazed at him with gratitude, and understanding, and the odd feeling that in that moment we were more equals-in-soul than we had ever been.
And he leaned down and tenderly kissed my forehead, and turned away, and faded in a few steps to gone.
I stood there for awhile, just looking down at the stone with his name. Then I slowly turned, and in the waning light toward dusk, I walked home alone.
I rounded the corner and eyed the weeds growing over the edge of our porch steps. The shabby paint on the railings of the porch. The listlessly hanging screen door. This was my life now, I realized. Not just a life missing dad, but a life that was mine to do with, to be with, to feel with. In its own way, every experience opens doorways to parts of ourselves we have never known, parts we choose to know, no matter how the surface of that decision is hard to understand.
I climbed the stairs, thinking. I should fix that screen for mom.
When I came out of that vision, or unusually-linear-dream-while-awake, whatever it was, I felt as if my day of thoughtfulness had basically been answered. I call it a “sit-in”, when it seems I am part of someone else’s life for awhile. Some other aspect of me, who knows. I had wondered, genuinely. I’d been answered.
We are who we choose to be. Our experiences help shape who we need to be. The shallow surface measures of beauty, money, and a life of ease, have nothing to do with the needs of our soul.
Tom, like my brother, needed his guitar.