The first song that got me teary eyed during the drive to Pennsylvania that December was Bonnie Raitt’s take on Joel Zoss’s “Too Long at the Fair.” It was probably the line that goes, “You can give my soul to Abraham, give my soul to Saul, and give my bones to Canada…” that got me when the traffic, after the quieter country roads, picked up in Frederick. We were somewhere around Dilsberg, PA when Stevie Wonder’s “Please Don’t Go,” the final cut from Fulfillingness’ First Finale, came on, and I was like, Christ, this is pathetic. I’m like that sad drunk at closing time who started weeping when the song order on the Stones’ Sticky Fingers was reversed and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” was followed by “Wild Horses.” Yeah, it must have been a shock to the system, but that hipster must have had a full evening’s worth of whiskeys. Me, I was stone cold sober, getting over the flu, and the only even slightly intoxicating beverage I’d had in weeks was nighttime cold medicine.
But it was all OK. It was those fuckers who never cry who pissed me off, those assholes who are only half living their lives. If Bonnie could set me off, so be it. Stevie, Mick Jagger. Sometimes it was Al Green, Alex Chilton, Aretha, Dusty. It was a long list. Sometimes it was my own words, while I was writing at night, high from a lack of sleep or an inability to sleep, or from a train of thought that wouldn’t stop until I let it go wherever it wanted to take me, those times when I was possessed by a consciousness whose source never ran out as long as it was dark outside. And, sometimes, that sleeplessness was what I needed.
As a friend had recently noted, it was the death of a parent that made her feel more strongly her sense of being dependent. I was feeling that strongly then, myself, especially now that both my Mom and Dad were gone now. I was, in that way, completely on my own–and yes, it only served to heighten that feeling of dependency.
Lately, I seemed to be finding so many of the things I needed in the car, in the chaotic mess of clothes, books, and papers that got left behind there. They weren’t practical things like house keys, bank cards, or things of that nature. They were things I needed for my recovery from this period of mourning. Which isn’t to say that that recovery itself wasn’t a practical thing. But the things that keep you alive aren’t just the things that keep you breathing.
Earlier that week I found the November 19, 2012 issue of the New Yorker in the car. It was something I’d brought along to read while waiting for Maggie to get out from school. This issue I’d never gotten around to opening—maybe Maggie had gotten out from school early on those days, or maybe I was running late and didn’t have the extra time I usually had when I picked her up. But that Monday, when I took the car to the mechanic, I noticed this issue lying in a pile on the floor of the car and brought it in with me to read while the car was being worked on.
What I saw in there was an article by Roger Angell titled “Over the Wall.” A reflection on death, it was prompted by the passing of Angell’s wife in April of that year, and he began it by detailing all the recent history his wife never got to know: Hurricane Sandy, Obama’s re-election, her grand-daughter’s attending nursery school.
I needed to read this, because this was something that had always obsessed me as well—the news, the stories, the information the dead will never get to know. Whether it was good or bad, the many things one will never get to know always seemed like the most horrible part about dying. For me, it wasn’t the trips to the beach, the good meals, or even being with friends and loved ones that mattered most. It was the knowledge, including the knowledge that my friends and loved ones, whether I was there or not, were breathing. And alive.
My mother never got to know about things like the collapse of the World Trade Center and all the other horror that happened on September 11, 2001. She never knew about the space shuttle Columbia’s falling apart on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere in 2003. She also never got to know my wife Heather, or experience the coming into this world of her grandchildren, Maggie and Julien. And then, eighteen years after my Mom’s death, I was wondering what the things were that my Dad would never know.
And so, much of the time, what I seemed to obsess on were all the bad things they’d never get to know about, the tragedies, the things that were frightening. Because there was always something about my parents knowing things—no matter what they were—that made me feel safer.
I began to understand that you’re never really grown up until you recognize that there will always be a part of you that remains a child, remains dependent. That you’re never really an adult until you realize that dependency is a fact of life, and that to deny your dependency is to deny your humanity.
And also, I began to wonder if all this was just an act of vanity. If each word I wrote was simply part of preparing for death, for that time, whenever it is, when I’ll no longer be here. If all I was doing was keeping a chronicle, a history, a monument marking my time here on earth. Words which, whether poetry or prose, fiction or non-fiction, would prove that I was here, speaking to the people I knew as well as those I didn’t, the people who in the future would pass through the spaces I once passed through, when I was flesh and blood solid, breathing, and known for what I created rather that what I destroyed. A person who, in his better moments, perhaps even possessed an unmistakable glow.
I wondered, too, if when I’m gone, people will still be reading my poems. If one late night, in a bar—after they’ve shut down the juke box, and there’s no music, just the hum from the refrigerator—if some drunk will remember some line of mine, maybe even an entire poem, before going outside, catching a cab, and going home, alone.
Or maybe not alone.
These two pictures were taken around 1952 at a novelty photo booth in Glen Echo, Maryland, where there was an amusement park up until 1968. The prisoner on the far left is my Auntie Lucilla, who died in 2008. The prisoner to the right of her is my Mom, who died in 1994. The intoxicated man on the right, holding onto the lamp post, is my Dad, who died in 2012. There are so many things they’ll never know about. But then again, there are so many things they lived through that I didn’t, in that long slow time I took being born.