Most melancholy Fridays I retreat to the Adirondack chair in my backyard, where the butterflies flit about Lantana flowers and the sun and breeze restore my spirit.
A good book usually accompanies me, along with my Parker 21 fountain pen and leather journal. I like to be prepared when inspiration strikes, or some snippet of wisdom leaps out of my book.
On this Friday, I was thumbing through Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel ‘The Road’ when I came across this line:
“By day the banished sun circles the earth like a grieving mother with a lamp.”
The quote nipped at the heels of my melancholy, unearthing an unwelcome thought that it was me who was grieving. It was me who was holding the lamp. Searching an unfamiliar landscape for a mother, family, and past lost to eternity.
ALL OF THEM YEARNING
I figured the tone of ‘The Road’ was not compatible with my mood and abandoned it for my iPad. Scrolling mindlessly through YouTube I found a 2019 Dan Rather interview with Steve Perry, the former lead singer of the rock band Journey.
If my mother was alive, she’d tell you about the years I subjected her to my piano playing and vocal renditions of Journey songs. I thought I was a decent singer, but my dad referred to it as “caterwauling.”
In the interview, Steve Perry talked about why he left Journey (burnout) and how his beloved girlfriend, Kelly Nash (dying of breast cancer), made Steve promise to stop living in isolation and go back to his music.
“Why do people have to be this lonely? What’s the point of it all? Millions of people in this world, all of them yearning, looking to others to satisfy them, yet isolating themselves. Why? Was the earth put here just to nourish human loneliness?” -Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart
Steve Perry’s life with Kelly Nash made me think of the past year, and my wife’s battle with breast cancer. If it’s true that bad things come in three’s, then my wife’s cancer was predictable.
THE QUESTION IS NOT HOW TO GET CURED
We lost my mother in January (I wrote about it here). Then, on the evening of March 8, our beloved one-year-old Maine Coon cat, “Skye” dropped dead from an undiagnosed heart condition.
We had raced Skye to the vet, to no avail, and then cried like children in the exam room as we held his limp paws.
The next morning, still shell-shocked, we drove to my wife’s doctor’s appointment. With test results in hand, the doctor delivered three words that would change our lives: “It’s breast cancer.”
Thus began our journey of scans, appointments, surgeries, healing, and a more intimate relationship with mortality. But here’s the thing about mortality, it can help you live a deeper, richer life.
“The question is not how to get cured, but how to live.” -Joseph Conrad
My wife and I gained a profound appreciation for the little things, like morning coffee and the serendipitous coincidences in life.
For example, my wife’s favorite band is the Imagine Dragons, who are based in our hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada.
When my wife met her reconstructive surgeon, she noticed that he resembled the lead singer of the Imagine Dragons. She soon confirmed that the two were brothers.
Even more amazing, my wife’s anesthesiologist was also a brother of her surgeon and the Imagine Dragons’ singer. Stressful as our cancer journey has been, we found solace in these kinds of unexpected experiences.
Unfortunately, a lingering melancholy caught up to me, no doubt the cumulative effect of so much loss and stress this year.
GIVE ME TRUTH
In the Dan Rather interview, Steve Perry described success as a “jealous mistress.” The fame and fortune he sought eventually lost their luster.
There was no more joy in the music. He escaped for a while into alcohol and drugs, but knew where that would lead. So he walked away from it all, bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and rode off to a quiet, isolated life.
Until years later, when Perry met Kelly Nash, a psychologist who was battling breast cancer. The two found an instant connection and became inseparable.
During her cancer battle, Nash asked Perry to promise (if anything should happen to her) that he would abandon his isolated life and go back to his music.
Because music didn’t have to be a jealous mistress, it could simply be a beloved passion. A place of refuge.
Perry promised Nash that if the worst happened, he’d go back to his music.
“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” -Henry David Thoreau
Nash’s cancer eventually returned and she passed away in 2012. True to his word, Perry returned to his music, eventually releasing his ‘Traces’ album in 2018 and most recently a holiday album titled ‘Steve Perry: The Season.’
Perhaps Nash was Steve Perry’s guardian angel because in many ways she rescued him. She helped him rediscover his love for music and find meaning in it again. In return, Perry keeps his love for Nash (and her memory) alive through his music.
Perry’s website description of his holiday album ‘The Season’ includes the following:
“For both artist and audience alike, The Season ultimately serves as a form of emotional time travel, a direct conduit for the kind of memories that sustain the spirit and restore a sense of joyous serenity. “Music has always been something that rescues me in difficult times,” says Perry. “I hope when people hear this record, they’re teleported in the same way I was when I recorded all these songs-I hope it brings them back to those golden moments with their loved ones, and gives them that feeling of joy and connection and comfort that we all need so much.”
Notice the words “emotional time travel” and “a direct conduit for the kind of memories that sustain the spirit and restore a sense of joyous serenity,” in the above description.
These words are a clue for how we can endure loss, orphanhood, and sorrow for bygone days. Because music is one way to relive the past, and kindle memories of those we love.
GOING INTO EVERY FIGHT ALONE
My parents and grandparents are all deceased. So are most of my parents’ closest friends, who were like family to me and an integral part of my life.
We sold the family home years ago and I have relocated to an entirely different state. I am no longer physically connected to the people and environs that shaped my past.
Last month, for the first time in my life, I celebrated my birthday without the smiles, laughter, and love of my mother. It was hard enough when my father died in 2004, but the absence of both parents hits you.
“But she wasn’t around, and that’s the thing when your parents die, you feel like instead of going into every fight with backup, you are going into every fight alone.” -Mitch Albom, For One More Day
I love my life and home in Nevada, and it’s not that I feel alone. I am blessed to have a wonderful wife, son, sister, in-laws, friends, and affectionate animal companions.
But we all have our child selves still inside us. For me, it’s the shy little boy who feels a bit adrift and afraid because everyone who raised him, and the childhood home and woods where he found solace, are in the past now.
The poet Elizabeth Akers Allen perfectly captured this angst in the opening stanza of her poem ‘Rock Me to Sleep.’
Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight,
Make me a child again just for tonight!
Mother, come back from the echoless shore,
Take me again to your heart as of yore;
Kiss from my forehead the furrows of care,
Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair;
Over my slumbers your loving watch keep;-
Rock me to sleep, mother,-rock me to sleep!
Sometimes we long to be a child again. To feel the love and protection of our parents (if we were lucky enough to have good parents). To return to the homes and places where we felt safe and belonged.
“The past beats inside me like a second heart.” -John Banville, The Sea
So what do we do when our parents and loved ones pass over the veil? How do we soldier on when we miss the familiarity, security, and comfort of the past?
NOTHING IS EVER REALLY LOST TO US
Here are four suggestions to help you navigate the loss of parents, loved ones, and beloved yesterdays and places that have retreated into the past.
Remembering the best of our parents, loved ones, and past can be therapeutic and healing. Turn off social media and pull out those dusty photo albums, old letters, and keepsakes.
“Nothing is ever really lost to us as long as we remember it.” -L. M. Montgomery, The Story Girl
However, don’t fixate on the past. The dead would want us to live our lives, laugh, and pursue happiness. Yes, remember them and smile at the good memories, but live in the present too.
We enjoyed dinner at my mother-in-law’s house yesterday, and dessert consisted of a delicious cake with rich frosting. This immediately sparked a conversation about my mother and her insatiable sweet tooth.
My sister and I sometimes enjoy conversations about our parents, growing up, and the past. They often lead to a few laughs, and occasionally she remembers things I’ve forgotten.
Even now, I talk to my parents. I tell Mom stories about our silly cat and ask my father what he thinks of my recent oil paintings. Other times I ask them for advice. I swear I hear their voices and words of encouragement.
BOOKS AND FILMS
Books and movies remind us that we’re not alone. Everyone experiences loss, longing, pain, hope, and more. Why not learn from the wisdom of others?
“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” -Ernest Hemingway
Some books and movies move me to tears but in a good way. They can cleanse your spirit, offer new perspectives, and help you soldier on.
Lean into your passions, for they can open a doorway into a zen-like garden of blissful flow. A few hours at the painting easel completely absorbs me the same way that an afternoon in the garden transports my wife.
“It can be coins or sports or politics or horses or music or faith, the saddest people I’ve ever met in life are the ones who don’t care deeply about anything at all. Passion and satisfaction go hand in hand, and without them, any happiness is only temporary, because there’s nothing to make it last.” -Nicholas Sparks, Dear John
Even better if your passion or creative work honor your dearly departed or pay tribute to some aspect of your past. Like the way the singer Steve Perry is creating music again, to keep a promise and honor the life of his late girlfriend, Kelly Nash.
Try the above suggestions to bring back your loved ones from the echoless shore. You might feel like a child again, if only for a short time.
Lastly, don’t forget the gift of sleep, where mothers, fathers, and loved ones long gone return to us sometimes. Where we hear their voices again, feel their hugs, and rejoice in their company.
Because in the end, eternity is no match for love.