Friday, August 19, 2011

Several Species Of Small Furry Thoughts – What Music Does For Us

My wife’s father died about a month ago. This is obviously something we all have to go through. It isn’t unique to any person, but the way people grieve and process this sort of tragedy is absolutely unique. Jill seemed to be holding a lot of her feelings in and not fully accepting the death. We did talk about it, but grief seemed to be walled up inside her. Several weeks after the death we were sitting talking in the morning and I put on the vinyl of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks album. It is a favorite of both of ours, but I had no emotional motivation in putting it on. As side one unfolded our conversation started to turn to her departed father. We started talking about her childhood, then all the friends, employees, customers and relatives we have lost in the last decade. I turned side one over and this mysterious album filled the room. As Van started singing the incredible “Madame George” with its repeated refrain of “Say goodbye, dry your eyes” I left the room for a moment. When I returned Jill had her face in her hands and was crying a good old-fashioned cry.
We had talked about this death before and we had certainly talked about the deaths of loved ones in the past, but I am convinced that the element of difference in her emotional response this time was the presence of music. Van’s songs acted as the key that opened the door to her feelings. It has happened before. Once at a Brian Wilson show, we sat through a breathtaking performance of “Pet Sounds” and then in the second half of the show, when he started playing the early Beach Boys hits that Jill grew up with, the floodgates opened and we had to leave the show. Ditto, Paul McCartney; she sat through the huge hits just fine, but when he went to the early 60’s song “I Saw Her Standing There” we were headed for the exit in a torrent of tears. These were not tears of sadness, or tears of joy for that matter. These were that wonderfully peculiar brand of tears that are bittersweet; the type we shed when we watch our children do something remarkably sweet, or watch puppies play or see an old couple holding hands. It is the emotional equivalent of a jigsaw puzzle; it looks like it might be saying something, but you are never quite sure what, until that one piece brings it all together. That one piece in our response to death is often music. Think “Danny Boy,” “Amazing Grace,” “Shenandoah,” or “Imagine.” These songs often reduce people to tears, but they feel better and stronger after doing so. Music gives voice to the unspeakable: sadness, joy and the misty gulf in between.

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