The Song Is You

“You’d never know it, but buddy I’m a kind of poet, and I’ve got a lot of things to say…”

He was seated at the piano, playing and singing “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” when I walked into Tula’s in September, 2001. “Who,” I thought, “is that?” How was it possible that, of all the singers and pianists in town, I had never met this particularly young and handsome one? As is wont to happen in the brash bloom of youth, our eyes met from across the room and that, as Rick famously said in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I learned that Joshua was stranded in Seattle that week. He’d been visiting his family when the planes hit the World Trade Center in his adopted hometown of New York City, and all the flights were grounded, all the airports closed, so he couldn’t get back to his Harlem apartment. Not knowing quite what to do with ourselves in those frightening and disorienting days after the 9/11 attacks, we both sought sanctuary in the local jazz club.

When I moved to New York a couple of years later, Josh met me for dinner. His relaxed kindness told me that, even though I was broke and overwhelmed and had no idea whatsoever what in the hell I was doing, I had a friend in New York City. A while later, when Ray Passman heard me sit in with Bob Dorough at the Iridium and decided to “present” me in my first New York solo show at the Triad, I called Joshua to play piano. I was as green as grass and did everything wrong, but I still remember the gentle 12/8 feel Josh brought to our rendition of “Tis Autumn,” and how the room seemed to stand still for that tune.

He came with me once to my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska, where we played a Christmas show; we duetted on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and switched the roles, with him singing, “I simply must go…” and rebuffing my wolfish advances. He stole the show, of course.

Josh had a way of showing up at exactly the right moment. I had a brief stint singing with a country band, and we played a gig on the Upper West Side one summer night in 2012. To my delight, Josh was in the audience. In fact, he may very well have been the audience. We caught up on the set break, and a few days later he sent me a note asking if I’d like to perform a holiday show with him that November in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where his brother had founded an orchestra. Josh opened that email by asking me, “How ya doing, cowgirl?” I gleefully accepted his invitation, and that autumn, we shared a wonderful weekend of barbecue and music.

Four years ago, another email appeared in my inbox, this time from Josh’s dad. I was in the elevator on my way up to my apartment when I checked my phone and read the news of Josh’s recent hospitalization and subsequent diagnosis of stage IV pancreatic cancer. No treatments could be undertaken or explored beyond keeping him comfortable. In a trance, I exited the elevator and tried, again and again, to turn my key in the lock. It wasn’t until a neighbor in the hallway said, not unkindly, “um, hello,” that I realized I’d gotten off on the wrong floor and was standing in front of a stranger’s door.

I am infinitely grateful for the time spent in the hospital with Josh and his loved ones in the days before his death. Even today, four years later, those hours are too surreal, too painful, too dear to write about. There was singing, there were tears, there was—somehow—laughter, and there was a palpable cloak of compassion enveloping us all that I, an avowed non-believer, can only describe as holy.

It is tempting to withhold forgiveness forever from a world that would silence Josh’s music so abruptly, so cruelly early; he was just thirty-nine years old. But the world doesn’t ask for forgiveness, and anyway, didn’t it give voice and breath and life to Josh’s song in the first place? Where does that leave us? What are we to do with ourselves in this perplexing and infuriating and beautiful life, overflowing with loss and tenderness?

Sing, I think. We are here to sing at full voice, to live right out loud, heedless of the occasional dissonance or cracked high note. And may our music, like Josh’s, be a balm, a window, a catalyst, and—above all—a gift for whomever is listening.


Ted Kennedy’s “good ending for himself”

Mark Leibovich, of the New York Times, has written a remarkable article about the last months of the late Senator Ted Kennedy.  You can read the whole thing here:

After Diagnosis, Determined to Make a “Good Ending”

Leibovich interviewed many of Kennedy’s friends, colleagues and family members for his article.  Representative Bill Delahunt (D), a friend of Senator Kennedy’s, made an observation that resonates with me very deeply:

“This is someone who had a fierce determination to live, but who was not afraid to die…And he was not afraid to have a lot of laughs until he got there.”

According to Leibovich, Kennedy

“told friends that he wanted to take stock of his life and enjoy the gift of his remaining days with the people he loved most. “I’ve had a wonderful life,” he said repeatedly…”

The knowledge of his impending death heightened the intensity of Kennedy’s everyday activities: he began conversations with the words, “Every day is a gift,” according to his friend Peter Meade.  

Just over a year ago, Senator Kennedy was given what, on the surface, seems like a nightmare: a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer. Kennedy received what many of us dread the most: advance notice of when, and how, he was probably going to die. Like it or not, though, we all have “advance notice” of our impending death. Sure, we don’t know when or how we’re going to die, but that we will die is nonnegotiable.

What if we lived our lives every day with an awareness of our impending death? We live in a consumer culture whose message is, “Buy this, stay young at all costs, and whatever you do, don’t think about death.” We sequester our old people and sick people in nursing homes and hospitals; because we perceive them as being closer to death than we are, we don’t want to have to see or think about them.  In ignoring and denying death, we ignore and deny much of life’s beauty.

Rather than sink into despair over his diagnosis, Senator Kennedy embraced the opportunity to, in his words, “make a good ending for [him]self.” If Mark Leibovich’s article is any indication, Senator Kennedy succeeded admirably in doing so.  I’m not trying to canonize Ted Kennedy, here; his past was not without missteps and scandals.  But there is much to be learned from the way Ted Kennedy chose to spend his last year of life.

Dr. Lawrence C. Horowitz oversaw Senator Kennedy’s medical care and is quoted as saying, “There were a lot of joyous moments at the end…There was a lot of frankness, a lot of hugging, a lot of emotion.” For my part, I aspire to a life and a death filled with joyous moments, frankness, hugging, and emotion.

There’s no place like home?

My maternal grandmother died this year at 89 (89!) years old.  We were pretty tight and I miss her.  She was kind of a complicated lady, full of contradictions: she could be really needy, but underneath, the woman was made of steel.  She was a Lady-with-a-capital-L but loved gambling and took to swearing rather colorfully in her 80s.  I related to her a lot, except I took to swearing rather colorfully at about age 10.

My grandmother was a Midwestern German Catholic, which meant she didn’t do—or tolerate—much wallowing or whining.  She’d adopted the expression “Uff-da!” from my Norwegian grandfather and her flat South Dakota vowels made the cast of “Fargo” sound like amateurs.

When my grandfather died several years ago, she missed him terribly.  But my grandmother did what prairie women do: she laced up her proverbial boots, pulled herself up and got on with her life.  She said she talked to him in the morning while she had her coffee. 

She was matter-of-fact about her grief, I suspect because there simply aren’t words to describe losing your husband of over 60 years.  My grandmother was not sentimental, nor was she a bullshitter, so her simple words, “I miss my man,” as her cane guided her through the cemetery, reverberated loudly in my heart.

I am scared shitless of dying.  I wish I could be more Earth-Mother-y and Zen about it, but the fact is, when I imagine that last moment, that last breath, that huge void of not knowing…cue tunnel vision, shallow breathing, and claustrophobia.  I’ve had more than one panic attack on the subway.  And for all her years of devout Catholicism, I always kind of had the feeling that my grandmother was as afraid of death as I.  But now I’m not so sure.

See, my grandmother showed up in my dream last night. She seemed to be crocheting beside a hospital bed.  Someone (one of her parents, or perhaps my grandfather) was asleep in the bed while we talked.  I asked her if she’d been afraid to die.

With her signature Midwestern accent, and clicking her tongue the way she always did, she replied, “Oh, no, never afraid.  My parents worked so hard all their lives to make sure I was okay.  It’s exciting for me to be able to make sure they’re okay, now that we’re home.”   I guess by “home,” she meant “Heaven” or some sort of afterlife. 

It’s possible that I had some sort of mystical encounter with my grandmother in my dream.  It’s also possible that my mind was just wandering in deep REM sleep.  But the magic of the message stays the same: my grandmother is always with me, in my heart and memory.  And who knows?  Maybe there is someone waiting to make sure we’re okay when, someday, we go “home.”  Looking_at_Photos