music and death

Last night I met up with a friend who I haven't seen in months, at Public School (which, can I just say, any bar that describes one of the drinks on its menu as "like being disciplined by a saucy teacher" is A-OK by me!). We had a great talk. Or rather, I talked, at great length, and he obligingly listened while I was variously self-indulgent, mopey, maudlin, macabre, and morose. What was I talking about, that would merit such descriptors? Music and death. I've come to be quite the expert on those.

I told him that this year, I've become more emotionally invested in music than I ever was before. And I always have been, a lot. But now it feels almost alarming, the ease with which certain songs can bring me to my knees. Take the Of Monsters and Men album, My Head Is An Animal. No really, pack it up and take it away from me, because it demolishes me to listen to it. I can barely stand it. But it's a beautiful sort of demolition. I'm broken down and rebuilt every three or so minutes.

Catharsis doesn't even begin to cover what I feel, listening to those songs. They wrote my life. Those warble-voiced Icelanders just sat down and wrote my life. There's love, loss, grief, pain, hope, comfort, and family to be found in the lyrics. I dare anyone who's struggled to love or be loved by a parent to listen to Sloom. I defy anyone who's fought with depression to not connect with Little Talks.

I discovered My Head Is An Animal around the time my dad died, and it carried me from those black days through the grey ones of losing A. It will forever be a lifeline to a time of pain and growth, and I'm grateful for it. But I'm also unnerved by how easily those harmonies can upend me.

Anyway, that's what I said to my friend about music. Having primed him with this cheerfulness, I proceeded to further lighten the mood with an anecdote about my mother's death. (Be sure to invite me to all your fun parties, kids - I'm a hoot!)

When my mother died, my husband helped me clean out her apartment. There was next to nothing of value in her belongings, but her pantry was full to overflowing with perfectly servicable dry goods and non-perishable food. My husband discouraged me from taking any of it, but I did anyway. I don't know what made him uncomfortable about it. I guess just the fact that she was dead? Maybe he found it macabre, to touch the things of a dead person? As if her cold, clammy ghost hands had left cold, clammy ghost fingerprints on the plastic wrap of the paper towels.

Anyway, I took two grocery bags' worth of stuff. Mostly canned food. The sort of crap that probably killed her: Chef Boyardee, deviled ham, salt-laden vegetables. I brought it home and put it into our cabinets along with our own food. My husband wouldn't touch any of it, and neither would I, at first. For months, it lurked in the back of our cabinets, passed over but not forgotten, while newer, fresher, and healthier foodstuffs came and went around it.

Then one day, I opened a can of her chicken and rice soup, and heated it up on the stove.

I ate it slowly, thoughtfully, deliberately. I tortured myself with it. I wondered how each spoonful would taste to her. Salty? Too hot, perhaps? I remembered how she looked when she blew on food to cool it, and I pursed my lips in the same way. When the bowl was empty, I felt sick. Remorseful. Like I'd taken something of hers - something extremely personal - and used it, without permission. Like I was using her. Using her up.

It was a game of self-flagellation that I drew out for the next several months. Something would trigger a memory, and I'd suddenly feel overcome with longing for my mother's arms. But there was nothing I could do. The closest I could get to her was this shitty canned food I'd pillaged from her kitchen. So I'd eat some of it. And again: guilt. I was trying to fill myself up with her, but with each bite gone, there was a little less of her left.

Eventually, all that remained was some plain chicken broth. I took an hour to finish it. Swallow after swallow of cold, oily water. I wanted to cry, eating it, but I couldn't. I didn't feel anything. I wasn't even hungry. I wanted to be close to her, but maybe I wanted to hurry up and get the awful exercise over with, too. I needed to feel her inside me. I needed to get her out of my system.

More than once this summer I've had the full, conscious thought, Thank god I only had two parents. I couldn't do this again. You fight with them. You fight to love them, to understand them, to be understood and loved by them. You struggle to relate to them, to identify with them. You reach an age and a maturity where you finally start to do that, but now you're also old enough to fully appreciate the damages they did to do. You forgive them, or you don't. You secretly wish them dead, or you hope they'll live forever.

Then one day they're gone and no matter how complicated your relationship with them was, you miss them so much you could throw up, even though there's nothing, nothing, nothing in your stomach.