I’m in Marcella’s hospital room in Center City Philadelphia on Sunday and the sun is setting after a long and sometimes intense day of visiting loved ones and doctors. I want to listen to music so I grab my cell phone and see if I can load a recording I’d just uploaded. It worked! It’s 2014 and I’m listening to a recording of my grandfather and other relatives playing music in their living room in Dunellen, New Jersey in the mid-’60s. And they were good. It’s gospel songs, country songs, and between-song chatter and laughs. I never really got to know Gammy and JJ as an adult, but this document gives me a connection. My nephew will get to hear this one day and find out how much music is in his bloodline.
At one point, the tape goes further back in time to a recording of my dad tunelessly singing along to an Everly Brothers record in the ‘50s. Meanwhile in 2014, Marcella calls out from the bathroom, “what is THAT?” Things get even worse when the tape suddenly time-travels to the ‘80s and I’M singing “(All I Have To Do Is) Dream” even MORE tunelessly!
It got especially interesting and heavy when I started singing harmony with my grandfather (gone since 2007) on a song I’d just learned from him via the tapes.
Time gets us all, but we can leave some artifacts behind so later generations can get to know us if they want to. I’ve gotten into the habit of recording the stories that my relatives tell, sneakily hitting Record on my phone or camera. Once, we took our Grandma to the neighborhood in Brooklyn she grew up in during the ‘30s and ‘40s and recorded her anecdotes while walking around town and driving back to Piscataway. People take their stories with them if no one captures them.
Jenni and I were talking about meditation. She’s dedicated and does it every day. I’m not, and don’t. In fact, I have a complex about it; a sense that my brain is too loud and busy for me to ever get into that zone. She’s planting potatoes and onions and I’m playing my acoustic guitar. An hour passes. I’d spent the whole time improvising music, playing a few dozen instrumental pieces that I could’ve turned into songs if a few good rhymes had breezed past me.
She walked back from the garden and said, “you already know how to meditate.”
The guy at my favorite coffee shop cried when I gave him the latest health update. He and his wife are incredibly kind and I admire the beautiful life they appear to have built around their shop and careers as illustrators and authors. I grabbed his hand and looked into his eyes, trying to console him. Sure, I’m the boyfriend and he’s the guy with the coffee and ice cream, but I’ve known for four months and he hasn’t. He told me I’m a very brave man. I never know how to respond to that. I just follow my heart.
You can be called a lot of things in thirty-one years, all the noble things and the opposite of all those things, sometimes in the same day. This is why it’s good to check in with yourself once in a while, since you’re the only person who’s been watching your movie the whole time. And directing. I think mine is co-directed by Christopher Guest and Tommy Wiseau.
The exchange at the coffee shop reminded me that this news is like a bomb. I drive around with a peace sign on my car; bombs are not my thing. I start to feel like fucking Johnny Tragedyseed. I played a gig a few days after I found out and, before it started, my friend Gina approached me with her beautiful smile and asked how I was doing. I knew that I could cast a pall over the long night of performances if I told her about Marcella’s diagnosis. I realized in that moment that it won’t always be the right time to talk about it. So I wrote a rule: only tell those who ask. But now I’m not even sure about that. I like making people happy.
The man at the coffee shop was crying and I wasn’t. I guess people who have gone through this sort of thing can identify with that. You don’t cry all day, every day, for four months, six months, twelve months… You do that some days and, on other days, you close down a little so you can accomplish the day’s tasks. I’ve accomplished a lot. I went to work the morning after the diagnosis. Kelley Cosmosis talked to me on the Internet until I was deliriously tired, then I somehow slept and somehow went to work.
Another thing that’s happened during this period is an adjustment to my bullshit tolerance. There’s just no room for it. Maybe it’s what parents of young children go through; there’s just no energy left to respond to some guy I met at a party once who’s trying to start an argument on the Internet. Bye. I also hesitate less to sing at concert volume at red lights. But don’t expect any autotune. (Ever.)
Sometimes you’re in the shallow end and sometimes you’re in the deep end. I’m a pretty good swimmer. It’s true that most people you meet are fighting a battle or two. It’s also true that I’ve been through an unusual amount of battles recently. I wake up every day and remember that she’s dying. That’s my normal now. Still, I attended a friend’s wedding recently and didn’t feel any resentment, nothing blocking the flow of joy and love. I told myself that this is his time for a bright sunny day and I will have mine later. And more storms. He’ll have more storms. Hell, Joe and I have both filmed thunderstorms. We’re ready. But bring on that sunshine, too.
It got pretty bright on State Street when I wrote that sentence.
I pull up to their home in my oil-burning, antenna-less, cosmetically-challenged 2000 Honda Civic for the nine-thousandth time and I’m still taken aback by its beauty. The visiting nurse and social worker dropped their jaws looking at just the back patio. Words can’t describe the expansiveness and warmth of this house. They are fortunate to have the resources to make things as comfortable for Marcella as possible, but I know they would live in a van if they could live in it with their whole, healthy crew. They’ve already lost a daughter to cancer a few years ago. Nature doesn’t care about what we think is fair. It seems that life does what life’s gonna do and that we have to be strong enough to weather the storms and wise enough to enjoy the sunshine.
Michael Stipe said, “I don’t have much but what I have is gold.”
By the way, I’m very proud of that car. An ugly vehicle that takes me to beautiful things is better than the inverse.
She’s doing home hospice now. I spent the night on Thursday. She and her family really designed a gorgeous space for her to live in. It has a classy brick wall in the kitchen, lots of flowers and sunlight, a new fridge, a huge, funky tapestry that she picked out, brand new beds, upgraded bathrooms. A lot of new alongside her favorite old. She even has one of my framed photographs. She has to get really fucked-up to deal with the pain. We make plenty of drug jokes. We regularly microwave a heating pad that smells like an abandoned movie theater filled with nine feet of old, burnt popcorn. Life with her is different now, but a heartbeat is a heartbeat and she has one!
One of my older family members had suggested that I don’t put myself through this stress. After all, she reasoned, we don’t have kids and are not married. My instincts told me, “stay in the chapter you’re in.” It’s been rewarding. Not easy - rewarding. I choose not to romanticize my pain. I accept that every day is good and bad, that it always was and always will be.
Another thing the voice of instinct has told me lately about both my life and my creative life is “this is the time for the heavy lifting of growth; the rewards come later.” I am at peace with that. I now see all the tectonic shifts of my recent years as educational courses, lessons about what I want from love, music, art, and the rest of life. Where I can compromise and where I can’t. Each of the chaotic moments felt like the end of the world, but having survived them all with my body, mind, and spirit intact, I feel like I approach life with a wider canvas, using more colors than before.
Having said that, I just made a dick joke on Facebook. Maybe I’m not in the deep end after all.
I drove into the cemetery where Gammy and JJ are buried. Within about two minutes, a car pulls up behind me. It’s Aunt Gail, Cousin Patti, and my Dad. We hadn’t made plans and it wasn’t the anniversary of anything relating to our family. But there we were. Almost all of my McGarvey side. I said, “maybe there IS a spirit world! They’re STILL organizing events for us!”
We all drove to Core Creek Park and sat beside the lake, telling story after story about my grandparents and of more recent adventures. I hit Record on my iPhone, hoping no one would notice. The sun was shining.