I’m out in the world now. It feels slightly scary. These people don’t know what happened yesterday. They don’t know that I need them to be nice to me. Most of the people are good. Some are bad. I’ll regain my defenses soon.
Marcella’s dad, Mike, is one of the good ones. I dated his daughter for two-and-a-half years, but I think that, in a way, we were never properly introduced until he heard me sing for her Monday night.
I was dressed in some of my autumn clothes - red corduroys, green socks, my “aerial view of autumn leaves” dress shirt, the brown “Sad Professor” jacket that Marcella bought me. But emotionally, I was naked. I had trouble making it through R.E.M.’s “You Are The Everything.” And for some reason, when I got to their song “Find The River,” I had trouble singing the line, “there is nothing left to throw but ginger, lemon, indigo, coriander stem, and rose of hay.” I don’t even know what that MEANS! There’s just something about Michael’s voice.
I think that, along with my friend Nick, I was able to transform the room a little bit with my voice. I saw a lot of tears in the eyes of the gathered family members, but it felt OK. It was a good time to cry.
It was a two-part concert. Let’s retroactively call it an “early show” and a “late show.” My good friend Righteous Jolly drove me to the hospice facility in the morning. We shared some ideas about love, life, creativity, and success on the way there. He entered the room, perhaps not knowing what to expect, and immediately rose to the occasion, charming the faces off of everyone present.
He told an Italian-themed joke that he’d texted to Marcella The Great (as she appears in his address book) about two weeks earlier, as well as her response: “you’re a funny character, my friend.” He delighted everyone just by being himself.
We proceeded to perform three Irish folk songs - “Easy And Slow,” “Black Velvet Band,” and “The Leaving Of Liverpool” (which we perform as “The Leaving Of Tullytown”). The room was full of people, luggage, snacks, and medical equipment, but was somehow very acoustically resonant. My guitar was tuned a little lower than usual and we took the opportunity to focus more on creating beautiful harmonies than on projecting our voices. I felt that we connected - to the music, to the family, to the beautiful girl silently resting in the middle of the room.
Righteous had to meet Joe Trainor in Delaware, so he gave us one last gift; an a capella performance. I knelt to the ground, closed my eyes, and put my hands on Marcella.
Ya know, one of the first times I connected with Marcella was at a St. Patrick’s Day show I was performing with Righteous and other pals. She would’ve heard this song that night. I remember an emotionally raw moment in which I looked into her eyes from up on the stage and thought, “who are you and what do you want from me?”
Here are the words to “The Parting Glass”:
“of all the money that e’er I spent
I’ve spent it in good company
and all the harm that ever I did
alas it was to none but me
and all I’ve done for want of wit
to memory now I can’t recall
so fill to me the parting glass
good night and joy be with you all
oh, all the comrades that e’er I had
they’re sorry for my going away
and all the sweethearts that e’er I had
they’d wish me one more day to stay
but since it falls unto my lot
that I should rise and you should not
I’ll gently rise and softly call
good night and joy be with you all”
I found myself in adulthood with a pretty hard outer shell. A free spirit from a working-class town. A child from a single-parent household in the judgmental environment of Catholic school. Owner and operator of a body with a variety of kinks, some painful. I was different in a lot of places where sameness was celebrated. I’m proud of growing into a complex guy who accepts the good with the bad and has a special place in his heart for underdogs. For anyone suffering. I’m not necessarily proud of the rough outer shell, though.
It is not impenetrable, though. Marcella got through. You can bet your ass that Righteous’s performance did. It brought out tears from my deepest reserves. Top-shelf, $9,000-a-bottle tears.
Righteous said goodbye to the grieving, grateful family and made his way into the hallway. Another resident’s “special transport” was about to take place, so he quickly made his way to an elevator after I hugged him and told him I loved him.
It might read more like a movie than the events of an otherwise typical Monday in Center City Philadelphia. It was real life, but certainly felt cinematic. Who better to co-star in one of my life’s most dramatic moments than one of my most talented actor friends?
I texted him some thoughts - told him the family spent a good hour talking about how transformative his energy was, I told him how meaningful his performance was to me. But, most importantly, I told him that he made Cleo, Marcella’s mom, happy.
Not long after Righteous left, I got a text from another singing partner - Nick Crocker. I’d had in mind to invite him to come sing with me, but before I had a chance to ask him, he asked me. He didn’t have a particular reason to think today would be the perfect day; his instincts just led him to it.
While I waited, I jotted down some song ideas on my hand, loaded up the lyrics to some songs I’d never sung before, and warmed up by singing her Neil Young’s song “Feel Your Love.” I took a photo of my hand in a makeup mirror to remind myself that I can still do some work that could have an impact.
Nick walked into the room as bright and bald as the afternoon sun. He charmed everyone with stories of his Italian relatives, the derivation of his family name, and marveled at the resemblance of Marcella’s older relatives to his own. He smiled his infectious smile.
We played them “(All I Have To Do Is) Dream” in our best two-part harmony. Then I loaded up some lyrics and sang “Across The Universe” for the first time in my life. I was next to Aunt Laura and could see that she was instantly moved by the selection. It reminded me of a time when Marcella sat at her family’s piano with me while I played my song “Imagination 2001.” She was moved to tears just from hearing the piano intro. Sometimes, the melodies alone can grab you by the heart.
While I tried to think of some more tunes, Crocker took the reins and sang a few - “And I Love Her,” “Oh, My Love,” “Give Me A Kiss To Build A Dream On,” “You’re Just Too Good To Be True.” He suggested I sing Neil Young’s “Sail Away.” While I sang, I thought of the impressive amount of time Marcella and I spent traveling. I sang “I Am A Child” and thought of her kind, strong dad. “I gave to you/now you give to me.”
Someone suggested “Harvest Moon.” I didn’t realize at the time that September 22 was the night of the harvest moon. Marcella came from the summer but was an autumn girl at heart. I remember whispering to her, “you made it to fall. Welcome.”
I played some lead guitar while Nick sang “Into The Mystic,” then I borrowed songs from The Big O and The Byrds - “Blue Bayou” and “Goin’ Back.” I’d never played them before, but I gave ‘em my all. Aunt Laura reminded me how much Marcella liked my songs, so I played “Unseasonable Sunrays” and “Do You Think She’d Mind?”
Every time I’d glance around the room, I saw an attentive, teary-eyed audience. Marcella’s parents and siblings were there, aunts, cousins, friends. Other guests filtered in, including a priest who blessed Marcella while I played.
After “You Are The Everything” and “Find The River,” I knew I’d given all I could give. Like true entertainers, we left on a high note. The family gave thanks to Nick and I. I left my guitar, thinking I’d return later that night.
Nick and I made our way to Ralph’s Italian Restaurant with his daughter. I was happy to have a night out on the town with great food and great conversation, but also carried with me a heaviness, a darkness. The music pried open my heart and left it open wide. I could feel all of the love of family and friends, but also all of the horrific sadness of seeing my girl in some strange netherworld between life and death. The presence of these positive, spiritually-attuned friends helped me stay in a progressive - if heavy - state of mind.
Nick offered me a ride home. I accepted his kind offer and texted the family to say I’d see them tomorrow. I knew that I gave Marcella all of my spirit as I sang to her, so I was comfortable going home for a night of sleep.
Over these seven months, I’d occasionally catch myself falling into dread. Dreading different moments of her health struggle. Trying to plan my navigation through days that were still months away. Throughout the course of her illness, I learned to silence that part of myself. To spend more time in the moment. To not overthink the future so much that I miss the present. Besides, my pal Jenni reasoned, the big moments will NEVER be exactly how you think they’ll be.
“Stella started pulling me in a different direction in the backyard than she had before. She was taking me around that cherry tree. It was like she was running with someone.”
“My body felt so warm and I instantly smiled. Thank you for letting me know you were okay. I needed that.”
I got the phone call at 9:19 AM. I was in shock and I understood that. I pushed my body through the motions of getting dressed, eating food, drinking water, and finding someone to accompany me. I put on a nice outfit - elements of which had been added to my wardrobe by Marcella - and headed to Philadelphia with my sister Pam. I am lucky to have a good selection of people I would’ve felt comfortable spending the day with. Pam represents my past, my present, and also - waiting in her big belly - the future.
The most difficult steps were the ones immediately after the elevator door opened. I imagine I’d been operating at half-speed up to that point. As we entered the sixth floor, I probably walked the way I do in a swimming pool. I had faith that spending time with her family would make the day bearable, though, so I just kept pushing myself.
Cleo and I both look good in black. We were dressed for mourning, but not wearing anything we wouldn’t wear on a regular day. We hugged for a long time. All of us, actually. They’re Italian, remember?
I got the sense that everyone was more connected than ever before; Marcella had given us that extra week of herself and that was a lot of time for people to share meals, anecdotes, jokes. Who knew that Marcella’s dad had traveled to Woodstock in a VW bus? Not me. Some of the quiet ones have the best stories.
Her dad and I had a nice rapport with each other, but had essentially been two quiet men being quiet near one another. This morning, however, he opened up to me, thanking me for giving Marcella the gift of music, advising me to keep being me and to not let any of the bad people affect me as I pursue my fortunes. I have to imagine that Marcella observed the moment when her dad and her guy had a soul connection and shared a big hug.
Another moment that stopped me in my tracks was when I learned that I’d unknowingly had a presence at the moment of Marcella’s ascent. Unbeknownst to me, her sister Daniela recorded the bedside concert we performed Monday night on her phone. The next morning, she was playing back the recordings for Marcella. My guitar was still in the corner of the room and my voice was still in the air. I was the soundtrack as she made her way out of her body. I can barely comprehend how great an honor that is. Thanks, Daniela.
When Auntie Donna got the news, she was looking at the awe-inspiring view from Indian Rocks at Delaware Water Gap. She was at peace.
“I was asking her to let me know if she was okay. The picture of the kids came flying off and fell on the dresser. See how it is tucked behind the other one in the picture? I definitely felt her. She can hear us!”
I have a lot more to tell you.