That's my aunt Margaret, hidden a little on the left of the cornfield. I always called her Margie. This image is taken from a family photo, wherein she is smiling for the photographer along with her husband and three children. Margie died when I had spent three-and-three-quarter years on Earth. She was killed in a car accident on an August afternoon in 1990 with her family in the car. Everyone else survived. This event is the inspiration for the song Why Didn’t You? as well as the second verse of Musical Chairs.
Although I knew Margie mostly before I even had developed a self-concept, we were very close. Both of my parents worked: my father as a school teacher and my mother as an I.T. person for the United States government (our town bordered an American naval base). So when I was an infant they needed a babysitter and, as Margie’s kids were getting older, she was able to come take care of me. It is still recognized in my family that we had a close connection and that I really loved her.
People ask me sometimes if I remember her. And I do. I have a few of what cognitive scientists (or whoever else wants to) call episodic memories. Those are the types of memories we all probably think of when we hear the word ‘memory’: one-off auto-biographical events that occurred at specific times and places in our lives. For me, I remember spinning around on my parents’ kitchen floor over and over again, and Margie in her peach sweatshirt (did it say ‘Boca’ on the front?) telling me to stop because I was making her sick. And I remember jumping on her son’s bed and falling forward, smashing my face off of the headboard and having blood gush from my mouth, and her coming to clean me up and console me.
But the bulk of my memory for Margie has nothing to do with any of these events because, as I said earlier, I knew her mostly before I had developed any notion whatsoever of what “I” was. “I” was just an organism: a body with five senses beginning to form a relationship with the world. That organism needed to be fed and cleaned and held and loved, and Margie did all of that, just as she did for her own children. She rocked me in a chair and sang me songs like Frère Jacques and Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral; she spoke to me and helped me form language; she changed my clothes and cleaned me; she put me down for naps and was there when I woke up. Now, when someone in my family asks how I remember Margie, I feel a warm sensation in my chest and my gut. My arms might start to tingle a little and sometimes I feel a wave of something unknown move up my spine. My face muscles respond. It is memory in my body. It has no particular event associated with it, no visual component, no chronology whatsoever; it is the memory of surviving solely due to an attachment with another person; it is the memory of feeling loved and cared for before ever having a concept for what those things meant.
My only episodic memory of the day of the car accident is my mother leaning over me in my bed, crying and telling me that Margie had died. And whether or not that memory is even accurate is questionable. Apparently we were out of town, but I remember being in my own bed, with my Patch the Dog sheets and comforter. Come to think of it, I don’t even know if that was truly the day of the accident; mom may have waited to tell me about it. And I don’t know if it was at that exact moment or some time later, but I non-episodically remember this feeling of knowing come over me: that something final and absolute had occurred, and that it was to be the reality for me and for everyone I loved. I know it’s hard to believe that an almost-four-year-old could have this understanding; sometimes I can barely believe it myself. I know it’s true, though, because I spent much of the rest of my coming-of-age profoundly baffled by people and the odd things they would do: bickering and being nasty, throwing verbal daggers at one another and getting emotionally involved and angry over silly, petty stuff. Didn’t they realize how little time they had? Didn’t they realize they were going to die? Why would they waste time on such nonsense? The answer, I think, is that they didn’t know, or rather that people in general did not and do not truly acknowledge and accept the basic truth of their impending demise. People were not allowing themselves to pay attention to it; whereas I had trouble paying attention to anything else. When people would advise me on some future plan for myself, like that I should be a doctor or a lawyer because I was smart and could make lots of money, I thought: Why on earth would I do that? I could die at any moment.
Because I’ve never taken the continuation of life as a given, I’ve lived my life with a sense of urgency. I felt early on that I needed to find some truth amidst all of the noise of life and tune in to the thing I needed to do before it was too late. I could write about all of the decisions I made and paths I went down looking for this (some quite misguided), but I’ll just say that I’ve always come back to two main themes: the desire to write and perform music and the desire to ease the pain of others. I’ve oriented myself in those directions for most of my adult life.
As an aside to this story, because I saw my cousins lose their mother and my uncle lose his partner at such a young age, as a teenager I became extremely fearful of cars and highways, and I would never want my parents to go over the highway without me. I reasoned that if they were going to die, it would be best if I just died with them. I developed a kind of compulsion wrapped up in twisted religious notions of a vengeful God, and I came to act as though God would kill people I loved just to spite me for sinning against “Him.” This led to me stopping to pray and ask for forgiveness to a God I barely believed in many times a day, just in case “He” was real and was going to snuff out my family because I said fuck when the Kraft Dinner boiled over onto the stove. I had a procedure for these misguided prayers: I’d have to stop and put my hands together and say “Dear God,” and then ask for forgiveness for whatever specific wrong I had done, and then say “Amen” as a sort of divine End Transmission. That was my compulsion for a while.
Anyhow, my experience is this: every morning that I wake up knowing that I’m going to die, I am untroubled by the day’s events and unconcerned with past wrongs and hurts; I have an attitude of acceptance for what comes and appreciation for the mundane. Simple tasks like pouring a cup of tea can become a sacred act. On days that I wake up ignorant of it, I start to think of my life as more important than it is, place stock in outcomes of things that don’t truly matter, become bothered by trivialities, and don’t properly appreciate the people and events in my life. I barely notice the beauty of a cup of tea.
Now, I have written and am releasing the album Musical Chairs with my band The Blooms. The album is about being open to death even as we live our lives, seeing death as something to be revered, not feared, and using our own future demise as a guide to living well. The songs all contain stories around this theme. I do believe that if we allowed ourselves to let death in a little more, lived with a little more awareness of our lives ending – even though it’s uncomfortable and sometimes scary – we’d all cause a little less pain to ourselves and to others, and ultimately live better lives. That’s what I believe. I have Margie to thank for this understanding.
Why Didn't You? (from the album Musical Chairs):
Did your mother tell you you had to die, Dear Child?
Or was her pain so great that she kept it hidden?
And how long did it take before the world, unbidden,
broke down her plan for keeping you safe
from the knowledge of your demise?
You were a toddler, still, when asphalt paved a road
for you to discover that some things, when they appear,
You saw life's blood drain out on to that road
And knew you, too, would meet that end.
So why didn't you get a decent job?
Why didn't you join that mob?
Why couldn't you find your place in the marketplace?
When you saw life's lost body laid upon that road
And the One who lives inside you spoke:
“You’d better understand, child.”
You said, “It’s understood.”
So why didn't you start a family?
Why didn't you prepare to retire?
Why didn't you spend your time becoming
someone they’d admire?
You saw life's end bend back to meet its start
You saw the two not so very, very far apart
And the space between belonged only to you
With one path left to walk, and no one understood