Sometimes, I think that my life, the one I have lived just out of reach of the official one recorded in family photograph albums, degree certificates and employee identification cards, has been a war between grief and anger.
Kaye, my only sibling, left home to go to nursing school when I began the fourth grade. Within a year the deterioration of my father’s physical health and my mother’s emotional life came to mark the years of my “growing up.” As it became more obvious my father was dying, my mother became more and more unstable. By the start of my senior year, my father was dead and within three months my mother was making her second trip to a psychiatric hospital in a year. Others would follow.
I learned how to put up a good front, how to smile through the disaster and assure everyone that “things are fine.” Underneath I wished that, like Sweet Baby James, I could choose the colors of my dreams. My dream, it seemed, chose me. It was blue-black and red, a threatening sky with enough water to drown me and a volcano looking for a place to rupture. In the next couple of years my ability to hide my feelings began to decline and these darker hues would become obvious to everyone
Each new death marks a time of definition for my inner war. I mark the struggle in the songs I play. They are never the proper songs of death sung at a funerals or any from that list of 100 songs for mourning that’s on the internet. No, the staple of my life is the love song and so I express my grief through all those musical tales of longing, loving and leaving.
When my mother died in 1977, it was through Steve Young’s music, songs he wrote such as “Montgomery in the Rain,” “Long Way to Hollywood,” and “Old Memories,” and others that he shaped to his own dramatic style such as John D. Loudermilk’s “Tobacco Road” and Rodney Crowell’s “Home Sweet Home Revisited.” I have written about this time before in “That Same Lonesome Blood,” a piece I did for the Oxford American music issue in 2001. These songs make an art form out of saying the opposite of what is meant (“Old memories mean nothing to me”), living out unbearable conflicts that have no resolution (“Tobacco Road I hate you cause you’re filthy, but I love you cause you’re home.”) while dragging a history that is mostly burdens toward the future (“Tomorrow has no home sweet homes, look what they have done to mine.”) Most of these songs have the torch of anger burning in them and they sketch out an emotional style that I lived out for many years and have struggled against since.
Kaye, the last of my family, died on April 5. I have a sad heart, but I feel no anger, just black and blue grief. During my college years and throughout my 20s, she offered me a home to go to for holidays and a place to take new women friends when I wanted to show them I had a home. This was a great gift. I was often part of the family and helped play Santa for two nieces and a nephew and took care of them when she had to be away.
When our mother died, it was as if the enormous force that had pushed us together reversed course and threw us back against opposing walls, like characters in a cartoon. Our lives had become more complicated. Each of us divorced and then remarried. I moved to another part of the country, first Wisconsin and then Utah, lived in cities, and had a professional life that from the outside can appear almost cultic. Maybe I fit the profession a little too well. Someone once said of me “You were a professor before you ever became one,” and she didn’t mean it kindly. Kaye went back to the town where she had graduated from high school, married a farmer, became a home health care nurse and struggled to raise three children after her house burned. There were strains between us—about lifestyle, politics and family–and they lasted a long time.
Ultimately, it all seemed to rest on who visited whom. I was hurt that my sister never came to see me and this feeling became even worse after I returned to Tennessee to live in 1990. I took it so hard I stopped going to family celebrations on Thanksgiving and Christmas. After some years, our truce became meeting at a neutral spot—usually near Kentucky Lake—for lunch and conversation a couple of times a year. That helped, but the hurts remained on both sides. In 2005, I moved to Chicago and we didn’t have those Kentucky Lake get-togethers anymore. Four years ago, I needed family far more than I needed to hold onto an old battle. I accepted her invitation and came for Christmas. It marked a huge change in our relationship. We called more often and things became easier when we were together.
I moved back to Nashville last August and she was very interested in my search for housing. The first of this year she came to the city for a procedure to put her heart back in rhythm. Though she was exhausted from the trip, she made sure that she stopped by to see my new apartment before checking in at the hospital. The doctors put her heart back in rhythm but some scans suggested possible problems with the pancreas and liver. She was back here the end of January for further tests and it was discovered she had cancer of the pancreas. Doctors gave her about six months, but she died in two.
At her funeral, I read a poem by our father, “The Second Mile,” a poem about the give and take necessary for people to live connected lives. Then, I said something like this: “My sister was a good woman. Some of us just get older. Kaye became wiser, more forgiving, and more compassionate. I loved her very much.”
I grieved my way through April. I found my feelings in some old songs and some new ones as well– Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” (What’ll I do If you should go away, what’ll I do?),” Norah Jones’ “Wake Me When It’s Over”(“But don’t shake me awake, don’t bend me or I will break”), Ferlin Huskey’s “Gone,” one of my sister’s records when I was a kid (“Since you’ve gone, the moon, the stars, and the sun in the sky know the reason why I cry”) and in a song Gwil Owen wrote and Toni Price recorded, “I’m Not Coming Home.”
I’ve been burnt by the storm
I’ve been washed by the rain,
I’ve been out here so long
I can’t remember my name
But I’m not coming home
And I don’t think I will see you again.
I am not sure why I find this song such an apt expression of my feelings. Like everyone else, I live in my home no matter where it may be and come to it every night. Still, home can be a powerful symbolic object for both longing and rejection, a place we most want to go because it represents some idealized love and a place we never want to go because it is the place where we were first hurt and often most deeply. I think my life has been lived out in an ambivalence that shifts endlessly between these two meanings of home. One meaning brings longing and grief for the home I lost when my father died, the other rejection and anger at the home that was left behind and, I guess, at my inability to make any kind of traditional home in my own life.
All of my family are buried in one cemetery in Hickman, KY, and all were church-going people—my father and mother Methodists and my sister and her family Southern Baptists. All believed in eternal life. I stand apart somehow. It isn’t what my father wished me for me. In poem he expressed the hope that I might find “the unerring will of God and with that will as your unerring guide your ships will sail on every tide to bring you richer blessings without cease of independence and peace.” My niece has said that in her final weeks my sister hoped “David would find Jesus.” I do not take either of their prayers lightly, but I have struggled too long to believe I am going to find what they called in church “the peace that passes all understanding.” Some of us are just born to and for the struggle.
Kaye’s funeral did make me think about my own end. I want to be cremated and have my ashes scattered at Doe Creek where my mother and father met, want no Christian liturgy, and have no expectations for a life beyond this one. Other than that, I haven’t gotten further than a song, Malcolm Holcombe’s “Down in the Woods.” It’s a lovely song about one path toward peace, not a grand path but a little one and not a complicated one but a simple one. My father, I want to believe, would somehow understand.
Here is the first verse and chorus:
Way down in the woods
Far From the highways
Away from the moments
Unnoticed and gone
Way Down in the woods
Touching moss so soft
On the deadwoods dying
In time’s fertile arms
Thank God for the stars
That shine in the heavens
Thank God for where you are
In your traveling steps
Way down in the woods
I will go for my rest
Way down in the woods
I will go.