I am on yet another road trip, alone in the car, fueled by loud, loud music.
A smooth road unfurls before me. On the passenger seat, riding shotgun, is a stack of homemade burned compact discs, with precious Sharpie’d labels in Jeff’s familiar handwriting.
Among our marital worldly goods that he left behind like a shed skin: hundreds, thousands of slim jewel cases. Music powers my frequent solitary road trips and jumpstarts many, many memories.
The last year of his life, Jeff was mostly too weak to work. But he did have his projects, his myriad creative diversions. I suppose art, photography, music kept his mind off all he would soon be giving up, when he had to leave us, as he knew he must.
He requested music from the library, which I dutifully delivered, and he spent a LOT of time loading many genres onto his iPod – an early model – this was 2008.
(Afterwards, I gave the treasured iPod to his best friend, who cherishes it for the friendship AND the music contained therein – old blues, folk, rare jazz. Coltrane, Zappa, Hendrix, Dead. I love to think of Matt in his studio, working along to music selected by Jeff.)
Back in the day, Jeff’s friends perfected a gleeful, teasing Flanagan imitation which consisted of shaking their heads sadly, throwing up open hands in mock despair, and declaring “WHY do you need Zeppelin when you’ve already got Hendrix??” He used to make fun of me for indulging in my fondness for Led Zeppelin; tease me about their ringlet-tossing, long haired blonde skinny girl singer with the high, high voice. Uh, that would be Robert Plant.
Yet among the handwritten labels is plenty of old Zeppelin. All for me. Thank you, baby.
I recently talked to a fellow widow in the grocery store. Her life is also good, as good as it can be. We talked about our work, our diversions, our children, our dead husbands. As one does. Wearing a music festival t-shirt, discussing going to hear music together some night, she reached up to fondle a guitar amulet around her neck, a symbol of her own husband lost to us. We talked about how music breaks us, then builds us back up.
Today I’m making a long and roundabout trek from Hampton Beach, New Hampshire to our family camp in Sullivan, Maine, by way of Rockland. My finger on the map traces a familiar route. On the actual road, my body remembers each curve, each bump. Part of the route is the back way that Jeff designed to avoid the toll and construction at the roundabout in Augusta. I haven’t been on this road since I was a passenger, my husband at the wheel. Once again, my body decides all by itself to suddenly veer from happy sunglass’d woman, hands on steering wheel, to widow leaking fluids yet again, remembering. Something about the wide-open landscape of the highway undoes me. The number of times I’ve cried alone in the car is uncountable.
The same music that soothes me can in the next moment eviscerate. I suppose it will be ever thus. A few notes, like Proust’s wafted scent of madeleine, can open up a flood of memory.
My mind drifts back to the previous night. The evening could hardly be more idyllic. A perfect summer sunset. The venue: a riverside park flanked by luscious flower gardens. A favorite singer songwriter is nearly close enough to touch, working his magic. I am in a happy bouncing crowd by the stage, dancing, as my guitar hero Richard Thompson has suggested we might.
A familiar opening guitar riff. Along with the crowd, I cheer. But suddenly, surprisingly, I am crying. Or, my body is, without my knowledge or forethought. Damn tears! A few notes into the song, my body responds on its own: both hands clasp to my mouth, as if I am witnessing a current tragedy, not body-living an old one. My body understands before I do what my ears hear, brain finally deciphers. The song reveals itself: Tear Stained Letter. The phrase was Jeff’s wry shorthand to describe what we wrote to explain our circumstances to the college financial aid offices. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer near the end of our daughter’s junior year in high school, when the college search begins in earnest. The recession had just started, dropping the bottom out from so many. We weren’t alone in that. But for many years, Jeff and I ran a business together, which we could not sustain while he was “in treatment”. No income. Assets quickly diminished. No happy ending here. Hence: The Tear Stained Letter.
This night I am happy; I am dancing. I am here with my up-for-anything, self-described “Peter Pan” beau, with whom I share many fun adventures. He’s seen this many times. He asks me what’s wrong. But I can’t. It’s too complicated to explain. I shake my head, wave away an explanation.
This too shall pass. My life is good. My child is happy; that’s all that matters. But the memory of what happened to our family, this wrenching loss, lives on inside me and always will. Apparently. “Cry, cry if it makes you feel better. Set it all down in a tear-stained letter.”
My job now, the only way I can hope to be happy, is to engage, revel in the world of the living, the world of sunsets and picnics and connections “in the moment or moments” I find them. Although all wrapped up in sadness, my love for Jeff, his love for me, must propel me forward. Not hold me back.
This melancholy will pass. It always does. Life is short and summer is sweet. It is our duty to make the most of it for those who cannot. Behind my sunglasses, I continue driving, heading up to camp, The House That Jeff Built. The sunny smooth road, blueblue sky, impossibly white puffy summer clouds remind me that life is for the living. Damn it all.