I don’t enjoy singing in public. Generally, I don’t enjoy anything that precipitates an anxiety attack. Singing is like reading one’s words aloud as one writes them, and it doesn’t matter if it’s in front of an audience of one or one thousand – it makes me physically ill. My throat closes, my chest tightens, and I gasp for air as if I am being suffocated. I guess you would call it “stage fright,” though what frightens me the most is the way singing exposes a person’s soul to interpretation and criticism.
However, there was a time when I wasn’t so concerned with exposure. As a child, I loved being onstage. The spotlight felt warm, familiar, and blinding, like the sun at the beach. In school I auditioned for the starring role in every production. I joined chorus and involved myself in extracurricular activities related to theater and music. One teacher told my mother that I was either going to be an actress or a writer, and both careers had her scared to death because probably neither would allow me to support myself financially. But I had a passion for the stage and the pen that has transcended to adulthood.
After high school, I pursued a more reasonable career path, but turned singing into a hobby. I paid for singing lessons and enjoyed learning how to train and strengthen my voice. My instructor encouraged me to get involved with community theater, confident that I had both talent and skill, and I honestly felt her disappointment when my other goals and pursuits did not line up with the stage. Eventually, I quit the lessons and life took over – marriage, moving, and the mundane day-to-day activities that left very little time for hobbies like singing or writing.
Since he was a 16-year-old bass player in a garage band, Hubby has been trying to get me to record something with him. He doesn’t sing much, but he loves music, and playing the guitar is more than just a hobby for him – it’s a talent in his family that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Over the years we have acquired some equipment and practiced here and there, but the majority of time has been spent talking about it and never actually doing anything. Other than a couple inebriated karaoke sessions at our local taco joint, my singing career – I mean hobby – had become stagnant.
Then when Wesley died, it was over.
Like so many things I used to enjoy, singing was something I thought I could no longer do. Unlike mindless humming or the repetition of words in a song on the radio, real singing - the soul-exposing, heart-revealing expression of melodies that come from deep within – was an impossibility for a long time.
Likewise, and most disturbingly of all, Hubby stopped playing the guitar altogether. He refused to even pick it up. At one time, he even considered selling it, because even though it was my graduation gift to him, it became a sore sight in the living room. Grief will do that to a person, and it is non-discriminatory. Grief doesn’t care that you are a 4th+ generation musician. It will blow the skill right out of your brain, and then beat you with it.
On the flip side, grief can also be harnessed and used to create art. But this doesn’t always happen automatically or immediately.
It was during that terrible dark year following Wesley’s death and my miscarriage that I “discovered” The Airborne Toxic Event, and the song “The Graveyard Near The House” hit very, very close to home. It felt like one of the many conversations we were having during those horrible months of accepting our reality and reeling from the nightmarish truth that our lives could end at any time, and what would happen then?
It is a love song for the realists, a fact which makes it quite possibly the most romantic song of them all.
It is also known to make me weep shamelessly at concerts. Or in the privacy of my own home, when no one is around. I have heard it literally thousands of times, and there are moments still when a certain line or note will hit me right between the ribs where I think I’ve so cleverly hidden and buried my fears, only to discover they are collecting at the surface, seeping and festering on an open wound.
When we finally reached the point of
desperation readiness to start trying for another baby, we began filling the great abysmal unknown with negative pregnancy tests and the last pieces of what were once hopes and dreams. We started having conversations about adoption, or selling everything and buying a couple motorcycles and never walking through the baby aisle of a department store ever again.
Infertility is a grief of its own, a vacuum of despair and humiliation that steals a person’s humanity.
We were already humbled within an inch of our lives when our son died. Then came the miscarriage, and now I was having trouble getting pregnant a third time. Meanwhile, our friends were having babies left and right, as we were slowly going insane.
So one day in the spring of 2013, I snapped.
“I want you to play me a song,” I told Hubby, and I handed him the guitar I got him when we were 18.
“No,” he said, pushing it away. “I’m probably going to sell it, anyway.”
I bit my lip, ignoring the hurt I felt that he would sell his graduation present. But this wasn’t personal – this was grief. And like all issues I feel strongly about, I continued to push it until he finally relented. I mean agreed.
“Just think of it as an art project,” I told him. “Let’s use all that equipment we paid good money for.”
And then I pulled out the big guns. “You always said you wanted to make music with me.”
Hubby can’t resist a challenge.
First, Hubby had to learn the song by watching live performances of “Graveyard” on YouTube. This took him less than an hour. Then we had practice sessions in our living room for a couple of weeks. Lastly, he cleaned the dust off his effects pedal and microphone and we set a date to record it live.
We talked about various locations around town where we could film it, but nothing seemed feasible without an electrical outlet. We had to think smaller.
Our filming date coincided with his parents’ camping trip, so out of convenience our location was chosen for us – the back deck of his parents’ house that overlooks the woods. It’s a picturesque little backyard in the springtime, and it also afforded us the use of electricity and unlimited trips to the refrigerator, which ended up being a necessity. We were unprepared for the amount of time this was going to take.
Hubby began setting up for the shoot, and then it hit me, what we were about to do.
I had baited him with talk of putting it on Facebook and YouTube without really considering my proposal: that other people would see it. I was throwing myself under the bus to get my husband to play the guitar again, because one of us losing ourselves in this fight to survive was enough, but both of us was unacceptable. And also I had gone a little bit insane.
But in a moment of clarity before the camera started rolling, I panicked as if I was stepping onstage. It didn’t matter that the audience was an as yet undetermined amount of people – someone was guaranteed to see it, even if it was just my mother-in-law. And in the months and years since Wesley, my social anxiety has grown into an out-of-control wildfire that threatens to consume me into staying inside and being a hermit for the rest of my days.
Nevertheless, I was fed up with life. I had all but given up. What difference would it make, really, if I put a stupid video of me making a fool out of myself on the Internet? Even if it was truly awful, no one could have made me feel worse about myself than I already felt.
Besides, if nothing else, Hubby can play the guitar, and he looks good playing the guitar. So it couldn’t be all bad. Could it?
We spent hours doing take after take. A dog would start barking, and we would have to stop. A plane would fly overhead, and ruin our audio. And I kept having waves of anxiety that threatened to steal my breath and voice and made my skin tingle. The left side of my face eventually went numb. But we kept going until we finally hit our stride and got a decent take.
The sun was setting on our way home. A full day of playing the guitar and singing, to make up for the years of silence in our marriage where there should have been music.
Hubby spent a week editing the video. I suggested we add a black-and-white filter, as a tribute to the band’s video. I watched it one time, all the while resisting the urge to criticize myself out of existence. Again, what did it matter? I was already becoming a ghost in my own life, wasting away from grief and desperation. Who really gives a crap, anyway? Not me.
I declared it “not terrible” and we put it online. And then I tried to forget about it, like I do everything that requires some kind of soul-exposure. Even blogging. Even this blog post.
Over time, I’ve tried not to think about it. I never watched it again, and I refuse to listen to the audio recording. I can’t take it, and I can’t even really explain why. I think it has something to do with the fear of my own severe, harsh, and sometimes unfounded criticism that I only use on myself being realized, and then I will truly never sing or write or do anything creative ever again. And it doesn’t matter that a few people saw it and actually liked it, or were inspired by it to do something creative themselves, or were just glad we had done something that didn’t involve sobbing over our pain. If I were to watch it again, it’s like singing in public, except it was a year and a half ago, but the anxiety is still hanging around.
The only reason I started thinking about it again was because Hubby was tagged by some of his old band mates in some viral social medial survey in which they requested to know his Top Favorite 20 Songs Of All Time. Amongst other respectable choices, there was “The Graveyard Near The House.”
“Really?” I said. “‘Graveyard’ made the cut?” Because I’m surprised when Hubby mentions in any capacity the band that has taken over his wife, and is sometimes met with affection, other times with annoyance. I always forget that he was the one who introduced me to them, not the other way around.
“Yes, of course ‘Graveyard,'” he replied like I should have known better. “Those are just some of the best lyrics ever written.”
And then out of the blue, I suddenly remembered I sung that song in the public forum that is YouTube.
“Hey, remember when we did our ‘Graveyard’ video?”
I paused to remember the person I was in that video – that desperate, grieving shell of a person.
“Why did we do that?”
Now it was Hubby’s turn to pause. He thought for a moment and then simply said, “Because we had to.”
He is right. We had to. We had to do something. Even if it was just a makeshift, homespun little music video covering an obscure song that isn’t even on the radio. Even if no one will watch it, or think it is anything great, or even if they think it’s awful. We had to do it. Whether it’s because we were at the very end of our rope emotionally, mentally, and physically and we just had to put something out there into the void . . . or we risked losing the last of the charred remains of an empire that was our past selves if we didn’t cultivate and nurture our creative roots. We had to do it.
And it had to be this song, because there isn’t another love song for realists out there – the people who openly discuss the devastation and downright absurdity of death in the same breath they acknowledge that love is worth it, no matter the outcome. Win, lose, or die . . . in the end, it’s better to love, whether the person is your spouse, the unborn children you’re hoping for, or the dead child you miss so much it hurts. This is our soul-exposing, heart-revealing truth. In the end, love wins.
Since then, Hubby has picked up the guitar more, and has even written his own songs. We even learned a few more Airborne songs, and other songs that were fun to play.
It’s a slow process of rebuilding the people like the ones we used to be. And although I will probably never sing onstage in public again, it’s nice to know that the soul-exposing, heart-revealing person I used to be is not completely gone forever, and might be salvageable after all.
Here is our video. It’s not anything special. It’s probably not even really that great. But we had to do it.