In the spring of 2011, an indie rock band out of Los Angeles had just released their sophomore album. The reviews were pouring in. Expectations were high for the band with the sensational albeit unconventional breakout hit “Sometime Around Midnight.”
And I was oblivious.
In the spring of 2011, I was pregnant with my first child. For me, the responsibilities were pouring in. Expectations of my own were higher than ever before. Caring for this unborn child was top priority. No distractions allowed. Not music. Not even writing. The novel I had been working on for almost two years was shelved indefinitely. In fact, I gave up on the hope I would ever finish it at all. More exciting things were about to happen. There would be no time for writing, and I wasn’t sure I cared. I was going to be a Mom.
Yet it was during this time – that spring – that like it or not, I was being introduced to a band.
Hubby had found them on Pandora, and he liked what he heard. Their name was casually mentioned in conversations we had, but Hubby likes a lot of bands, and I thought he was going through a rotation with them. I was never that interested. I had a baby inside me, and there was no need for music. I didn’t fault him for having outside interests – I just didn’t care to have any myself. Nothing would distract from this single-minded goal of mine – to take care of myself, to have a healthy child, to be a good mom. A band was not going to help me with any of those things. Especially a band whose name I could not for the life of me remember anyway.
However, this was the band that was waking me up in the morning on Hubby’s cell phone. I dreaded one particular song he used as an alarm of which I didn’t even know the name. Its opening tones gently jostled me from sleep, but I knew I had seconds before the song blew up into a loud nightmare at 6:30am. I tried shaking the bed. I tried nudging his shoulder. I even tried kicking his shins. Fortunately, he usually woke up enough to hit the snooze button. But there were times he slept right through it all. And then it erupted with its loud guitar riffs and angry singer, until I yelled “Turn it offffffffff!”
The song was “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.”
And one day I finally told Hubby to pick a different song or sleep somewhere else.
This was also the band Hubby elected to listen to while we did chores around the house. One particular time, I remember we were irritated each other (probably because we had to do chores around the house) and we may have launched a few accusations and exchanged a few short words. Then Hubby disappeared and put on a song with a playful beginning but whose lyrics felt like they were being directed at me. “All these things that you say, like I’ll forget about the mind-numbing games that you play . . . I am a gentleman . . . didn’t I pay for every laugh, every dime, every bit every time, and then you feed me some line . . . I won’t hear one more word about Changing . . .”
Wait . . . I don’t play mind-numbing games, do I? Does he think I’m playing mind-numbing games? Does he think I don’t appreciate him? Does he think I’m asking him to change? Is that why he’s playing this? Oh my god, is he that mad at me that he is expressing his anger through music? I feel like this song is attacking me. I don’t like it.
It wasn’t, though. And he wasn’t. But the memory of that moment is forever attached to that song, like a disclaimer. This song is about me, but it isn’t. Or wasn’t. But maybe it was.
Then one night we were driving home from his parents’ house. The conversation we had in the car took on a serious tone. Perhaps we were having another “discussion.” The red and yellow lights of the highway raced past the windows. The sky above was cloudy. Nothing but darkness on this late night with the iPod on shuffle and the volume down low. The conversation suddenly stopped, or perhaps it gradually eased into silence. The next thing I remember was the song that came on, and Hubby turned the volume up. The pretty melody of the guitar filled the air. The melancholy feeling it gave me was uncanny. It had an early 80s rock ballad feel, and the harmonies were hauntingly beautiful. I was transfixed for almost four minutes, just feeling the emotion in this random song. Though when it was over, I never thought to ask what it was. But I never forgot that song, and I would go searching for it ever since. It was several months and a lifetime later before I figured out it was “All For A Woman.”
Not but a few weeks before our son was born, in the early summer of 2011, I was sitting in a booth at Applebee’s with Hubby, his friend who was visiting from out of town, and a few other friends of ours. I remember the shirt I was wearing – a hand-me-down maternity piece from my sister-in-law – slightly sweaty from the walk Hubby and I had just taken at a park nearby. I remember my round belly resting against the table, and I remember laughing with my best friend, who was sitting on the other side of me.
“You know that brand of cheese, Laughing Cow?” she said. “I always get the name wrong. I always call it Silly Moo Cheese.”
I giggled, then added, “Oh, that’s like me with this band Hubby is always listening to. I call them ‘The Atomic Fireballs’ but I know that’s wrong.” I leaned over to him. “What’s that band you like now? The Atomic Fireballs?”
Hubby took a breath and narrowed his eyes. Then he sighed out his exasperation. “You mean The Airborne Toxic Event?” he said slowly, like I was a child.
“Yes! That’s the one! Geez, what a long name for a band. How is anyone supposed to remember that?!”
These small, insignificant memories are like faded photographs – snapshots of my Old Life. Because it was just a few weeks later that our son, Wesley, was born. And then, he was gone, and life as we knew it and everything in it was blown to bits, unrecognizable rubble in a wasteland of ruins.
A month or two later, we were still just going through the motions, either crippled from grief or desperately numb. One evening, we decided to clean the house. Silently, we began to work, until like he always had before, Hubby chose the music.
It was my job to tackle the bathroom, and mid-toilet cleaning (where all life-changing moments happen), the sound of mournful violins filled the expanse of our house. They echoed in these ruins in the spaces between the rubble, and the valleys and caverns that had been left from an earthshaking, lifechanging event.
And I hated it.
It was the sound of mental anguish in a mind and in a place where there had been enough.
I marched into the living room, toilet brush in hand, as he was picking things up around the living room.
“Turn this off,” I ordered.
“Because it’s depressing. Listen to him. He misses her. He misses her. Turn it off!”
Likely, Hubby thought I had lost my mind. He was right, of course, which is why I can’t blame him for saying no. “I like it,” he declared.
An earthshattering, lifechanging event will teach a person which battles are worth fighting, and which songs are worth letting alone. Also, I was dripping toilet water on the carpet. I let him have his way and his depressing song and went back to cleaning the toilet.
There were bigger things at work here, however. Only later did I realize what this song actually did, and why it bothered me so much. I was in the middle of grieving, but just trying to stay numb, shutting out all emotion for fear it would open the floodgates and I wouldn’t be able to stop feeling every horrible, grief-stricken emotion that threatened to fill the canyons of my wasteland. And then this song comes on, cornering me, forcing me to feel the horrible emotions of someone else – a different kind of desperation, but a desperation nonetheless. This was not fiction, this was real. These events had truly happened to him. How else could he so accurately, so acutely, make me feel as though it had happened to me?
But then I suddenly felt as if it had.
This song reminded me of something. A memory. A fictional place long buried by time and the destruction of an empire.
In those few minutes of that song, a part of me resurfaced that I thought I’d never find again.
It’s hard to explain what losing a child is like, because it’s so many things all at once. But one of the results is a kind of amnesia, an inability to recall events before the loss occurred. And not just events, but it reaches its cold hands even further back and erases entire memories as well, so that a person is left with nothing but a shell and a sense of “How did I end up here?” It is confusing and scary both to the person experiencing it and the people who are helpless to watch it happen.
But this song reminded me that I was a writer. That I had started my own story about unrequited love. That it was about a song, about a musician, about life and loss and disappointment and that desperate feeling “You just had to see her, you know that she’ll break you in two.”
It happened so suddenly, a bolt of lightning from the swell of a song. I was struck with inspiration. Driven to finish. Did he ever tell her? I wondered. Does she know this song exists?
I raced back to the living room as the song finished. “Play it again,” I ordered.
This time, I remembered to ask him the name.
“Sometime Around Midnight.”
What a title for this short story, I thought. What a scene it creates in the listener’s mind, from the bar lights to the band, to her melancholy smile and white dress, to her “tonic like a cross.” This song was brilliant. Brilliant! A breathtaking combination of literature and music. It literally transcended the emptiness I felt, the unwillingness I had to feel something so tragic, and the desolation of my own creativity. It filled me with wonder, forced me to feel and deal, and sparked my interest in finishing that stupid book.
Now I was consumed with the desire to write. In just over a month, I blew away the proverbial dust on things I considered “outside interests” earlier that year and made them worth working for. I blazed through a 400-page Word Document, rewriting as necessary, and finished my first novel. I started listening to music again, too, swapping bands with friends like trading cards. But nothing inspired me more than this Airborne Toxic Event.
I listened to All At Once on repeat during writing sessions that would last until dawn. It wasn’t so much the lyrics I was listening to at the time, either, but simply the music. I was enchanted with the idea of a rock band with a violinist, like this was something groundbreaking, and I had always planned to use this idea for my story about the musician. Now there was a band just like the one I imagined. In the deranged mind of a writer, this was akin to the stars and planets aligning. This was where the lines of fiction and reality were blurred, like something from my imagination escaped into the real world.
And in a world that was now a wasteland, this was like finding a cave in the side of a mountain full of glittering, glowing gems, made brilliant by the pressure and refined by all the ecological changes that had occurred from something that could destroy the empire under which it lay.
These were the days when The Airborne Toxic Event was simply the background noise that echoed in these ruins.
Then one day, a month or two after I finished my book, I was waist-deep in the process of editing when I listened to “The Graveyard Near the House.”
A line struck me out of nowhere: “And so I pictured us like corpses, lying side by side in pieces.”
I remember sitting on the bed with my laptop when my heart stopped for a moment. What had I been listening to?
I Googled the lyrics, started the song over, and finally heard it for the first time the way it was meant to be heard.
Mid-song, I was bawling my eyes out.
It was a mirror – I heard myself in the words. It was also like a window – I heard my husband. I heard a conversation we were having constantly in the weeks and months since Wesley died. I saw us there each night, when we would “talk and read and laugh and sleep at night in bed together.” I saw myself “wake in tears sometimes”wondering if he would “be a good man and stay behind if I got old.” I realized I shared the same belief, that “it’s better to love whether you win or lose or die.” And there I was with the memory of my son, carving his name out of the sky, and trying desperately to “write it all down”at the same time I was absolutely terrified of losing my best friend, my husband.
It was uncanny, hearing someone else lay bear everything going through your mind and every emotion bleeding from your broken heart and every fear that keeps you up at night.
I raced into the living room where Hubby was watching TV.
“Oh my God,” I said, tears still streaming down my face.
“What?” He turned off the TV in a panic. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh my God. Have you heard ‘The Graveyard Near the House’?”
“The Graveyard Near the House! Have you heard it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“The Airborne Toxic Event!”
“Oh. OH. Yeah. Yes. I think so.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“About that song!”
“What about it?”
“Oh. Yeah. It is, I guess. Sorry.”
“It sounds like it’s about us.”
“Look up the lyrics. You’ll see. It’s about us.”
Hubby went back to the TV, and I went back to the bedroom, still confused and a little shaken. I knew I had probably scared him to death. Perhaps he even felt guilty he hadn’t warned me, as we try to prepare each other for anything that might even smack of something sad. And “Graveyard” was a full-blown descent into the reality of life, love, and loss.
These ruins are very isolated. So few people understand the weight of the loss, and how deep these ruins truly run. They confuse people. They scare people into silence. They provoke the most thoughtless conclusions from others who are quick to cast judgment. We were alone in this vast canyon of sadness, ignored by some, and misunderstood by most, if not all.
To hear a song that perfectly matched the way I felt, down to the very core of my being, was as shocking as a voice out of the sky. Where did it come from? Whose was it?
Who wrote this?
to be continued . . . .