I remember it all as if it were yesterday.
I remember waking up the next morning – Saturday – the gray light filtering through heavy clouds and through the blinds. “This Too Shall Pass” by OK Go was playing softly in the background of my brain as I opened my eyes. This strange phenomenon of a dream-state playlist has frequently occurred since childhood. Even while asleep, the music never stops playing. Only the songs change, and sometimes they are a reflection of whatever it is I’m wrestling with.
That morning, it was another bitter disappointment. I had missed My Band by a minute. We were supposed to be in Portland on vacation, yet we were still at home. The What-Ifs began piling up, smothering me, the heaviest of which was I was supposed to be a mom. It all seemed connected somehow, as if I were destined to fail at everything I tried to do.
Let it go. This too shall pass.
I sat up and sighed heavily.
Sometimes, more often than not, the thought of facing another day of disappointments is too much to bear. These days are a battleground, and before my feet even touch the floor, I’m already exhausted.
You can’t keep letting it get you down.
“Well,” Hubby said in defeat, “let’s go back to the festival and try to make the most of it.”
Make the most of it. Yes. Yes, this was our life now. Making the most of heartbreaking, crushing disappointment after disappointment. By now, we were pros at licking our wounds and pushing on.
And I was sick of it.
Maybe it was the music Hubby played that morning of all the up and coming bands were going to see that day. Songs like “Radioactive” by the then-unknown Imagine Dragons were blasting through our house and getting into my bloodstream. They were calling to me, beckoning me out of these ruins. But their promises were transient, if not completely unrealistic.
There was only one thing that could set me free.
It was on the way to the music festival that I told Hubby I had to go.
“We paid two-hundred dollars to go to this festival,” he reminded me, “and you want to throw the money away and spend more money.”
“I don’t think I can not go.”
“You want to drive two hours to see a band when you can see twenty bands right here.”
“I don’t care about the other bands.”
“If I give up now, I might as well just give up on everything. I might as well just not live anymore.”
“Over a band.”
I suddenly became indignant. How did he not get it? And he was probably thinking, When did my wife become so unreasonable, lacking all common sense?
“It’s more than just a band,” I told him.
He sighed and shook his head. “You’re on your own this time.”
“You’re not mad at me?”
“No. But I can’t do this anymore. I can’t follow you down these crazy paths anymore. It always ends in disaster. And it’s just so much money to throw away, Colleen. Seriously. I can’t consciously do this. But if you have to go, then you have to go. And besides, I really want to see Death Cab for Cutie tomorrow.”
“I don’t want to go by myself.”
“Find someone to go with you.”
“You really won’t come with me?”
I couldn’t be mad at him. I couldn’t blame him. This was something I had to do myself. Suddenly I became self-righteous, suiting up for a battle of my worst fears that I was lining up myself. I was Joan of Arc. I was Radioactive. I had gone a little insane, and there was only one cure versus a lifelong regret. And no amount of money could stop me from getting something I wanted, no matter how insignificant a band seemed to be in the Great Scheme of Things.
I called my best friend, the one who had seen them yesterday at the festival and sent me the pictures.
“How much do you love me?” I asked when she answered the phone.
I called my brother, too, because I literally had no idea what to expect, and I thought it never hurts to bring a guy along. Unless, of course, it is my brother. For those of you who know him, you know what I mean. Also: He knows what he did.
I invited another friend, too, who was going with us to the festival that day to see her own favorite band, Weezer. She didn’t even know who The Airborne Toxic Event was. Ironically, the only person who had seen them already was my best friend. She knew them all by name, and she wasn’t even a diehard fan. But I still think it was Steven Chen who got her to go, and not how much she loved me. Whatever the case was, I didn’t care. I was going.
I finally had hope.
I could enjoy the music festival. I could smile and have a good time. I could dance and sing along with Imagine Dragons in the rain. I could rock out with Weezer that night from the second row. I was free, albeit for the lingering fears that tomorrow I would be stuck in traffic, the car would break down, my printed-at-home tickets would somehow be invalid, or all three. I was almost certain one or all of those things would happen, because catastrophe was always breathing down my neck.
But tomorrow, this time I was coming off the victor.
Hubby gave me the rundown of concert-going due to my general inexperience, despite a full day of a music festival. Get there early, he told me. Make friends with the people in line with you. Stick with people you feel safe around.
“I’m going to try to meet them. Do you think it’s possible? How will I know?”
“Just hang around afterward.” He chuckled, then added, “What are you going to say to him? Your Guy?”
He meant Mikel Jollett. My Band. My Guy.
“I don’t know. Hopefully not something weird.”
“You should tell him you’re a writer.”
“Yeah. Maybe I should.”
“You should tell him about your book.”
“Yeah. You know what? Maybe I will.”
More fears were lining up. I have trouble speaking to people on the phone. I have trouble speaking up for myself. Yet I was going to somehow tell this mythological figure of a rockstar and prolific writer that I was a writer too. The idea was laughable, and scared me to death. But I was desperate. If I could do that, I could do anything.
“You know what?” I added. “I’m going to get him to kiss me.”
“Really!” Hubby cried. “Go for it.”
“You don’t think I can.”
“Oh, no, it’s not that. Why wouldn’t he want to? Look at you. You’re beautiful. He’d be crazy not to. But now I’m kinda sorry I’m not going.”
“Why? You still can!”
“No. You should do this. You can do this. You don’t need me. Go knock him dead. I hope you get it all. All you ever wanted. Just . . . don’t forget about me. And remember we’re getting on a plane early the next morning. Hopefully.”
I was filled with love and adoration for this man who shares my heartbreaks and my joys. It is his faith in me that makes me feel like I can do anything. Even something as scary as leaving these ruins temporarily without him. Even speaking to a rockstar, my hero and idol and musical crush these last several months. I couldn’t let him down. I had to prove to him that it was still possible, to have these dreams – crazy though they might be – and make them come true.
I could hardly sleep the night before. The next day – Sunday – I was a trembling mess. I picked up my group and drove them two hours north to a city I had rarely visited, terrified as every mile passed. What if I get us lost? What if we don’t get there in time? What if this whole thing turns out to be a one huge, gigantic failure? What if the band isn’t what I imagined at all?
As we listened to their music on the ride up, I had a sudden heart attack of terror: What if they were just this big melancholy, depressing show? The lyrics, after all, are so tragic – the very reason why I liked them so much. What if the whole thing was like a funeral, leaving everyone depressed and wondering why I dragged them to such a dismal event?
I asked my best friend, “So . . . I mean, they put on a good show, right?”
“Yeah. They do. The guitarist, Steven – he’s pretty hot.”
“What about Mikel?”
“Uh . . . he looks . . . good . . . I guess.” She said ‘good’ as if the word was being slowly drawn out into the air with a syringe.
“Well. You know. He’s old.”
“You’ll like them,” she reassured me, as if she knew I was beginning to doubt The Whole Thing.
Nevertheless, we arrived without a hitch. We got in line behind less than twelve people, and I desperately tried to hide the fact I was trembling and shaking and wishing I was safe at home. But the thought of seeing My Band, after all this time, and all this trouble, was stronger than any cowardice left remaining. I bit the bullet and turned my introverted nature inside out, making small talk with the strangers standing around me. A mother with her teenaged son and daughter who appeared more excited to see them than they were. A couple with a young son, longtime fans who reassured me it was going to be a great show.
I started to get excited. It was finally happening. I was here. And just on the other side of those walls, so were they.
After two painfully long hours, the doors opened and we filed inside. I stood behind the couple with the little boy, across from the center of the stage. My best friend stood behind me with the camera, ready to take pictures of the whole experience.
I tried to stand still and stop trembling.
But so much was riding on them, and me. They were oblivious to my presence – this brokenhearted girl who defied logic and reason and common sense just to be there. I was bleeding from the inside, desperate from painful disappointments and tragedy just a year ago. Just a month ago. But it was all happening today, and every day since. In my mind, Wesley dies every day he does not live, and I somehow have to go on trying to stay alive. But staying alive is not the same as living.
Tonight, I wanted to truly live.
I didn’t want to be a grieving, bereaved mother. I didn’t want to be on the other end of sad, pitying eyes. All I wanted was to be a fan. And I wanted to be happy, just like everyone else in this room.
To onlookers, that was how I probably appeared.
But when the doors closed outside, they closed on my sadness. There was no yesterday. There was no tomorrow. There were no stunning ruins. There was only now.
Me and The Airborne Toxic Event.
This couple I had been standing behind had no idea that when they let me stand next to them, in the front row by the barrier, they were ensuring I was going to have the best night of my life so far, the best night I could ever hope to have, the very remedy for a heart stricken with neverending grief from the worst tragedy that could ever happen to a person. I will never forget their kindness.
And when his microphone was placed in its place onstage directly adjacent from me, I couldn’t believe what was happening. It was all happening, all at once. Everything I ever hoped for. All I ever wanted. This was it. The rest was up to them.
The lights dimmed. The crowd began to cheer. And from the darkness, and from my imagination, they all appeared, one by one. Daren, Noah, Steven, Anna . . . and finally Mikel.
He picked up his Silver Falcon. He stared into a waiting, hopeful crowd as Steven began to play. And when he opened his mouth to sing “All At Once,” I suddenly knew this was always where I was supposed to be. Right here, front and center. Right here, right in front of this stranger I didn’t even know, but whose songs I knew by heart. These songs that lived and breathed in my ruins, that lit up the skies with their lyrics, that offered comfort in a way only the power of music can. It was all here, and it was all happening right in front of me.
And then it hit me like a gust of air on which to glide: These were not sad songs, and this was not a melancholy funeral for the deaths of someone else’s dreams along with my own.
This was a party. A celebration of being alive. And The Airborne Toxic Event was our host, providing the music for which to sing along, and of which we all knew the words whether longtime fan or not. We were all dying and hurting for one reason or another, but we were all here for one reason and one reason only.
“Isn’t it a great night to be alive?” Mikel Jollett cried in the middle of the song.
Yes. Not just to be alive, but to live.
One by one, they went through hitting the highlights of their two-album catalog of songs. “Gasoline” burned down the room. “Numb” had us shaking from being anything but. Even “The Graveyard Near the House” was given due respect with Mikel on an acoustic guitar and Anna with her shining viola, two single spotlights on one gorgeous song. I wept shamelessly, but not for the reasons you’d think. I was just so happy to be there, to see these songs that somehow were mine be made real and beautiful for what they truly were. Though I had listened to them in the depths of despair, and they echoed in my ruins during the darkest of days, they made me so happy on this night, I was shouting them at the top of my lungs, screaming and smiling and feeling as if I had finally found a way outside of myself and could fly in an open space, carried only by a melody.
“Sometime Around Midnight.”
There was just one problem.
It was a small one. Even a stupid one. One I had no control over, and would therefore have to overlook.
He did not seem to notice I was even there.
I was standing right in front of him, and he never looked at me. Not even once.
Noah and Steven made eye contact with me a few times. We smiled at each other, as I danced around like an idiot to the music they were playing on their guitars just a few feet away from me. Suddenly they were not members of a band, but guys at a party we had all been invited to. I was enchanted with this way of things – how different it was from every concert I had ever been to! What raw talent they possessed! What charm!
But Mikel was the aloof leader, determined and precise, though smiling and absolutely proving every inclination I had to be correct, and proving my best friend wrong. Sure, Steven was hot. But Mikel had charisma.
I was so drunk on enchantment and high on happiness, the disappointment from his lack of any kind of small acknowledgement paled in comparison to the fact they were everything I ever hoped for, and then some. Not only were they talented musicians, they were performers who played to their audience. The observation has since been made that they appear to be having just as much fun as their audience, and I could not agree more. They love what they get to do, and it’s impossible not to love what they are doing in return.
When they came back for the encore, we all were the drones of “Missy,” shouting the lyrics with smiling faces – to the band, to each other, to the world. There are no strangers at an Airborne concert. We are all friends for one night, the audience members together with the band. Such chemistry is a rare and beautiful thing.
Then it was over so fast. The lights came on, and we all awoke collectively from a single dream.
Still, a few of us waited by the stage, hoping the band would return for pictures and autographs. I had my Sharpie ready. My brother graciously bought me a shirt to have them sign should they appear. My heart was heavy with hope. Could I really do everything I said I would? Could I really swallow my shyness and be the kind of person I always admired – brave?
Suddenly, Steven appeared. My best friend squealed with delight.
We took pictures and collected signatures. He was gracious and friendly. I, however, was trembling from a sudden rush of shyness. I could barely speak to him except to snap a quick picture. He signed my shirt. Then I sunk into the background as others took their turns.
I bit my lip. Mikel was nowhere to be seen.
Still, I told myself, he was everything I thought he would be. Everything a talented musician should be. It was more than I could ever hope for, just to be here tonight. Just to stand in the front row to see my favorite band. After everything I had been through to see them, I couldn’t complain. Perhaps it was just as well, even. Maybe he would have been a pompous jerk, as rockstars can be known to be. And that would have been worse than not meeting him at all.
I was still wearing a smiling face when I left the building, absolutely giggling with glee with my best friend, who got to meet her rockstar crush. There was so much to be happy for. I was ready to get on a plane in just a few hours, even though I felt like I could fly there myself.
My best friend offered to drive home. I sat in the passenger seat as we drove around the building, staring off into the memory of the evening.
“Oh my god!” she cried. “That’s him!”
We passed a small group of people outside the venue. I turned to look, but she had already passed them, heading up the road and away from the building.
I screamed for her to turn around.
Further down the road, she did a quick U-turn and stopped several yards away from where he was standing.
I jumped out of the car, but I wasn’t excited.
I was terrified. Absolutely scared out of my mind. All the What-Ifs were smothering me again. All the fears were lined up in the space between he and I, and I gathered whatever courage I could muster to slay them all.
I had no idea what I was going to say. My mind was blank as I took slow, deliberate steps towards him. Each step was an act of defiance against my will. Every inch I crossed was a victory.
There he was just, just a few feet away. Yet there were miles and miles between us.
As I was still walking toward him, he casually glanced at me.
Then he immediately looked again, the way a person does when they recognize you from somewhere. As if we already knew each other, and he just happened to forgot where or how.
At that moment, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t believe what had happened, what was about to happen.
“Hey!” he cried, leaving the group he had been talking to, and walking straight over to me. Miles became inches. And then suddenly he was standing in front me, smiling. Suddenly I didn’t have a brain. Or legs. Or the ground beneath my feet.
“You were in the front row, weren’t you!” he declared.
But thank god, I still had a voice.
“Yes,” I said.
“You were my favorite tonight. You knew all the words to the songs. You were just dancing around having a great time. You were fun to watch.”
Wait. Wait a second. But you didn’t even look at me! You NEVER made eye contact with me! You didn’t know I was there! Yet here you are, talking to me like we’re old friends, like we’ve known each other for years, like you knew I was there . . . all along. . .
I must have blushed a deep and unattractive purple. In half a second I thought back to my “dancing around” and wanted to go curl up and die somewhere, feeling as if he had caught me in an intimate moment. I probably looked like I was having a seizure for two hours, yet somehow that was “fun to watch”?
I’m not sure what happened to me. Maybe my subconscious felt he was taking cheap shots at my dignity, because I didn’t believe him. “Listen,” I told him in stone-cold seriousness. “You have no idea what it took for me to get here tonight.”
“Really!” he cried. “Tell me.”
I blinked, feeling as if he turned the spotlight around on me. This was it. There was no turning back. I had his attention, for whatever reason, and I was not going to squander it.
So I told him about the airport, about the music festival, about just missing the show. He said he was sorry. He apologized. To ME. Who am I???
We talked about Portland when I told him I was going there tomorrow. And with each moment that passed, I felt myself getting bolder.
“You’re a really inspiring writer to me. I’m a writer, too. Sort of.”
“What do you write?”
Wait. You’re supposed to have said ‘thank you’ and I was supposed to feel embarrassed. Now I only feel embarrassed, but for no logical reason.
“Um . . . er . . . I wrote a book, I guess.”
“What’s it about?”
No! YOU CAN’T ASK ME THAT! You are ignoring your lines! You are supposed to say something benign, like “Oh, that’s cool” or “Good for you.” NOT WHAT’S IT ABOUT.
“Uh . . . it’s just this stupid story I wrote. About music, or something.” Please don’t ask me to elaborate, because I think I will have a heart attack and die right in front of you, and then die from embarrassment of having died in front of you.
“Are you going to get it published?”
“Er . . . I don’t know. Maybe. Probably not.”
“Um . . . I dunno.” I looked at my feet as I shuffled them. To him, I probably looked every bit of the 8-year-old girl I felt like, simultaneously regretting this conversation as much as I was basking in it and wishing it would never end.
And for whatever reason, the honesty just came out of nowhere and out of my mouth: “I just don’t have confidence in myself.”
“You should get it published. Just publish it. Just do it.” He continued on in this momentary rant of how I needed to publish my book, this stupid story he had no idea I had written about a band like his, of music like the kind he had written, and how I used to listen to the very songs he played tonight to inspire me. How it was these very songs that got me back to writing in the first place, when I thought that part of me was swept away and lost forever in the death of my son and myself.
I was overcome with that Twilight Zone feeling, of everything coming together and happening in plot twist after plot twist, as if we were just acting out what had already been written down. But it was all happening now, everything I hoped for. Dreamed of. There was just one thing left to do.
He ended his rant with “You don’t want to be ninety years old one day going, ‘I should have published my book!'”
He said this in an old-lady voice, which was so freaking adorable and funny, I couldn’t help but laugh. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it. You’ve convinced me. I’ll do it. Someday.” All the while I thought, But you have no idea that it’s a giant pile of crap, and published or not, you’ll never know. You don’t even know who I am. You think I’m just some silly fangirl, and tonight I am. And I think you’re just some hotshot musician. But we’re both wrong.
Still. I was keeping up the ruse. He could think I was some silly fangirl, because the fear of being myself was too great a fear to slay at this time, with everything that came with just being me.
The fear of asking for a kiss? That was nothing.
“Thank you so much. Tonight was without a doubt the best night of my life.” It was now or never. “Can I give you a kiss?”
This felt like some sort of game I was playing, and for all intents and purposes, it was. Arm your fears like soldiers and slay them. And to my surprise – and relief – he was playing along.
He leaned forward and I kissed his cheek. And then he kissed mine.
He signed the shirt my brother had bought for me. He took a picture with me. He thanked me for coming, and we said our goodbyes.
But he would never know what that night meant for me. He will go on to play a hundred more shows and meet a thousand other people, even silly fangirls just like me. But he will never truly know the personal victories of shy girl so broken, of the bright spots of happiness of a grief-stricken mom without a son, of the wounded and dying bird who just wanted to fly.
Or does he?
That night I came home with my stories and spoils. Hubby didn’t believe me at first until I showed him the evidence of the pictures and video my best friend had taken. She had recorded “Sometime Around Midnight” in its entirety, even capturing my sudden turning around to smile at the camera. And I wondered how a person could look so happy when they were so sad inside. It was a beautiful illusion. It was a living dream. We were just actors in a play on some cosmic stage, and at the end of the show we go back to our regularly scheduled lives of heartbreaks and tragedies, with the memories as relics of a Good Show.
Except this time, the relics were a signed T-shirt, a guitar pick, and the lingering kiss on the cheek from a rockstar.
What does this mean?
What do I do now?
I refused to believe this was somehow The End of the story. There was so much I wanted to write. So much I wanted to do. So much life I wanted to now live.
I tossed and turned that night, replaying the events of the evening in my mind as I wondered what lie in store now that I had finally succeeded. That maybe I wasn’t a failure after all. Maybe there was hope for me. For us.
We finally made it to Portland, and we had a fantastic time. Another victory.
What else could I conquer?
I started training for The Color Run 5K. I was always the fat kid in school who ran one-fourth of The Mile and walked the rest of the way, huffing and puffing. Now I was going to run over three miles consecutively, and not just run it, but have fun doing it. I listened to “Welcome to Your Wedding Day,” running in time with the song to wake up stubborn legs, the way it used to wake us up in the morning all those months ago. I listened to “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” as I ran with a smile, thinking back to Mikel’s antics during the show – jumping out into the audience and inviting brave souls to sing along. And I listened to “Sometime Around Midnight” as I thought of myself running to the music festival to see them. Faster. Faster! If you hurry, you just might make it.
I spent the next several weeks following the concert in a haze. It changed my disposition. Likely, I confused the people around me – if I didn’t annoy them first – with how happy I suddenly was. Of course, it was happiness underneath an ever-present Dark Cloud. But it was happiness nonetheless. I was so grateful to a band who didn’t even know who I was. The entire thing could easily be dismissed as preposterous nonsense. But I couldn’t ignore the facts. That concert had changed me.
Then it occurred to me I could do something about it.
Someone had posted on the band’s website forum that they had written them a letter, and Mikel actually wrote them back.
This had to have been a fluke, I reasoned. A lucky shot in the dark he just happened to see and respond. But the fact was, he saw it. And that was all someone like me could hope for.
So late one night, after a couple of drinks, I wrote them a letter, too.
I put it in a bottle and stood at the edge of my ruins. Then, without a second thought, I tossed it into the unknown, an ocean of uncertainty that separates me from all other people, rockstars or not.
I didn’t tell anyone what I had done. Not even Hubby. This was between me and them. Whether or not they responded didn’t matter. They just had to know. And I hoped that somewhere – in some distant, faraway, magical place – someone would read it and finally know who I was.
I told them about Wesley. I told them what had happened when I heard “Sometime Around Midnight” for the first time. I told them the story I have been telling you, but truthfully, it was the first time I had told anyone anything. It was the first time I had opened up to anyone about what happened. Somehow this proverbial message in a bottle was a connection to some world outside of myself, outside of these ruins, and in just the simple act of sending it out there into the unknown, I had found a kind of courage I never knew I possessed. It truly didn’t matter if I never received a reply, or if they never even saw it. I had freed myself somehow, and in that freedom I found myself unburdened from so much pain.
In this liberation, I was surprised a week later when I was once again standing at the edge of these ruins, and a bottle washed up on the beach, addressed to me from The Airborne Toxic Event.
I returned with a new outlook on these ruins. No more were they going to contain me. No longer would I feel trapped here, burdened by grief. Never again would I let the fear of disappointment lock me in from getting what I wanted, from truly living.
What had happened to be me was terrible and ugly, but it didn’t mean I was.
So many things had failed, but it didn’t mean I was a failure.
And though my world had burned to the ground, I was more the phoenix than the ashes.
And if I was a phoenix, then that meant I could fly.
But where? And most importantly, how?
Only I could answer those questions. But for the first time, anything and anywhere felt possible.
And though my situation is as isolating as it is formidable, for the first time I realized it was possible that I wasn’t alone.
to be continued . . . .