Music For Staring at the Axe

Dearest Rachel –

Eleven years ago tomorrow, you went in for surgery to remove a tumor from your brain. At the time, we didn’t know what was going to happen to you; the fact that it was not within the brain was a relatively good sign, and the doctor was fairly certain it would turn out to be benign. But it was growing, and at the rate it was doing so, you would lose sight in your eye soon if nothing was done about it.

To be sure, the fact that you were losing your sight was how the tumor was discovered in the first place. You’d gone to an optician, who recommended you to an ophthalmologist, who, upon examining you, all but insisted you see a brain surgeon posthaste. The tumor was attached to the brain membrane, on the outside of the brain, but it was resting heavily on the optic nerve. In short, you were losing your sight because of the pressure exerted by the tumor.

And so, on this, the night before the surgery, you and I were lying on our bed, staring up at the darkened ceiling, wondering what the day would bring. To be sure, at this point we were pretty sure that the tumor would prove to be benign – and the fact that it was on the outside of the brain was something of a relief, considering the alternative. But let’s face it, anything can happen during a surgery, and we both knew it.

And as I’ve said before, I’m the kind of guy who will stare at the axe buried in the rafters, and worry about the day it comes loose and brains somebody. That night, for the first time, I truly contemplated what it would be like to lose you. And all I could do was to make sure you knew how I felt about you.

And the best way that I knew how was the same way that we tried to make connections back when we first looked each other as possible life partners: through music. Because at the end of the day, I might be able to put my thoughts into words, but there are those who did every bit as well as – or better than – I could, and even set them to music. So why not use what they’ve written?

At that time, I had just re-discovered the music and Harry Chapin. You know, the ‘Cats in the Cradle’ guy? The fellow who could make every father feel like he’s failed? Yeah, him. He had a fair number of other sad tales of love and life and romance. And those are the ones I played for you:

“Dreams Go By,” Harry Chapin, Portrait Gallery (1975)

Actually, this one was a pretty upbeat one, and least as far as the tune went. But listen to the lyrics, will you? These kids gave up on their dreams several times over, as life required them to (the first time due to compulsory education – which, mind you, is a perfectly good thing, but it does get in the way of focusing on poetry or sports – the second time due to the two of them getting pregnant, which is pretty much their own fault. You didn’t catch that? “But I guess we’ll have our children first / You’ll make a home, I’ll get a job”). And finally, as grandparents, they’re doing okay together… but they still have the occasional wistful regret about what they might have done with their lives.

On a meta level, it’s a sad song simply because Harry Chapin never lived to see his grandchildren (assuming he had any); he was taken from the world by an accident, like you were.

The crazy thing is, of the many songs you sent me over the course of our courtship – and I’m going to get to them someday through these letters, honest – there was one that quite specifically instructed you to ‘follow the fellow who follows a dream:’

The first time I listened to it, I had pulled into the church parking lot for some meeting or another – I forget the specifics of why I was there. All I know is that it was a good thing I wasn’t driving when I was listening to it. Because, in all honesty, I never had dreams for my life to speak of. And to hear this admonition to follow a man who had one… well, then it begs the question, why are you following me? I’m clearly wrong for you. I simply broke down into sobs, as – for that moment – my world felt like it might well fall apart.

But as John Lennon is credited with saying, “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans,” and ‘Dreams Go By’ was a reminder that I hadn’t lost out on any dreams by letting life flow around me. I was just thankful for the life we’d had up to that point, and wanted to let you know that… just in case I wouldn’t see you again once they wheeled you into that operating theatre.

The other Chapin song I played for you was a little bit more obvious:

“God Babe, You’ve Been Good for Me,” Harry Chapin, Sequel (1980)

After all, back then, I was still dealing with the awfulness of work and a superior who seemed to consider me a tragic waste of food and oxygen. I really was, at various times, “barely holding on.” But you were there for me, reminding me that I was loved and cared for, and you kept me from losing control.

Our bed was large enough that we each had our space, and as a general rule, you did not enjoy being held while either of us was sleeping – too confining, you always said. But that night, as we lay there listening to these songs that told you how I felt about you in ways that (at the time) I just couldn’t do myself, “you just knew enough to hold me, and in holding me, you held off the night a little while.”

At the time, I didn’t know how I would be able to stave off those demons without you. There are some times now – far too many, in fact – when I still don’t.

And then – seeing as we were lying on our bed together (even though you had plans to go back out into the family room to watch a bit more television with Daniel, I believe) – there was this lullaby from Billy Joel. Since I had been first introduced to this song by way of an anime music video, I will include it here; the music is the same regardless.

To be sure, I think I may have nudged you at the time; I may even actually have sung the line when it came up, about going sailing on Schoolhouse Bay rather than ‘an emerald bay,’ as in the original lyric. This was in reference to the eastern coast of the island at our cottage look down upon, where we could see straight out to Canada. That was the name of the little cove carved out by the island’s shape, and it made his song that much more personal for us.

I don’t know if we cried at the time; I think we may have been too worried or scared to truly weep. Or maybe we were sufficiently confident that everything was going to work out. It’s been eleven years, honey; that’s a long way to go back and try to remember the specific mental state either of us was in without having recorded our thoughts and emotions at the time. I know when I would listen in the car in subsequent years I would often tear up; the line about “someday we’ll all be gone” – I don’t know how singers sing lines like that without breaking down, especially as they themselves grow old and feel the breath of Old Man Time on their neck.

But I do think I remember you thanking me for letting you know how I felt about you – not that you didn’t already know all that – before getting back up and returning to the family room and Daniel. After all, the next day was going to be eventful, a few more hours of normalcy and calm might just be what the two of you – and maybe that included me as well – needed at that moment.

A while back, I found the email threads that I put together to inform family, friends and concerned folks at church about the progress of your surgery; I don’t know if you ever saw them, but I’ll be re-printing them tomorrow for the Internet to see.

Until then, sweetheart, sleep well, and know that I love you.

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I am Rachel's husband. Was. I'm still trying to deal with it. I probably always will be.

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