Last Friday night, you and your Heartbreakers played the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles, and I was there with my boyfriend. It was his first time seeing you perform, but I’ve lost count since I first saw the Grateful Dead open for you and Bob Dylan at Rich Stadium, Buffalo, in 1986. This was special, every bit as special as I had expected, knowing you told Rolling Stone magazine last year that you’d be lying if you didn’t say it would probably be your final tour. And the Hollywood Bowl? A bucket list venue for me, the place that still conjures black and white Beatles taking America by storm, especially the lovely George Harrison, another Traveling Wilbury.
Although our paths never crossed, I’ve been a little bit in love with you for about 40 years – just ask any of my friends – and honestly, I’m convinced that had you met me when I was younger and could hold a tune, you might have been convinced to let me do at least one song as a “heartbreaker.” I know Stevie Nicks is the Honorary female Heartbreaker, but she had proximity on her side. The bigger truth, Tom, is that you (as well as the miles of highway that stretch from coast to coast) are largely responsible for my emigrating from Ireland to America in the first place. Well, you and having to find work and leaving The Troubles and the rain behind.
Still, as far as this immigrant is concerned, there is nothing more American than driving down a highway with the top down and the radio up and your “Free Fallin‘” blaring from the radio. Just ask Tom Cruise how his Jerry MaGuire is feeling as he sings along. (Naturally, he had me at “free”. . .)
When I was just 15, I first saw you on The Old Grey Whistle Test on BBC2. I wanted to be your “American Girl” in America; I wanted to be far away from Belfast and bombs and bullets and all that was bad back then about my Northern Ireland. I just wanted to be one of your Heartbreakers. Almost 40 years since first seeing you on our tiny TV set, I have to finally accept I will never be a heartbreaker, but I will be heartbroken as I am tonight. After an interminable day of confusing reports, the New York Times has confirmed that you aren’t here anymore.
You have always been here. Always. Through the best and worst times of my adult life. I remember after my husband died, you announced your Hypnotic Eye tour with no stop in Phoenix. I can’t lie – he loved you too but not enough to drive out of state, and I like to think he would be happy I convinced my best friend Amanda to drive to San Diego to see your opening gig. A mere five hours away, all we needed were tickets, gasoline, a place to stay, at least three outfits, and an assurance to each other that we would be back to Phoenix the morning after to see our daughters off to school – my daughter’s first as a high school Senior, and her little girl’s very first as a pre-schooler. We made it. I think you’d get a kick out of the fact that each of us still had “beer” stamped on our hands the next morning. Tom, it was worth every ounce of inconvenience that comes to people who are notoriously bad at planning – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Soar screamed the review from a San Diego newspaper the next day. I hope you read it.
Next, there was Red Rocks, Colorado. I had always wanted to go, and another dear friend had never seen you perform, so it made sense that we should go. Right? Now, I don’t know how it was for you and your band that night, looking out at the thousands of adoring fans between those red rocks, but it was magical for me. As the sign says, there is no better place to see the stars . . .
I want to say so much more to you tonight, Tom, to the family you leave behind, your fans, your band members. I want to thank you for all the things you did that were so right – like the time you apologized for using the Confederate Flag, or when you told George Bush he couldn’t use “I Won’t Back Down” as his campaign song. And Tom, I don’t know if you know what happened in Las Vegas just hours before you died, that a gunman shot into the crowd attending a country music festival, leaving at least 59 people dead, and injuring 527 others. It was one of the deadliest mass shootings in American history.
Tom, on such a day, how can we believe something good’s coming?
Not you, Nelson Mandela. You went into the world with boldness and made your mark on it. Madiba will ring out forever.
In June of 2013, I wrote of news that you were gravely ill. Reports poured out of Pretoria, South Africa that you were on life support. We held our breath, not wanting to accept that you were frail at 94, ill, and nearing the end of your life. In my mind’s eye, I could see you only at the beginning of your life as Mandela the free man who stepped onto the world’s stage in 1990 after spending 27 years behind bars.
In the darkest days of Apartheid, no one – other than Mandela himself – could have imagined the man in that tiny cell as the future President of his country, that he would one day stand among rock stars and royalty and popes and presidents to advocate for democracy and justice, to inspire a vision of peace that transcended race and creed, that he would matter to so many people and that he would make so many people matter. People like me.
Mandela mattered to me because he represented what could be. Like Martin Luther King‘s dream of what America could be and like the peace once envisioned for Northern Ireland by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, Mandela’s vision of South Africa as a democratic rainbow-nation inspired the first all-race democratic election, moving more than 17 million black South Africans to vote for the first time. Such a sight to behold, even on a tiny television screen on the other side of the world – a reminder that anything can happen, that Seamus Heaney‘s hope and history can rhyme.
For my 24th birthday not long before I emigrated to the United States, a boyfriend surprised me with a ticket to Paul Simon’sGraceland concert in Dublin. Boisterous and beautiful, the performance sparkles still in my memory as one that transcended the ugliness of apartheid. Simon had been and is still widely criticized for performing in South Africa, but how could I fault him for accepting an invitation from black South African musicians to collaborate on some of the most hopeful and uplifting music ever created. Surely, that glorious music represented the “days of miracle and wonder” that were possible in the heart of Nelson Mandela or, years earlier, in the universal dream of Martin Luther King. In accepting a Grammy award for the album, Simon said of his fellow musicians and friends:
They live under one of the most oppressive regimes on earth today, and still they are able to produce music of great power, nuance and joy, and they have my respect for that.
Simon was also one of the first people Mandela invited to South Africa. I imagine the smile spreading across Mandela’s face, showing he was no longer a prisoner – not merely because the bars had been removed, but because he had left bitterness and rancor behind. Not everyone did. The late former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had deemed Mandela a terrorist, speaking for most of her party. I remember well, when the Iron Lady took office, her strident refusal to enforce sanctions on apartheid while much of the world was doing so. Her policy of “constructive engagement” with the country’s white minority government polarized her such that following her death, there were reports of only a few tears shed in South Africa.
As young university students in 1984, we sang along with The Specials urging those who could to “Free Nelson Mandela.” How could we not? His release was a moral imperative; it was the right thing to do against a racist regime. We were young and full of hope for a better future, and it was through that lens that Thatcher and others in her party appeared resolute in their support of white rule which seemed only to prolong Mandela’s imprisonment in that tiny cell.
On the other side of the argument, there were those, including De Klerk, who felt that “Thatcher correctly believed that more could be achieved through constructive engagement with his government than international sanctions and isolation of the South African government.”
The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It always does.
When Mandela walked out of jail, a joyous crack was heard all over the world. While enormous challenges lay ahead and even more bloodshed, apartheid would eventually come to an end. Together, De Klerk and Mandela would rise up to be honored with the Nobel Prize for Peace for their shared vision of a South Africa without apartheid, of a democratic nation. Perhaps this would be the example for other countries beleaguered by bigotry and bitterness, proof positive that it is possible to sustain humanity in a world defined by brutal divisiveness.
Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award inspired by fellow Nobel Laureate, Seamus Heaney’s “From the Republic of Conscience,” was presented to Mandela in 2006. Perfect then that Heaney would be the first to congratulate Mandela thus:
To have written a line about “hope and history rhyming for Mr. Mandela in 1990 is one thing . . . to have the man who made them rhyme accept the Award inspired by my poem is something else again.
At the beginning of the summer of 2013, I imagine Seamus Heaney was vexed over the thought of a world without Mandela. I think we all were. I remember my husband and I talking over coffee about Mandela’s charisma and fortitude, his inestimable influence – the “Madiba magic” that changed the world. We were sad that Mandela’s time with us was coming to an end. I didn’t want to believe it, and turned to the poetry of Seamus Heaney, the way I still do in the in-between times.
And then, just six months later, Nelson Mandela was gone. Seamus Heaney was gone. My husband was gone. Gone. Like three shooting stars – startling, beautiful, gone.
When I landed in the republic of conscience
it was so noiseless when the engines stopped
I could hear a curlew high above the runway.
At immigration, the clerk was an old man
who produced a wallet from his homespun coat
and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare
the words of our traditional cures and charms
to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.
You carried your own burden and very soon
your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning
spells universal good and parents hang
swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells
are held to the ear during births and funerals.
The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.
The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,
the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders
must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep
to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang
from salt in tears which the sky-god wept
after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic
with my two arms the one length, the customs woman
having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face
and said that was official recognition
that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home
to consider myself a representative
and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere
but operated independently
and no ambassador would ever be relieved.
Laurie Anderson tells this story about the day she married her best friend, Lou Reed:
It was spring in 2008 when I was walking down a road in California feeling sorry for myself and talking on my cell with Lou. “There are so many things I’ve never done that I wanted to do,” I said.
“You know, I never learned German, I never studied physics, I never got married.”
“Why don’t we get married?” he asked. “I’ll meet you halfway. I’ll come to Colorado. How about tomorrow?”
“Um – don’t you think tomorrow is too soon?”
“No, I don’t.”
And so the next day, we met in Boulder, Colorado, and got married in a friend’s backyard on a Saturday, wearing our old Saturday clothes, and when I had to do a show right after the ceremony, it was OK with Lou.”
Like many couples, we each constructed ways to be – strategies, and sometimes compromises, that would enable us to be part of a pair. Sometimes we lost a bit more than we were able to give, or gave up way too much, or felt abandoned. Sometimes we got really angry. But even when I was mad, I was never bored. We learned to forgive each other. And somehow, for 21 years, we tangled our minds and hearts together.
The day Ken married me was like any other. We were not really watching TV when I suggested it. “OK,” he said, and he put on his boots and waited for me to put on a dress I knew he liked.
I dug out the yellow pages and found a wedding chapel in an old west Phoenix neighborhood. The preacher reminded me of the old man at the bar in Field of Dreams, the one with the pale blue eyes who tells the story of Moonlight Graham and all the blue hats he never got around to giving his wife, Alicia. Like me, Alicia liked to wear blue.
In our everyday clothes and without a ring, we asked a stranger to officially witness our wedding ceremony. Then we vowed to each other that we would stay together in sickness and health, ’til death us do part. A second time around for both of us, we were unwilling to settle for anything less than the kind of love that makes you leave one life with nothing but whatever you’re wearing that day. It was easy to say and to mean to say that only death would tear us apart. Madly in love, we had no reason to suspect that cancer (mine) or aneurysms (his) would move in and turn things upside down more than once and make us resent our bodies and ourselves. Oblivious to any possibility of dark days ahead, we filled up an ordinary November morning with a time-honored stream of extraordinary promises. We couldn’t stop smiling, and we didn’t tell a soul. Young and wild, we may as well have eloped to Gretna Green, and with our secret, we even went to work afterwards, delighting in the fact that no one else knew what we had done. Like so many of the rituals we performed every day, the act of marrying was as casual as it was important. Without fanfare or hoopla, it was ours – completely ours. Private.
For a long time, we were answerable only to each other and did as we wished without having to worry much about anyone else. There were random road trips north and to the ocean, the first of which on a hot Friday afternoon when I was desperate to smell the sea. He just told me to get in the car, and off we went to California. No map. No GPS. No bottles of water. No phone. No specific destination other than “ocean.” By nightfall, we were inhaling the salty air somewhere around Los Angeles and the next evening, we were strolling along a pier in Pismo Beach. As though putting America’s never-ending road to the test, I asked him to keep driving until we stopped by a lighthouse, the kind of place I had always thought would make a great home for us. There, we balanced a camera on the hood of his car, set the self-timer, and took a picture of ourselves, windswept, laughing, and clinging to each other, completely unaware that a decade later, we would stand again on that very same spot on the road to Monterey, smiling for a picture that would be taken by the only child we would have together – our daughter. Then, for another decade, San Luis Obispo County – Morro Bay – would be our family’s vacation spot.
Between us, for over two decades, we created hundreds of rituals and routines – lovely and easy labors of love that came naturally, in large part because – as my mother still reminds me – I could set my watch by Ken. I always knew where he was, what he was doing, how much he loved me, how much I exasperated him, how proud he was of accomplishments in my professional life and how much he despised the bullshit I brought into our home from that same profession. He told me he loved me every single day and at the end of every single phone call (even on days and at the end of phone calls when I was anything but lovable). Always in my corner, he was my number one fan, my lover, and the wise and best friend who told the young me whose feelings were too easily hurt and who cared too much about what other people thought, that she needed to grow some “hard bark,” because she would need it one day.
Well, Ken, I need it today. I know you didn’t want me to harden; you just wanted me to toughen up. But where do we find the toughness to fully absorb the blow of your death, the finality of it? What should I say to our daughter when the grief – boundless and unforgiving – renders her as vulnerable as a new-born? What do I tell myself when I look up and find myself surprised – still – that you are not there with another mug of coffee or a glass of wine asking me what I’m blogging about, and wondering aloud – with a wry and worried smile – if the woman I once was would be coming back any time soon, and when she did, would she remember the man you used to be? In hindsight, I know we both had an inkling that maybe she would not. So maybe I should just tell the truth – if only to myself.
Each of us wrestled with the ways in which illness changed us, forcing us at the most inconvenient of times to confront our mortality, and turning us into very good liars and strangers who fought dirty. We lied, I suppose, for self-preservation and out of fear, out of indignation or anger about our respective lots, out of denial and blame, and all the other words that belong in all the self-help books we would never read, all the “psycho-babble.” Our marriage had not been perfect, but it had until then been honest. Always. Honesty was one of those non-negotiables that somehow – unbelievably – was blown asunder by illness and our fucked up responses to it. We found ourselves diminished, transformed into weaker versions of ourselves that were unacceptable to us in light of the boldness that defined us at the beginning and for so many years. Ashamed of ourselves, we didn’t know what to do, and we turned our backs on the people we used to be.
And we used to be bold. We started out with courage and a chemistry that we were convinced would more than make up for the little we lacked in compatibility. We argued about little things but rarely about the big stuff, and – this is important – we never lied. We fell into a rhythm that included laughing every day and sometimes at the same old stories including the one about the first argument we ever had. It went something like this:
Are you sure?
So what are you thinking about?
Well, it must be something. I can tell. It’s something. Did I do something wrong? Is it about me? (I mean, isn’t it always about me?) Can you at least tell me what it begins with? Just the first letter? Does it begin with a “Y”?
No baby. Just private thoughts. Private thoughts, baby.
Ken knew this response would fall short of satisfying someone like me, someone hell-bent – hell-bent – on knowing the inner details, the finer points, the “but how are you really feeling?” liner notes, but he never told me, and growing up and older by his side, I figured out that we all have private thoughts, secrets never to be told, things that stay deep within us, desires, differences that will not be aired – private thoughts.
Maybe most people wouldn’t admit it aloud, but Ken did. I remember how he made that first argument in the same way he once told a cashier at Pep Boys – after paying in cash for new windshield wipers – that no, she could not have his address. Not that he was a conspiracy theorist, he just resented the notion of his name and address being placed on a list that would perhaps be sold to someone who would profit from it. When he detected her annoyance because he was not cooperating the way a good customer should, Ken looked at her, deadpan, and with a twinkle in his eye, he beckoned her closer so he could whisper to her: “I just can’t do it. I can’t tell you where I live, man. The cops are after me.” And, I had to put on my sunglasses and walk out of the store because I was laughing so hard.
That’s how it was, except when it wasn’t. There were times when he would insist I had lost my sense of humor, and I would argue that – au contraire – he had lost his ability to be funny. Like storms in the tiniest of teacups, these often passed, and as I sit here, three years after his death, I realize there were no boring days, no days that did not shimmer for at least a moment with what had connected us at the beginning. The wall we had built did its job for just as long as was required.
Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line — you have your own interior world, and it’s not neat.
~ Patti Smith
Beginnings and endings are rarely tidy as this New Year’s Eve reminds me. Again, I ponder how best to pack up the stuff of the past twelve months before stepping into the new year. Just begin. Pluck out a memory, wrap it up, put it in the box, and move on to the next. Handle with care. It’s the perfect day for it, New Year‘s Eve, a day designated for wrapping things up, for reminiscing and resolving; for Auld Lang Syne and kissing strangers; for holding on and letting go. For loose ends. For fireworks.
It’s not tidy. I find myself returning to 2013, the last year we spent as a family, to a certain sure time when we were three instead of two. Like lightning bugs, the memories flash. Ken tapping his feet at a Fleetwood Mac concert, marveling at the genius of Lindsey Buckingham, wondering what Lindsey must be on and if he could get his hands on some of it. Then my fiftieth birthday and my bare feet on the wood floors that had finally been installed and Ken hoping it would be enough if our little house in the desert could at least feel like my mother’s Castledawson living room underfoot. Paints and an easel, an artist’s supplies for Sophie’s summer college class. Binge-watching Breaking Bad to escape the heat of late summer in Phoenix. A September Sunday and the three of us watching on my computer screen an animated film in which a frail yet fervent 83-year old Maurice Sendak gives his final interview, each of us in tears when Sendak tells the interviewer,
Almost certainly I’ll go before you go, so I won’t have to miss you . . . Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.
Ken squeezed my hand at that part. If I try really hard, I can almost feel his fingers intertwined with mine. I wonder now if he maybe thought Mr. Sendak was speaking for him too? Now the tears come. But wait. Another memory and a smile. He with a wink, “So, baby. Are you ready for Tony and the boys?” every night at 8PM when HBO re-aired the entire series of The Sopranos.
In an instant – unthinkably – big, invincible James Gandolfini was gone. And then Seamus Heaney. And then Lou Reed. Lou Reed. Ken didn’t want to talk about Lou Reed dying. My darling man must have forgotten what Lou knew – that we cannot have the magic without the loss. Two weeks later, Ken would be gone too. And, if I could have just one more conversation, I would tell him that it is all going to be alright, because losing him and the pain of it will never trump the magic. Never.
Tomorrow, our girl and I will step into our third year without him. I find myself holding my breath, a tiny bit afraid of what might be around the corner. The roller-coaster cliche still does the job.
Barrys Big Dipper~ Photo by Adam Shaw
Remembering my first time on The Big Dipper roller-coaster at Barry’s in Portrush, I close my eyes to better see myself once more hurtling through the North Atlantic air. Young and carefree, curls wild in the wind, mouth agape, eyes squeezed to block out light and noise and fear, I am half-hoping to stay aloft forever. At the top, breath suspended, I wait for the world to fall out beneath me. A sudden plunge at shocking speed has me thinking I am surely plummeting to my own death. But not yet. There will be more twists and turns, above and below. White-knuckled, I am clinging to the bar, only half-believing there is enough life in the clickety-clacking, old machinery to set me down again on solid ground. When it’s all over, I’m ready to go back to the way I was, albeit a little green around the gills, unsteady on my feet. As he helps me out of the car, I hope no one but the weather-beaten carnie can tell I am not as confident as once I was.
This New Year’s Eve finds me settling – at last. I am somewhere between Tom Petty’s”Learning to Fly” and Robert Frost’s lovely “Birches.”
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
Neither do I. Nowhere would it go better than a place where I can find myself held up, daily, by the kindness of people who have and haven’t walked in my shoes, who acknowledge my pain, who abide. People who know a thing or two; people I may never meet but who hold me in their thoughts and prayers, who light candles for me in faraway places, who say something even when they know not what to say.
Writer, Ted Kooser, says that life is “. . . a long walk forward through the crowded cars of a passenger train, the bright world racing past beyond the windows, people on either side of the aisle, strangers whose stories we never learn, dear friends whose names we long remember and passing acquaintances whose names and faces we take in like a breath and soon breathe away …”
Ready to step into 2016, I find myself in between two cars, aware that I still have some distance to travel.Forward. And I am ready for it.
But there are still so many cars ahead, and the next and the next and the next clatter to clatter to clatter. And we close the door against the wind and find a new year, a club car brightly lit, fresh flowers in vases on the tables, green meadows beyond the windows and lots of people who together — stranger, acquaintance and friend — turn toward you and, smiling broadly, lift their glasses.
For reading, for remarking, for taking a step or two on the hard road with me. Thank you. We are forever bound in a human chain.