Wonderin’

When I was assigned March 11 for my next contribution to All The Write Notes, I couldn’t imagine writing anything that didn’t acknowledge the sad fact that my mother died four years ago today. I worked for weeks, and started many drafts, only to realize I couldn’t write anything new. 

My mother’s name was Susan and I think you would have loved her because, well, so many loved her. She was a creative soul with a soft spot for outcasts, treating everyone who came into her home like they were her own family. When she passed away, it was like dozens of people lost their mom, too. 


Mom’s influence on me musically is immense: From afternoons sprawled on the living room rug listening to opera records, to sitting next to her at the piano singing showtunes, to discovering she knew how to adjust the bass on her car stereo the moment she heard a Sly & The Family Stone song; the way I’ve learned to love and appreciate music is largely thanks to her.

When I wrote the piece below last year, I couldn’t help but think about how funny it was that it was a musician that Mom hatedand whom didn’t like at the timewho helped me through her long illness and eventual passing.

***

“I am of the theory that all of our transcendental connections, anything we’re drawn to, be it a person, a song, a painting on the wall – they’re magnetic. The art is the alloy, so to speak. And our souls are equipped with whatever properties are required to attract that alloy. I’m no scientist so I don’t really know what the hell these properties are, but my point is we’re drawn to stuff we’ve already got a connection to. Part of the thing is already inside of us.”

— from God-Shaped Hole by Tiffanie DeBartolo

***

Mom was too tired to brush her teeth, and red Jell-O was all she wanted anymore. She slept with her mouth slightly agape, her teeth pink, her face white, her fingers blue.

In a Tijuana hospital, nobody spoke English well. I got her M&Ms from the corner store once, but she was frightened when I wasn’t there. I changed her bedpan, and then her diapers. The nurses and I salved her bedsores, turning her, trying not to hurt her broken hip.

Ella tiene dolor en la cadera.

It, too, was dissolved, like her ribs, her breast, her lung. She cried at night, she shit herself. I held her hand when they poked and prodded. I smoothed her hair and she smiled sometimes. She had big, brown eyes like a calf. Like a Black-Eyed Susan.

Por que los dedos azul?

I rode in the ambulance with her. Federalis in full SWAT gear patrolled the streets in pickup trucks. I signed forms, I reminded the EMTs in high school Spanish to be gentle, that her hip was broken. I promised I’d be there when she got out from radiation. There were piles of hair around her bed, but she never went bald. She asked me if she was going to die.

Tengo miedo.

Whispering, too weak to speak, so tired. She slept at night, but I didn’t. I watched movies, I used music. I was delirious from isolation, from tending a frightened child who happened to be my mother. And I had to be strong.

***

Many years before all this, my best friend got the first re-writable CD-ROM drive of anyone I knew. It took me all morning to rip and compile the first CD mixtape I ever made. It took the rest of the day to burn it.

Even though I didn’t like him, my day-long labor included one Neil Young song. It was like… I had to.

Two years later, my brother and I drove six hours to St. Louis to see CSN&Y. I was happy that Neil played that one song. I felt like I’d seen something important, even though I still didn’t like him. Stupid whiny voice, shitty guitar playing.

***

A decade later in a hospital room, I was despairing and I was alone with my thoughts. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could take it. One day I noticed that nothing that I used to love made me happy anymore.

Nobody quite knew what to say. So I corresponded with a friend of mine, an Iraq combat vet, who understood the depths of isolation and weariness and futility and the unfair demands to muster strength and comfort in an impossible situation. He said I was the only civilian he could talk to.

When Mom went to bed, the TV was on all night. It was comforting for her. I couldn’t sleep anymore anyhow; there were always sheets and diapers and a body to be cleaned. The nurses were gone.

One night, she wanted the TV off. It was too dark, and so I gathered in my laptop. I don’t remember how I found it, or why I was looking for his music, but I watched this video of Neil Young—who I didn’t like, who had a stupid whiny voice and played shitty guitar—over and over:

It made me happy.

***

I suppose there was a latent connection that was always inside of me, a Neil-shaped hole in my heart. And I suppose it just took the right switch to turn it on, to make me love more than one song, to magnetize the rest of me to his music. I couldn’t tell you why it happened, and I don’t think I’m supposed to anyhow; it would sound stupid and weird.

But it was just what I needed when I needed it.

***

When Mom died, she returned to the ocean, her ashes became foam. She loved the water. My two best friends were going to dress as Captain & Tenille for her funeral because my mother would have loved that, too. She was so funny. There will never be a headstone, because that’s how she wanted it. She promised to haunt me, and she does in a way.

When I breathe the salt air, I am with her. I am half of her anyhow, maybe more. And now Neil Young is part of it all, somehow, in a non-creepy way. It’s hard to explain.