Fire and Rain: Notes on Music, Loss, and Grief

No matter how sophisticated I think I am, one AC/DC radio riff and I’m opening the roof, banging on the steering wheel, shaking my hair, and singing at the top of my lungs. I’m immediately transported back to the 80’s; straight back to an emotional, tortured 13 year old from Massachusetts trying to navigate junior high in a southern state. Eighth grade was a fresh hell for me (as so many can relate).

My father had sold his partnership shares after a proverbial bloody coup. Due to non-compete restraints, he had taken a job in Georgia that required constant international travel. He was angry. Losing your dream job and your company is excruciatingly painful. One day in the car, before the move, I asked him why he was angry. He responded by explaining a little of what had happened, and then explained brass knuckles and what he’d like to do with them. One of my father’s more Tony Soprano moments.

Moving rocked my mother’s world. She was lonely and slipped into a deep depression. Most days this left my brother and I to fend for ourselves. I thought it unacceptable to live far away from family, New England beaches, hills, mountains (skiing), and seafood.

Southern teenagers are not welcoming to a kid with a Yankee accent. To make matters worse, I had sprayed Sun In all over my hair; it was orange. My face broke out from domestic drama and teen aged angst—and I wore braces. I took to hiding in my room and playing music ordered from Columbia House. I was angry AND lonely.

The names of three friends (there weren’t many) I made have stuck: Regan, a friend that lived down the street from us; Randy, the pastor’s son who was incredibly kind; and Scotty, my first boyfriend . (He played football and had red hair. His mom was my idea of cool.)

Me, 9th Grade after my mother fixed my hair ruined by the Sun In fiasco.

After about a year and a half (just as we were somewhat getting used to GA) dad gave us the horrendous news that we were moving to Minnesota (what? Canada?). I don’t think I spoke a word the whole car ride from GA to MN. I don’t think my parents cared.

Music was my refuge. Thank God it’s portable. AC/DC (just their name drove my mother crazy, bonus points), ELO, The Cars, Boston, John Cougar (before Mellencamp), Bob Seger, Billy Squire, Pink Floyd, The Police, Kool & The Gang, Billy Joel, Olivia Newton-John (girl crush), K.C. and the Sunshine Band, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Boz Scaggs, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were a few of the records found scattered on my floor (and their posters on my wall.) Not particularly avant garde taste but it worked.

Things hit the fan in Minnesota. It was not a great move for us. Shortly after getting us settled in the new house, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died two years later, a few days before I turned 17. Her death threw us all into a tailspin. We never totally stopped spinning.

A few weeks after my mother died, a good friend shot himself under his basement stairwell. He hadn’t picked us up for school that morning. No one could find him. I heard the news over the loud speaker that afternoon. I was so numb from my mother, I don’t remember much in the few weeks after.

A year and a half after my mom died, my father remarried. It did not go well for my brother and I. Shortly after he turned 17, my brother took his life. He had been my dearest friend. My love.

My brother Michael and I, December 1986, a few weeks before he died.

Grief is not simple. You don’t get just sad. Harrowing shock and debilitating wounds lead to unbearable loneliness. This goes on for what feels like forever. You’d think it would be easy to find solace. Many are grieving, but grief is a nasty mistress and feelings are subjective; most of us choose to suffer in silence. My bundle of grief pummeled me. Thankfully, I was too exhausted to do much physical damage.

When Michael died, I was nineteen. It was difficult to breathe. To eat. I was living with debilitating depression; I couldn’t leave the house. Life and it’s living became impossible. I snot-cried myself to sleep every night and would wake a few hours later. Sleep was elusive. I went to New Hampshire to stay with my grandparents. They were the only people in the world that I could stand.

I had ferocious headaches. Soon, I was diagnosed with pneumonia. The doctor wanted me in the hospital but I wouldn’t go and being a legal adult I got my way. Eventually my father called and made me return to Minnesota to “get on with my life.”

The air felt thick, and smelled stale. Poisonous. Living in Dinkeytown, I felt my brother everywhere. It was better with headphones on. The soundtrack of my new life played constantly in the background; now bleak, dark music: the Smiths, Bauhaus, Joy Division (not exactly joyful), Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo & the Bunnymen, Anne Clark, even “Careful with that Axe, Eugene.”

Eventually, I started moving around again. I got a job and quit school. I could no longer stomach the radio with it’s bubble gum beats and canned instruments. Most things irritated me. I was too sad to dance. The occasional swaying while wearing black worked. I started listening to a broader selection of music: Prince, Janes Addiction, Sonic Youth, INXS, Psychedelic Furs, New Order, Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, Squeeze, Depeche Mode, REM, Genesis (Michael’s favorite), U2, Crowded House, Pet Shop Boys, Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., Suzanne Vega, and back to the classics like Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, and Tom Petty. It was during this time that I listened to Joni Mitchell’s Blue for the first time. Then came Tracy Chapman. Music was now saving my life. Literally.

“Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell.”
–Emily Dickinson

Music has always been this constant in my life. The best part of church was the music– and we went to a lot of church. Rollerskating was decadent because of the music and exuberant lights. After I got my first babysitting job, I went out and bought a record. I spent Saturdays listing to Casey Kasem. I made awful tapes of America’s Top 40 on my recorder. Later, music helped me escape when the grief became too harrowing to function. It held my unsteady pieces together.

Trauma in youth steals your innocence. It changes the brain. Everything is different. There’s no going back. Everything is before and after. With time, some glimmer of hope kick starts the healing process. The disassociation that protected you begins to ebb.

Music saved my life; then helped me rebuild it. It’s a thread that runs through time recovering memories long stuffed away. It dangles remembrance like a firefly; intriguing, yet elusive. It chooses the best moments to relive, the best images to revisit, all scrubbed clean of guilt and shame. Music connects the ‘then’ me with the ‘now’ me. I feel whole. It keeps me in my body, right here and now in 2019. It’s my self-care tool boxes secret weapon.

Now I’m in my fifties. It’s been awhile since that car ride from Georgia to Minnesota. The fog of grief has lifted. I try to not define myself in the context of life after loss. And thanks to an excellent therapist and stubborn genetics, most days I succeed. Everyday I am grateful for what I have: an amazing husband who is thankfully both patient and forgiving; two amazing teens who are thankfully tolerant and uncomplaining; and friends who actually embrace my imperfections. I’m a pencil girl who always has a good eraser.

That’s the emotional answer to the question that Matt and I are asked quite frequently, “Why do you go to so many shows?” A friend said that I should “put more of myself” into these blogs. I’m not sure that she meant to blow up some boundaries and dump it all into one, but there it is, my story. The past.

I hesitate to call my life now the “happy ending” because we hopefully have a lot more living to do. But I’m incredibly happy. I’m married to the happiest person I’ve ever met. He’s teaching me more and more about loving life everyday. This blog is about the present. I enjoy music. My family and friends enjoy music. I want to share it. Amazing people make music. So much talent. I love telling their stories. Writing this blog makes me happy. Hope you like what I have to say.

Rain photo by Keefe Tay, thank you.

4 Replies to “Fire and Rain: Notes on Music, Loss, and Grief”

  1. Wow, that was some powerful stuff. Growing up can be tough, but what you went through was especially cruel. So sorry you had to experience that. Music definitely got me through some tough years, and still does. Do what makes you feel good. You’ve got a great man, awesome kids, and very cool friends. Keep on rockin in the free world Beth…. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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