It was a cold rainy Saturday afternoon in May 2007 when I heard it. I was reluctantly helping my husband clean up an enormous mess in our flooded dungeon of a basement. I was going through the motions, trying to look busy, trying to stay numb. I had heard it before. Many times in fact, but this time it was different. It stopped me and I listened. As Neil Young’s song “Old Man” played on my radio, it seemed as if his voice began to fade away until all that remained was the beautiful harmonic melody of his guitar. I had heard this before, but not just on the radio.
It had been only three weeks since his death and I was living in a pale blue world of nothingness. Vacant and void of everything. It was easier that way. I spoke only when spoken to, and barely even then. I didn’t laugh, I didn’t cry. Still, silent, numb, and under the circumstances perfect. My husband, I’m sure, disagreed. He was ready for me to snap out of it. It had been almost two months since the stroke. It took exactly one month from that day for him to die. I spent every moment possible by his side hoping to find a way to save his life. Absent from my home life, my husband stood in the gap and held it together. Supporting me while I spent my every waking hour at the hospital, he handled all of the housework also having to make babysitting arrangements for our 2 year old daughter while he was at work. Tired of carrying the load alone, he was ready for me to be done grieving. The truth was I had not yet even begun. Not until I heard that song.
In that moment, I was transported from my dark smelly basement into a tiny universe where only I and the rhythm of the guitar existed. I was wrapped in the warm departed solace of my father’s twelve string. That is why the already familiar song was deeply more familiar. He played that song for as long as I can remember only I never heard him sing it. I didn’t know what song it was until that moment. There we were, me and his music. I was alive again in my universe for two. Nothing else existed as I listened to that song like it was the first time I ever heard it. I was consumed by it, immersed in it, feeling each chord until suddenly…. It was over. I was back in my basement again and the radio went to commercial. Back to reality, only something was different. My emotions had returned. The song had interrupted my neat little world of numb. I was standing on a mountain of laundry when it hit me. My father is dead and he is gone forever. The flood gates opened and my grief took over.
They say that “Time is the healer of all wounds”. Although I don’t believe this to be true, I did manage to eventually pull myself together and move forward with my life. Little by little I dealt with my sorrow. I fought my way through the fog packaging it up piece by piece and storing it away in my heart. I followed through with the grieving process vowing to remember everything. I thought about how I dealt with the loss of my beloved grandfather. I was 17 when he died. The loss of him was so painful, that I found it too hard to even think about him. Now when I call upon my memories of him, I often find them difficult to remember. Perhaps the repression of my grief also led to the repression of my memories. I would not let this happen to the memory of my Dad. As time went by I mourned him less, but missed him more.
It was a long time before I allowed myself to listen to that song again. I was far from home visiting my Grandmother in the mountains of New York State. It’s my pilgrimage to the town of his birth. I love it there. Its’ endless rolling hills, crisp fresh air, and laid back way of life remind me of my father. We buried him there at the National VA Cemetery. It is where he belongs, a soldier laid to rest on the mountains that he loved. On a rainy afternoon during my visit, I took my little girl for a drive. I decided to go to the cemetery and lay flowers at his grave. I searched for his headstone with his four year old granddaughter by my side asking me an endless stream of meaningless questions. Lost in a sea of identical VA headstones, I felt as if I would never find it. Tired of walking around in the rain, I was ready to surrender when I looked down and there it was; my father’s name carved in granite. It brought me to my knees. The tears streaming down my cheeks were indistinguishable from the rain falling from the sky. My daughter, too young to understand, asked, “Mommy why are you crying?”
I answered, “Because I miss my daddy.”
She said, “Your daddy is a rock?”
As we were leaving the cemetery, I decided to take a ride to the lake. My father brought us there for many happy vacations. My mind foggy from crying, I knew the drive would help clear my head and the beautiful lake would sooth my soul by bringing to me the memories that he made for me there. We drove the twenty five minutes that it takes to reach the lake, and I looked in my rear view mirror pleased by what I saw. A sleeping child meant some much needed quiet time for me. I smiled and began my 42 mile journey around Lake Keuka.
I wasn’t really put off by the rain anymore because we had no plans for swimming and it suited my mood. I was somberly driving along, taking in the view, while classic rock quietly played on my satellite radio. The dark heavy rain clouds began to part over the lake revealing vivid blue skies. As the sun’s sparkling reflection danced across the lake, the song on the radio changed. Finally ready to hear what it had to say to me, I turned up the volume and took it in.
Old man look at my life
Twenty four and there’s so much more
Live alone in a paradise
That makes me think of two.
Love lost, such a cost
Give me things that don’t get lost.
Like a coin that won’t get tossed
Rolling home to you.
Old man look at my life I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me the whole day through
Ah, one look at my life and you can tell that’s true.
Lullabies look in your eyes
Run around the same old town.
Doesn’t mean that much to me
To mean that much to you.
I’ve been first and last
Look at how the time goes past.
But I’m all alone at last
Rolling home to you.
Old man look at my life I’m a lot like you
I need someone to love me the whole day through.
Ah’ one look in my eyes and you can tell that’s true.
Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were
Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were.
– Neil Young
It carries me on its’ sweet solemn melody and I realize how well the song’s lyrics describe how I feel about my father. The love I lost at such a cost. He gave me things that don’t get lost. The example that he set for me is like the coin that won’t get tossed. I remember his lullabies and the look in his eyes. I come to visit that same old town. Just like him, I need someone to love me the whole day through. Look at me and you will see him. I will always find my way back home.
When I was a child I thought that my dad wrote every song that he played on his guitar. As I grew, I learned that the Beatles wrote “Norwegian Wood”; “Smoke on the Water” was by Deep Purple; and the song that I thought went “Jaime what you gonna do…” was actually written for a girl named Amy. It was the songs that he did write that he never sang. That is how I came to include “Old Man” as one of his own, well into my adulthood. He wrote a song to my mother when they fell in love that only he and she knew the words to. My older brother played it on our father’s twelve string on my wedding day as my younger brother walked me down the aisle and gave me away.
I thought I knew all of his music until that day in my basement. Maybe now I do, I guess I’ll never know. What I do know is that I love this song. The sad sweet melody and the lyrics that pay tribute to him in ways I never could are etched forever in my heart. I am glad that it never occurred to me that my father was playing “Old Man” on his guitar while he was alive. It means so much to me now that he is gone. It is almost like he kept a secret from me until I needed to hear it. Some things never die. My father lives on through his music.