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Miles and Music

My grandfather dies on the stairs, no doubt dressed from hat to socks in maroon and gold. He is ready for the game, ready to chant “For Boston” on behalf of the Boston College Eagles, but his heart has other plans. It lurches and works overtime, until it is done, his 50-year-old heart. The shock of it leaves no time for reflection. My father gets on a plane, reversing course just months after driving 1,200 miles from home, passing under St. Louis’s Gateway Arch, to begin life as a medical student. It is 1968 and I imagine him in flight, on the way to bury his father, pushing through his grief with songs in his head like Canned Heat’s “Going Up the Country” or the Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” songs he would have played in the car if he could have spared the time to drive. Songs that wrap around you and keep you moving. 

I’m running late per usual because it’s the early ’90s when high bangs are essential, and a good hairspray game takes time. I’ve missed the bus and the train, yet my father patiently waits in the car, windows down, air-conditioning blowing even though it’s winter. His wet, usually curly, hair has frozen flat against his head. He howls along with Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London” as I hop in, toss my book bag in back. Listen to this part, he says, rewinding the cassette tape. Ah-ooo, werewolves of London. Ah-ooo. I laugh and sing along, but as he pulls up to my high school, I cower and subtly lower the volume, embarrassed at our exuberance. 

My father is at the wheel on our way to upstate New York to visit a college that both intrigues and scares me for its distance from home, a college I’ll ultimately pass on for one much closer, the alma mater of my father and my grandfather and two uncles. It’s the winter of 1992 and cows dot snow-dusted fields. I’m sure we’re listening to a wide range of music as we wind and turn our way toward the bucolic campus. The Allman Brothers probably made the rotation, and maybe this is when my father first tells me how he used to hang with Duane and Gregg back when he lived in St. Louis. I’m sure there is some Elton John, plucked from the setlist of the concert he attended with my mother in Boston about a year before I was born. I may not recall the exact songs but, no matter: the music flows the whole time, a backdrop to overlapping and tangential stories. 

My senior year at Boston College, I drive to South Bend, Indiana, with my closest friends for a football game with our biggest rival. Grunge rock hums through the Winnebago, Eddie Vedder whines and whinnies, Nattie Lights sit on ice. You never made it to the game? my father laughs when I tell him about the endless tailgate. He had looked for me in the stands from his TV at home—in vain, it turns out—and now he fills me in on the biggest plays I’d missed.

I take my father to see funkmaster George Clinton perform at Berklee, the music college where I work. Neither of us knows his music all that well, but by the end, we’re bopping to “We Want the Funk” along with the rest of the initiated. When I look over at him, he’s smiling and into it, but in the light cast from the stage, he suddenly looks older, not invincible. Still, he’s past 50, the age his father was when he died, and since he reached that milestone, I count each birthday as a win, a reminder that he’s not his father. On the car ride home, we recap the evening by way of more funk music, never actually articulating that music flowing through our bones is like lifeblood and a connective tissue that binds us in unspeakable ways.

At my wedding, my father feigns unpreparedness before we walk into the reception, before he’s about to deliver a speech. He waves a magazine insert with notes in his beautiful lefty scrawl. But the words flow like magic as he talks about the stars in the sky the night I was born, and how when he looked up, he knew it was the beginning of something special, just like the night before us. People still talk about that speech. I beam while dancing with him to Van Morrison’s “Queen of the Slipstream,” and later, watching his signature dance moves—some kind of cross between swimming and electrocution—to whatever the DJ spins.

It’s 9:00 p.m. on a Saturday and I’m at dinner with my husband, a rare date in the early days of parenting. My phone is tucked alongside my gnocchi, just in case the babysitter calls. “No caller ID” pops up on the screen. It’s not the babysitter, but I know it’s my father. Go ahead, my husband says, knowing who’s calling. This is fucking unbelievable! my father, who can make a curse word perfectly glimmer, shouts into the phone. He tells me he’s listening to George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, a recommendation I’d passed along to him via a trusted friend. It’s a book I couldn’t get through myself, its interlocution and footnotes too much to unpack. But my father’s neurologist brain is more pliable. He’s on his way home from work, just a short distance from home, and I know he’s been circling the block finishing a chapter, devouring this book like he does the so many things that pique his interest. How the prose loops and leaps, Willie Lincoln mingling with a cast of ghosts in the cemetery, and the stories they all spin, must be music to his ears.

Alexa, play “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” my father says to the black cylinder on the end table. Play it again. Again, Alexa. Again. He watches my son dance to Bruce and I think he recognizes the swimming arms, the jerky movements. I think he hears something in the words: The night is dark but the sidewalk’s bright and lines with the light of the living. Look what you’ve created, I say, laughing. A few years back, my father and I stood for more than three hours while Springsteen put on a show like nothing I’ve ever seen. Bruce thrust his whole physical self into the lyrics and rhythms of timeless songs, soaking with sweat, his soul glowing luminous on his skin.

My father is confined in the ICU for 18 days, so sick with COVID-19 that he’s been put on a ventilator. It’s in the early days of the pandemic—a time before we can even begin to grasp the gravity of this insidious thing, before we will experience how it will snake its way into every crevice of our lives—and we cling to every piece of hope the doctors offer on the conference calls, crumple when things slide. Sequestered in our own homes, my mother and brothers and I separately call his room to speak into a phone that a nurse holds up. I don’t know what my mother and brothers say to him, but I wish my father an endless playlist of his favorites, a full recovery, more years, more days. I wish him back to the before state, to when I last saw him sitting on his front porch days earlier. At home, I numbly roast my first whole chicken, a bundle of herbs tucked under its skin, basting it with its own juices and some wine, a meal for sustenance and strength, as Van Morrison’s words from the nearby speaker, Oh, the water / Hope it don’t rain all day, slip under my own skin.

The day after my father dies, I drive to meet my mother and brothers to decide on a casket, a prayer card, a suit, how and if we can gather to mourn and honor him with this new pandemic upon us. The pandemic that snuck up and took my father right from under us, mid-sentence, mid-song. Like the hundreds of thousands of others whose lives were suddenly extinguished. Still in shock, I turn up the volume to remind myself that I am grounded to this earth, my foot to the pedal.

I’m waiting for the countdown, Lindsey Buckingham sings, grabbing me with an urgency I don’t yet understand. Nevertheless, I am pulled in by the guitar that whines, then ascends, like hope. Later, the lyrics will register as an assurance that some future state will be better than the present, and the words will resonate as I play the song on repeat while I drive, a strange salve to push me through these trips. These trips on which I’ll try to channel my father’s resilience in the face of his long-ago grief from the loss of his own father, a resilience that’s still a work-in-progress for me almost three years later. Things about to turn around / And now I’m out of the lost and found. Some future state, I think, I hope. 

This drive is a fraction of the distance my father traveled from St. Louis to Boston all those years ago, all those miles alone to sit with the news, to calibrate the grief, to distance himself from the man he was and the man he would become, fatherless, rudderless. And here I am, fatherless, rudderless, still trying to work out the gulf between who I am before and after my father dies.

It’s my first time at the cemetery since we stood, masked and at a distance from each other, as my father was lowered into the ground. I’m driving in with my mother and as we approach the section where my father is buried, “Werewolves of London,” that song about the werewolf that comes knocking on your door, starts playing randomly from the more than 2,000 songs in my Spotify playlist. I’m stunned. That’s a sign, my mother says. I generally don’t believe in signs, though I’ve politely nodded along as she’s relayed the many she has received since my father died. Now, I nod for real. Ah-ooo, I sing to myself.  

Lesley Mahoney O’Connell brings curiosity, a love for lyricism, and authenticity to the page. Stories have changed her life and she hopes, in some small way, to touch something in readers.