“What do you picture when you listen to this? What can you see?”
I fiddled with the air conditioning vent, thumbing it up until it hit the right angle to cool Virginia-summer sweat from my brow. The car radio was tuned to a classical station, a concession I made because Dad was driving, because he’d treated me to pints of cold beer and baskets of wings, one of few meal outings we’d made together that summer.
“I don’t know.” A verbal shrug, because his eyes were on the road and I felt inexplicably uncomfortable, put on the spot. ‘I don’t picture anything,’ I wanted to say, because we were almost home and I was too tired for the challenge, the way I’d always gone monosyllabic when he asked how my day was on the long drives home from my high school.
But even as I thought it, willing the conversation to come to an end before it could begin, I was listening deeper. The piece was warm, bright, a stroll through the park depicted with the short strokes of an Impressionist’s brush: all yellow, blue, pink, and so much green.
Somehow, the response caught in my throat, embarrassed by the visual my mind conjured up, not knowing what the right answer was even though there wasn’t one. I don’t know, I’d said, even though I did know, and the moment was slipping away the closer we got to home, losing my window of opportunity to respond.
“Music is my favorite form of art,” he finally said as the car rolled to a stop at the light near our house. When I looked up he was smiling, eyes forward, seeing something I couldn’t—fingers tapping on the steering wheel, percussion to go with wind and strings. “I feel like it speaks to my soul.”
Funeral for Fun. Five years later, I wonder how he felt when he opened iTunes, clicked ‘New Playlist,’ and typed those words. Funeral was acceptance: his body was failing him, his doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong, and so funeral hovered at some uncertain distance, closer than it had in over a decade, closer than it should have for a man in his early 50’s. They didn’t think it was his cancer returning, at least—the lymphoma I didn’t know about until years later, when I saw photos of us in an old album, my sister and I both too young to understand that Daddy didn’t have hair or a beard anymore because he was going through chemotherapy. Any awareness I might have had of his sickness, his hospital stays, had folded itself quietly into the deepest nooks of my childhood memories, stuffed behind the brighter ones of him swimming, kayaking, encouraging my sister and I to pursue sports, teaching us how to ride our bikes at the abandoned elementary school down the street. As far as I was concerned, he had always been healthy.
For Fun might have been a reassurance if one of us stumbled upon it by accident—not yet, it seemed to say, but just in case—but it was also for him. He could have just called it Funeral, or Funeral Playlist, but that wasn’t Dad’s modus operandi. Music, to him, was joy and light. He loved the poetry in Counting Crows lyrics, coffee black and egg white, but he also loved to dance and vocalize—much to my family’s chagrin—to the techno-warble of the Doctor Who opening, the horns and percussion of the Uruk-Hai theme from Lord of the Rings. When I was away at school, he would shoot me e-mails—have you heard of Great Lake Swimmers? Do you have Hazy Shade of Winter by the Bangles?—and when I was home, I’d tell him about the Decemberists show I went to off-campus, pull together playlists of artists I thought he would like.
I came home for spring break, when things were bad but hadn’t yet gotten worse, and Dad accompanied me on a trip downtown to the Freer and Sackler galleries. He had so little energy, but still he watched the gentle, grain-by-grain creation of a sand mandala with rapt attention, leafed through books of Chinese poetry and helped me pick out a scroll with a cat, charming in simple black brush strokes, to hang in our kitchen. On the metro ride home, I pulled out my iPod, his callused fingers feverishly warm as they fumbled to take my proffered earbud. We sat in silence for a moment, just the clack-screech of wheels on tracks and one-half of a song in our ears; the last notes faded off and I turned to await his opinion, but he’d fallen asleep, head lolled forward and temple beading with sweat, the headphone cord dangling from his shoulder and the next song a tinny warble against the fabric of his shirt.
I don’t know when he started Funeral for Fun, but alphabetically he made it to N. Halfway there. The last song was one I’d sent him, Colorblind by Counting Crows covered by Natalie Walker. I couldn’t listen to that or the original for the longest time, because it was too real, too close: I am folded and unfolding, I am ready, I am fine.
He and I were alone in his last weeks at home. My mom and sister were visiting colleges, and Dad returned from a business trip while they were gone, so much sicker than he’d been when he left. He could barely walk without a cane, sometimes fell just getting from his bed to the bathroom. Food, as he put it, made him feel like Frodo in Mordor: all of it tasted like so much ash in his mouth. I spent those nights in my sister’s room down the hall, knowing that his fevers were spiking at 104 and terrified that he was going to die while I slept, so I didn’t. I could see the bright-dark flicker of my parents’ television one night after 2 AM, so I crept in to pry the remote from his hands, but not until after I made sure he was breathing. When he woke, he mumbled something nonsensical—that I was going to an island to get him some salami. “That’s weird, Dad,” I tried to say, as if it was normal-weird for him, but the words shook, tasting sour in my mouth. The fevers were literally frying his brain.
We sat across from each other at dinner, the day before he was admitted to the hospital for the last time, and he finally talked to me about cancer. About death. The stretch of table between us felt like an insurmountable distance, like if I stayed on my side none of it would be real. I would be safe from the words, “I might only have a couple of years left.” He was crying when he told me that my mom, my sister, and I were more important to him than anything else in the world; that we were what kept him going the first time around; that he’d wanted nothing more than to see Ali and me grow up; that he wanted me to know that he loved us.
I should have said “I love you, too,” but I felt like my dad had pulled his ribs apart and laid his heart out on the table between us, a centerpiece of vulnerability I didn’t know how to match. All I could hear was two years, two years, two years in its quiet, unsteady rhythm, and instead of “I love you, too,” or “I don’t want you to die,” all I could choke out, with a nod, was “Yeah.”
The next week, I went on a long-planned trip with some friends. When I returned from Florida, Mom told Ali and me that his liver was failing. He was dying. Actively, irrevocably. Two years had turned, suddenly and horribly, to a little under two weeks.
Dad took his final breaths in the hospital CCU that night, do not resuscitate on yellow plastic around his wrist, rain streaking the windows of his private room.
The Beatles and Brother Iz played over a slideshow of him, of us, at his funeral. At the reception his playlist, a 200-song letter to my mom, my sister, and me, reverberated through the expensive sound system he’d bought for the house. My mom burned me a copy, 7 discs total, to take to school, to have on my laptop and my iPod. I looked over the track list, kept the CDs stacked neatly on my shelf beside a photo of him in my cramped little room off-campus, but I couldn’t listen to it, couldn’t even move it to my computer. The Crane Wife, Round Here, Coconut Skins—all of them made my throat close up, my shoulders shake. All of them were a part of him, but he was gone.
Religion was never the bedrock of my adolescent life. My dad was raised Jewish and my mom Christian, but neither believed in God. When I asked what religion I was, sometime in elementary school, they told me that I could choose whatever felt right. We celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas, but never went to church or temple, and I prayed maybe a handful of times as a kid without any real conviction, over trivial things: Dear God, please make so-and-so like me. Please help me get the nice 5th grade teacher next year. Amen. It felt a little like writing to Santa Claus, presenting a wishlist with the intention of being good in return.
By the time I hit 20, I’d taken an eye-opening comparative religion class in high school and was considering minoring in Eastern Religions in college, but still had no solid belief system. I felt comfortable saying I was spiritual, open to the idea of the inexplicable, but as far as a higher being, the after-life, the soul living on post-mortem? I didn’t know. Amidst all the leaders of science and faith, the atheists and the Catholics and the Buddhists, I didn’t think anyone in this world really knew. The people who knew were dead. When I thought about my dad, where he had gone when he took his last breaths, when heart and skin and bone caught flame and his earthly body returned to dust, all I could conjure was some sort of nebulous up there. I found a modicum of comfort in thinking that he was watching us, but I couldn’t quite picture his face, nor this wispy-pearlescent idea of his soul in the shape of his body hanging around with the greats of our universe, watching it all from the best seat in the house.
I can’t remember when my mom first told me that she was hearing music from Funeral for Fun in odd places. She would be on a trip, text me that something obscure—something from the 70’s she and Dad listened to together, that he’d then put on his playlist—had thrummed quietly over the clink of silverware at a restaurant, beneath the chatter of patrons in a shop. I thought it was nice, but largely coincidental. I had also heard a couple of songs here and there, but I assumed it was because I was hyper-focused on them, still wrapped tight in the insular cocoon of grief.
Not quite two years after he died, we went on a family trip to Hawaii. I was beginning the slow crawl out of the soul-sucking quagmires of fresh, marrow-deep sorrow: I’d dropped out of school, started seeing a therapist regularly, was working a job at a skincare company that required an energy level and cognitive capabilities that were trickling back to me after a year of exhausting brain fog. I felt okay, in the way only those who have experienced trauma feel okay: functional, appreciative, but acutely aware of the painful growth that trauma required of me. It was always there, the before and after, the knowledge that every moment in the years ahead of me, significant and not, would be experienced through the lens of my father’s death.
Hawaii was rejuvenating. It was important to both of my parents that we travel as a family at least once a year, and the places that struck me most were the ones with spectacular natural beauty—where rugged cliffs met crashing waves, where redwoods huddled dark and close, urging you to hush, to be present. Kauai was powder-soft sand and thunderous waterfalls, gentle turtles and inquisitive roosters, lush green forests spotted with orange and yellow and pink. It felt like my heart could make a home there.
We spent our time in Lihue reading on the deck of our rented condo, tasting homemade pies and shaved ice in flavors like lilikoi and li hing mui, shopping on days when dark clouds grew thick overhead and driving to the beach when the sun peeked through. The weather was mixed, but we wanted our trip to culminate in a helicopter ride over the Na Pali Coast, something that—as someone who is terrified of heights, and had heard many a helicopter tourism horror story—I was a bit apprehensive about.
There was scattered rain the afternoon we booked our helicopter trip, and I think the three of us were feeling my dad’s absence that day, the familiar dream-space of what this vacation would have looked like with him there, without the empty seat at each table for four. But I felt my heart rise with the helicopter’s ascent—the pilot pointed out landmarks, but otherwise we were left to soak in the views and listen to the pre-selected tour music, starting with the warm and charming Hawaiian Rollercoaster Ride from Lilo and Stitch. I looked out over fields speckled with chartreuse and moss green, cut with slender rivers and thick patches of forest, and felt at peace.
As condensation started to bead on the windows, clouds rolling to kiss each mountaintop in the distance, Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Brother Iz began to play. It made sense—we were in Hawaii, after all, but it still felt like a hand was squeezing tight in my chest. I wondered, without daring to look, whether my mom and sister felt the same.
We made our way to the coast, and the clouds parted with a serendipitous transition to Here Comes the Sun, a small rainbow arching across the mountains. It was another of Dad’s songs, one of the few I could listen to without hurt in the wake of his death, but again, it was popular and universally beloved: a beautiful comfort, something to talk about when we came down, but coincidence.
Then the melancholy, unmistakable first notes of Colorblind rang clear as the mountains plunged into the sea, a second rainbow rising brilliantly and perfectly beside us, and my quivering heart dropped into my stomach. It could have kept going, through the bottom of our helicopter and into the vast expanse of ocean below before it was finally, gently buoyed there, cradled by the rocking waves.
It was an elation, a certainty I had never before felt, and one I find hard to describe to people who have never lost someone, who have never experienced that sublime moment when your loved one’s energy is unquestionably there, before and around and within you. Strangely enough, I was the one to introduce my dad to Counting Crows, at some point when I was still in elementary school. I bought a copy of August and Everything After, he fell in love, and as middle-schoolers are wont to do I decided I was Too Cool for them even as my dad continued to buy each of their albums, until finally I outgrew my Too Cool phase and fell back in love. Colorblind, for whatever reason, was a song that spoke so strongly of my father to me that I couldn’t bear to hear it after he died. That afternoon, as we soared over the Na Pali Coast, may have been the first time I heard the song in full since his death.
The three of us didn’t have to talk about it, when our feet were firmly back on solid ground, but we did: and all that had to be said was that he was there. The music that spoke to his soul—the music he deliberately, painstakingly and reverently chose for us, for himself, his own death—was there. We didn’t quite know how, or in what way, but there was a truth in that shared moment that we couldn’t overlook. We missed him, and we were together, and our hearts were open in that honest, ever-mending vulnerability of moving forward from loss.
Somehow, Dad knew, and urged us to listen. And so we did.
Months later, the next trip my family took together was a one-way ticket for me: I was moving to Los Angeles, making that cliché leap into the creative clusterfuck of the entertainment industry. I was excited and terrified, and I leaned more terrified than excited as Mom and Ali’s flight home to Virginia grew closer and closer.
The two year anniversary of Dad’s death fell during that week, so emotions were running high amidst the anxieties of my move. Some friends of mine recommended a Chinese restaurant we should go to for dinner that night, since my dad loved Chinese food—he spent years studying in Taiwan, and when we went to Chinese restaurants together we were the only white people who ordered off the Mandarin menu, which meant we got the good shit—but it was our first foray into the treacherous, shark-infested waters of Los Angeles street parking. After circling for about half an hour, squinting at the indecipherable signs—No Parking Mon-Fri 7AM-7PM, 2 Hour Parking Sat-Sun, Definitely No Parking on the Anniversary of Your Father’s Death, Permit Required—we gave up. Mom was stressed. I was frustrated and stressed by osmosis. We were staying in a hotel at Universal, and despite having spent enough time mingling with the tourists there that week to last the entire tenure of my LA residency, we resigned ourselves to spending Dad’s anniversary dinner at the Hard Rock Café. He liked collecting their shirts when we traveled, so it would be good enough. I didn’t feel like it was good enough—I felt like somehow, we weren’t honoring his memory.
At the end of our meal, as we stood to leave, I realized that the framed jacket in my direct line of sight that evening had belonged to Adam Duritz of Counting Crows.
It’s hard to explain how Funeral for Fun crops up at those moments. It’s not the only way in which I feel Dad’s presence—there are films, literature, animals, places that remind me of him, where his energy is so clearly there—and I certainly can’t just snap my fingers and say, “Dad, please give me a sign that you’re listening, that you’re looking out for me.” It’s serendipitous, it’s divine, it’s magical in a way that probably sounds like total bullshit to most people. We lived in the Boston area when I was younger, and when I returned for the first time last year, I spent a day at the aquarium and exploring Quincy Market with a friend of mine. This was almost a year after we scattered his ashes over the water in Maine, and I felt so at peace looking out over the harbor. I pressed my hands to the glass of the seal enclosure, chatted with my friend about how my dad and I went scuba diving when I was younger, and later that evening my mom, out of nowhere, texted me a photo she had just found of my dad and I on that trip together, scuba masks peeking out of the bottom of the frame. As my friend and I ran through the rain to catch our cab, shaking with cold in the growing dark, I realized the music I was catching snippets of, over the torrential downpour, was the Decemberists, braving that New England summer storm to perform on the Common. This past December, I went to a different aquarium with friends for my birthday, and as we sat down on the water for dinner, a perfect, frosty glass of Maine blueberry beer in hand, Counting Crows played over the restaurant speakers, just for me.
“Did you hear Here Comes the Sun when we walked in?” I waited to ask my mom until our waitress had flitted off with our drink orders at the Florida beachside restaurant we’d chosen for dinner earlier this summer, though I’d had one ear trained on it while she asked, not wanting the song to end before my mom and sister could hear. Mom said no, she hadn’t—and as she said it, Rain King by Counting Crows began to play. I walked along the beach later that evening, water drenched orange-pink with the setting sun and lapping warm at my ankles, and I felt full.
It is hard science fact that our energy doesn’t disappear when we die. So where does it go? I’m not a physicist, nor do I have any definable divine faith, haven’t turned to any variety of God or god as an answer to my grief. But I’m growing more comfortable with the not-knowing, with letting it be enough that our existences are miraculous on their own; with the inexplicable, sublime understanding in my viscera, at my core that my dad’s energy is still present. The music that spoke to his soul now holds some piece of it. I can’t really call upon it, or pray to it, but I can open myself to it. It is there because I allow it to be. And lately, it doesn’t feel like only my dad’s energy: it’s the energy of the universe, the Other of innumerable religions, the feeling we get while staring at the horizon where sky meets ocean and continues on and on, while looking up into the vast dark and covering the moon with our thumbs, wondering at how small and significant we are all at once.
This feeling can happen to all of us. It happens when we allow ourselves to be truly, deeply vulnerable, to look our pain dead in the eye and say: I acknowledge you, and you are a part of me, but you do not own me. It happens when we pull ourselves out of the microcosm of our personal existences, the minutiae of our daily lives, and understand that every other person on this earth leads a life as complex as our own; it happens with empathy, and grace, and in the most difficult and gut-wrenching, bone-bruising parts of growth. It happens at its deepest, most profound level within that growth. It most assuredly happens with love.
Just reach past your ribs, hold your beating heart in your hands, and listen.