Over the past couple days I've pulled out a few albums from one of my favorite bands, Willard Grant Conspiracy. And that reminded me of something I wrote a while back. This is an essay that originally appeared in the late, lamented Mars Hill Review.
My brother-in-law Jim died of cancer of the everything in mid-April. The cancer started in his colon, and in true egalitarian fashion gradually spread to every major system of his body. It’s the American way; no organ left behind. Jim would have appreciated the irony. Jim was a big, tattooed body builder, but when he died his shrunken body was a hollow, emaciated shell, eaten out from the inside. He was my longtime friend, and these days I walk around with a Jim-shaped hole, an imprint of twenty-three years of a shared life, slowly fading in spite of my best efforts to retain every common and uncommon moment.
I cope by playing his songs. I love music, and every aspect of my life has its accompanying soundtrack. A couple years ago I carried a Bruce Cockburn song called “One of the Best Ones” around with me just before my twentieth wedding anniversary, pulled it out of my head whenever I needed to remind myself of the mystery and wonder of the marriage dance. This spring and summer I have played one album far more than any other. I play it on my drives to and from work and I play it at home late at night. When I am not near a CD player I play it in my head. It’s my Death of Jim soundtrack, an album called Regard the End by the intriguingly named Willard Grant Conspiracy.
There is mystery and wonder here, too. There is no Willard Grant, as far as I can tell, and I have no idea why he would be involved in a conspiracy. There is only a man named Robert Fisher and a loose affiliation of musicians who play with him. Robert is fiftyish, heavyset, and has black horn-rimmed glasses and a big, thick grey beard. He looks like Moses as college professor. And true to his image, or lack thereof, he makes distinctly unhip music, the kind of music that might have been popular during the Civil War, but which scarcely has an audience today. His various conspirators play acoustic guitars, mandolins, fiddles, cellos, pump organ, piano, and trumpet. Robert writes lyrics that sound as ancient as the Psalms, and he sings in a craggy baritone that wanders in and out of pitch and yet still manages to find just the right mix of soulfulness and grit and weathered imperfection. He reminds me of a deeper-voiced, less nasal Willie Nelson, or the world-weary Johnny Cash of the American Recordings years, two of Jim’s favorite singers. It’s a hopelessly non-commercial venture, but I cherish it, take it out and listen to these wise old contemporary tales as if they were the prayers of a desperate saint. And maybe they are.
On “The Trials of Harrison Hayes” Fisher entwines acoustic guitar, cello, trumpet, and piano in a lovely waltz, but his lyrics sting:
Misery doesn’t come from the earth
Trouble doesn’t sprout from the ground
People are born to trouble
Just as sparks fly upward
Into the clouds
It’s an echo of the Book of Job, a decidedly Old Testament pronouncement that leaves little room for mawkish sentiment or we’ll-meet-again-on-the-other-side platitudes. It’s plainspoken, no frills, to the point. Jim would have liked that. He was an engineer by talent and trade, and he had little patience or use for flowery poetry. But it leaves me uneasy, unsettled. It’s true enough, but I want more. Is that it? Is trouble the final word?
It is on Regard the End. On “The Suffering Song,” the epic final song on the album, a mournful fiddle weaves between the verses, an electric guitar drone builds and builds, and Fisher waits until the cacophony is a wall of sound behind him before he delivers his punch line:
Suffering’s gonna come
It’s as old as the world
Suffering’s gonna come to everyone someday
He could be Jeremiah or Job. He could be me on the black days, the days when all the minor joys – the impossible beauty of a bright green day in May, the easy dinnertime conversations with my wife and children – seem to collapse into that aching hole. But I don’t like the relentless nihilism. I wrestle with this music the way Jacob wrestled with the angel. I want to pin death, drive its shoulders to the mat and proclaim the end of sorrow and suffering. Enough already.
On Ash Wednesday I used to walk around with a cross of holy dust inscribed upon my forehead, a badge that proclaimed to a watching world the knowledge of my inevitable death. “Remember man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return,” the priest declared. Remember? It’s not that difficult these days; I track Jim’s dust wherever I go. Jim was a tough kid from a tough neighborhood in Cleveland, an ex-soldier and a boxer, and he never bargained for colostomy bags and morphine injections and hospice care. Who bargains for these things? But he got them.
Robert Fisher’s music is haunted by ghosts. On “The Ghost of the Girl in the Well” a fourteen-year-old slave girl, fleeing from her abusive master, falls into a well and drowns, never to be found. Fisher uses echoing feedback to great effect, and he and Throwing Muses vocalist Kristen Hersh wail softly in tandem, a lament that is both eerie and heartbreakingly lovely. On “The River in the Pines” a young Wisconsin riverman drowns in a boating accident, and his new wife dies shortly afterwards from a broken heart. Stark fiddle accompaniment only accentuates the gloom. It’s genuinely spooky music, the horror based not on the fantastical or the macabre, but on the common tragedies of everyday life. Death comes casually and with shocking swiftness, at any time, without notice or fanfare.
Jim battled cancer for four years, went through round after round of chemotherapy and radiation treatments. You’d think that I might have been prepared. But Jim was upbeat, even defiant. He was a battler, and there was no way the Big C was going to lick him. I believed that, everybody believed that, right up until a few days before he died. Even at the funeral home I half expected him to sit up in his coffin and laugh heartily, saving his best joke for the last.
Now I am haunted by a ghost. This one loved the Cleveland Browns and Jack Daniels whiskey, sailing on Lake Erie and listening to Johnny and Willie, loved most of all his wife and son and daughter. He was a real flesh and blood human being, holy and profane and utterly uncategorizable in all the ways that people we deeply know and love tend to be, and now he is turning to dust.
And so I want to hold on to this time, and I want it to pass in the worst way. I don’t like the pain, the constant, jarring reminders of a life that is gone. But I must be a glutton for punishment because I keep coming back to the same Willard Grant Conspiracy album again and again. I want to hold on to this hypercharged reality, this sense that every moment is fraught with meaning, this certain knowledge that these tiny, insignificant choices – the choice to wash or not wash the dishes, the choice to listen or not listen to my daughter as she recounts every detail of her school day – echo into eternity. It’s “Carpe Diem” and it’s “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may;” it’s every tired Hallmark Card cliché you’ve ever heard, and it’s as real as the man I saw in that coffin. His name was Jim. He had, as they say, a history; twenty-five thousand days upon which he made his imprint on the world, five hundred thousand choices that defined the man he was. He lived a long time, and he died too soon. Time stretches out endlessly, and there isn’t enough of it. There isn’t nearly enough.
Robert Fisher states it in deceptively simple language in a song called “Day Is Past and Gone.” In what sounds like a fiddle-driven campfire folk song for Puritans, Fisher sings:
Day is past and gone
The evening Shades appear
Oh may we all remember well
The hour of death is near
Moses, whom Robert Fisher resembles, at least the Charlton-Heston-gone-to-seed Moses I conjure in my mind, said the same thing. The only Psalm credited to the great lawgiver contains these words:
For all our days have declined in Your fury;
We have finished our years like a sigh.
As for the days of our life, they contain seventy years,
Or if due to strength, eighty years,
Yet their pride is but labor and sorrow;
For soon it is gone and we fly away.
Who understands the power of Your anger
And Your fury, according to the fear that is due You?
So teach us to number our days,
That we may present to You a heart of wisdom
The idea of divine fury rests uneasily with me. It seems so unlike the God I know. The God I know loves the little sparrows, has numbered the very hairs of our heads, and knows us all personally and intimately. “Fear not, little flock,” Jesus told his disciples, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” That kind of God I understand – a God of comfort and solace.
But the divine fury is inscrutable, mysterious. It manifests itself in cheerfully decorated hospice rooms, the tasteful way to die, and in IV drips and the antiseptic smell of hospital disinfectant. It shows up in Oxycontin prescriptions, in pain so searing that the strongest drugs in the world have no effect at all, in the sickening smell of flesh rotting from the inside. And it packs a wallop. This is how it is, and how it will be. Look closely, and remember. Another day is past and gone.
We lay our garments by
Upon our beds to rest
So time will soon disrobe us all
Of what we now possess
There is, apparently, hope for intractable souls. Moses knew it, and Robert Fisher knows it, too. There is a heart of wisdom, a way of living that lessens the divine fury and ameliorates the sting of death. It comes from remembering the end, the constant, ever-present knowledge of our finite span. It’s the simplest thing in the world, and it costs us everything. And so we enter a new classroom every morning, trying to learn this most elementary of math lessons – counting the days, counting the cost, over and over again. It’s revealed in the choices we make, the way we spend our limited time. It’s revealed in what we hold dear, and in the mystery of choosing messy, frequently unrewarding relationships over pragmatic material gain. Perhaps it’s revealed in what might be the greatest mystery of all – finding the love of God in the midst of the fine art of dying. I wouldn’t know yet. But I’ve seen some clues.
I listen to the news, the daily litany of the horrifying and the mind-numbingly banal – suicide bombers and Ricin in the water supply, the Afghan rebels and the New York Yankees, American Idol and Survivor. Survivor? Here’s a clue: Death is the ultimate reality programming, and nobody wins. None of it matters compared to the unfathomable intersection of cancer of the everything and mercies that are new every morning, the promise of inevitable death and the promise of new life. I walk through these hypercharged days, and I want to shake the world from its complacency. These silly squabbles, these petty diversions – you don’t have time for these things. Let them go. Life is too short. Another day is past and gone.
Lord, keep us safe this night
Secure from all our fears
May angels guard us while we sleep
‘Til morning light appears
If there is a heart of wisdom, I’d like to apply for that transplant. Everywhere I look there are numbered hairs on numbered heads, living out their numbered days between the love and fury of God. I’m holding out for love.
My favorite song on Regard the End is called “Beyond the Shore.” Behind a mandolin-driven, Celtic-tinged melody Fisher sings of love and loss, and it sounds like the kind of classic folk song that Bob Dylan used to toss off every other week or so in the early 1960s. It arrives as a soothing reprieve in the middle of the album, surrounded by songs of senseless tragedy and suffering and unremembered ghosts:
The time has come to leave this shore
No more will I find my way
And those I leave behind me now
Will soon take my place
I’ve struggled long with shame’s great load
And shouldered my share of pain
To feel the caress of the long black veil
I’ve worked, but not in vain
I’m bound to go beyond this shore
In Glory I will be placed
Goodbye, my loves I’ll not forget
Your sweet familiar grace
I’m bound to go beyond this shore
In Glory I will be placed
Goodbye, my loves I’ll not forget
To share this sweet embrace.
Nobody told me it would be like this; left holding on to a sweetly sentimental song instead of a live human being. It’s a lousy tradeoff. But nobody told me that a song could reach me so deeply as soul music, either, could serve as a balm for a raw, open wound, could work so well as a soundtrack for a plea and a prayer. I don’t know that it’s true, but I take it on faith that it is. It’s the kind of homespun, pie-in-the-sky twaddle that cynics will despise. But I’m not a very good cynic these days. In fact, I don’t know if I ever want to be a cynic again. I don’t want to hear it, don’t want to hear the objections to the sentiment and the sweetness. I don’t have time for it.
Jim would have probably scoffed at the sentiments. He didn’t talk much about Glory, didn’t go to church, had been burned a long time ago by people who wanted to forcefeed the love of God down his throat. But he knew something about shame’s great load, and he had more than his share of pain. He knew a lot about the sweet, familiar grace of those he loved, and he knew enough to embrace his family warmly and freely, quite regularly, even more frequently after he had been diagnosed with cancer. He would get it; he would understand what the song was about even if he didn’t agree with every line. So I pray the song for him. Even if he wouldn’t mean it in quite the same way, I play it over and over again, work it like rosary beads, my little private offering between God and Jim and me.
If I were a priest I would re-write the Ash Wednesday liturgy, balance it out the way Robert Fisher does on Regard the End. Listen: invest your life in those you love. This world is just the terminal ward; the real action is yet to come. Remember, man, that thou art dust, but remember Glory as well. The heart of wisdom matters, and it starts with numbering your days. It starts with regarding the end.
That’s how I would write it. But I’m not a priest, and I’m not good at composing liturgies, and I don’t have a congregation. I only have a Jim-shaped hole and a CD. And so I pronounce my homely benediction silently, talking to myself, talking to my friend, talking to God. You’re gone, and I miss you. You did well; your work was not in vain. May you be found in Glory, and may you know Love’s sweet embrace. I carry around these songs, Robert Fisher’s songs, Jim’s songs. They are new songs and as old as the world, and I pass my days with the sound of ancient music humming in my ears.