I spent the day putting together an application to be a speaker at End Well — “a dynamic gathering of individuals committed to generating human-centered, interdisciplinary innovation for the end of life experience.”
I wanted to share what I wrote in my application because it may spark something in you — a story you want to share with me or perhaps you have a place for me to come speak and sing these songs.
What would you talk about on stage? 250 words or less.
My mom got ovarian cancer. I abruptly left a successful career as a performing singer-songwriter and moved home to be her primary caregiver. Throughout all the acts related to her “living dyingly” (to use Christopher Hitchens’s potent phrase) -- the rounds of chemo, the periods of radiation, and, eventually, the months of hospice care -- I wrote songs. It was nearly impossible to find time to craft lyrics and melodies amidst the overwhelming demands of her disease. It often felt utterly absurd to put the enormity of our grief into musical form. But try I did. In little bursts of lyrics and melody.
That act -- of being creative in the face of the ravages of her disease and her impending death -- ended up being my most important act of care.
I’d watch the impossible weight of her sadness and despair lift -- just a little -- as I sung her my song “Letting Go,” “Come a little closer now / Take my hand / It’s not loss / Let’s try to understand / It’s so hard / You should know / It’s not loss / Let’s call it letting go.”
That I would use precious minutes of free time to write a song about her made my mom feel loved, worthy, and cared for on a primal level. My songs gave expression to emotions neither of us knew how to talk about, emotions best expressed through the ancient act of singing. She experienced release and relief through that rhythm and resonance.
How is this speaking topic new, innovative? Be as specific as possible.
Writing and performing pop/jazz songs about death, dying, and the landscape of loss while living that experience (as the primary caregiver) is something I’ve not seen and heard many other musicians do. There are, of course, some brave souls who’ve walked the path. Paste Magazine, that arbiter of culture, has done a round-up of the most well-known examples: “10 Historic Albums About the Loss of A Loved One.” Still, it’s an endeavor that’s heart-wrenching and begs a lot of questions.
Now that I am recording and performing the music I wrote for my mom, audiences ask me how I did it. They want to know two things -- how I did it literally (how I found the time and the energy when the caregiving was so all-encompassing) and how I did it figuratively (how I found the words to express the inexpressible blank space of death).
To be creative in the midst of the complexity of caregiving was no easy feat. I wrote melodies while my mom and I were sitting in the chemo suite. I wrote lyrics on the days when she couldn’t get out of bed, dead-tired from the side effects of treatment: “She’s been lying in her bed all day, sleeping off the meds / Think I’ll open up the window to what hasn’t yet been said.” I’d retreat to my bedroom and scribble away, pausing to check on her every hour or so. I’m a musician. I knew that somehow, in some way I had to try to process the unfathomable through my chosen medium.
After I finished the first song about our experience, called “Death Come Slow,” and after I played it for her, I knew I had to keep writing and singing. She burst into tears and hugged all the air out of me. I felt like I had finally found a way to speak to the shadow figure of Death that was haunting us: “Your crooked shadow there at the door. My two hands can’t help her no more / Split my fingers, skinned both my knees, crawling after her disease. / Death come slow / Death come shy / Death don’t you look her / in the eye.” That song gave us both the courage to face another day.
What would your audience get out of hearing these songs and my story? They’d viscerally experience a different way of processing death and dying. Music is a different medium than conversation, than dialogue, than spoken word. It’s elemental. It breaks us open; it breaks through in ways the intellect alone cannot.
Lastly, I want to tell you that I made a conscious decision to write songs not only about the dark and sorrowful parts of my mom’s dying, but also about the light and joyful aspects of our time together. She and I were hyper-aware of the opportunities her diagnosis presented. We talked honestly not only about how she wanted to die, but also about how she wanted to live. Every conversation about death turned into one about life. There is a dimensionality to these songs. The lyrics and melodies transform unutterable grief into something shareable, even sing-along-able. The music is candid and compassionate, heart-wrenching and, miraculously, life-affirming.