by Hugh Gilmore
If you have a favorite song, do yourself a favor and never ever use it at a memorial service.
On May 20, 1988 I chose to play John Lennon’s “Imagine” at my son, Colin’s, funeral/memorial at the Unitarian Church on Lincoln Drive. Lennon’s song debuted in 1971, and I had always loved it as a work of inspiration that expressed a yearning for high ideals. The music has heavy piano chords that give it gravity and light, and soft high-note singing that stirs hope. It reminded me of my young, idealistic son.
“Imagine” is perfectly lovely song, one of my favorites ever. The war in Vietnam was still being fought when this song debuted – it spoke to the longing for peace everyone hoped for. “Imagine” became all the more poignant, almost unendurable, after John Lennon was killed in 1984. Hearing his gentle voice and thoughtful words, after his death, was painful.
At the memorial service, the minute – no, the second – the music started, I broke down. It seemed like a taunt. I wanted to run away, but couldn’t. Every feeling pent up in the week prior to this service imploded. It was an experience I wouldn’t care to repeat. I never wanted to hear that song again.
Somewhere on earth, however, at every minute of every day, “Imagine” is being played. Most recently, I was in a Salvation Army Thrift Store, browsing old records. I heard the song start to come over the store’s music system and I walked quickly out to the parking lot. My hard-won calm had been flipped to the B-side: mourning and missing my boy.
I hear the song played in the supermarket, the department store, the gym, at a party held by friends, from a car passing by, in an office where I must pick up a form, or playing in the background of a movie.
ABC played it from Times Square as the New Year’s Eve Ball came down in 2005. I still walk away, out of hearing range till the song’s over. Sometimes – at the dentist’s office, for example, with a dental dam in my mouth, I cannot escape. I will myself to hear the song as mere sounds without meaning, a trick the bereaved learn.
I’m heading somewhere with today’s essay, but not sure how to get there. Maybe this story will help: Two weeks after Colin died I was back to work, teaching in a high school, being around young people just about his age (he was 18). I was still a zombie. I went through my paces though, as best I could. The students were kind and sensitive. The school year was nearly over.
And thus it was time for year-end appraisals of the staff by the administration. My immediate supervisor and an administrator would perform this annual bureaucratic mugging. My job was secure. Nothing was on the line other than the usual ritualistic humiliation of the foot soldier back from the trenches to be told by the rear echelon that he needed a haircut and shinier shoes. The process was ridiculous in the best of years. On that day it seemed a tad mean-spirited since I still had grave dirt on my shoes. But I sat and let them get it over with.
Except that the office was on the first floor and it was a beautiful early June afternoon and the window was open. And out in the parking lot a young man of about 18 had pulled up in a convertible. What a beautiful sight: a young man with the whole world ahead of him, in a convertible, on a sunny day in June. As my bosses read their list of what was wrong with the way I played the Game of Life, the kid in the car reached over and turned his radio on.
Trapped. Lennon. “Imagine.” All the people,” “living for today,” “you may say I’m a dreamer,” and so on. I looked at the kid and felt a big tear fall out of my eye. More followed. I wasn’t crying. I just seemed to have an overflow problem. Nothing I could do about it. It seemed to be happening to somebody else. All I wanted to do was make it through till the song was over. I felt that if I asked to be excused these people would find a way to use it against me. Then the song ended. The room was quiet.
“Are you okay?” the man said.
I turned and noticed I couldn’t quite see him. I rubbed my eyes. My cheeks were wet. “Yes, I’m okay,” I said.
“I mean, are you seeing anybody about that?” Meaning a psychiatrist, I supposed.
“No. It’s only been a month,” I said.
“Maybe you need to be seeing a therapist,” my supervisor said. As though human suffering were an experience outside of the human condition. As though grief needed to be “fixed” by something other than time and patience and love from friends.
“I’ll consider it,” I said, seeing that notepad and pencil and knowing how easily a report could be fattened with, “Teacher refused therapy.”
And now I’m where I tried to get to in this piece, and I apologize if I didn’t quite arrange it smoothly enough. I wanted to say that I’ve had this New York Times article on my desk for a few months and wanted to react to it. The headline reads: “GRIEF COULD JOIN LIST OF DISORDERS.” As the American Psychiatric Association labors over the fifth edition of its “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders,” a faction within its ranks wanted to include grief as a form of depression that should be treated.
Those who resisted – and they won – the motion was withdrawn last week – said that while all depression had a component of grief, not all grief was Depression with a capital “D.”
And I agree, of course. From “Antigone” to “Hamlet” to “Sophie’s Choice,” grief has a long, ingrained and noble history. And in “dealing” with it, perhaps we witnesses should just trust the human heart to go on beating and trust the human desire for pleasure to eventually reemerge – dented, but all the wiser for the burdens it has borne.
Hugh’s “Personal Journey through ‘redneck noir’ literature” just became a Kindle eBook and is available at Amazon.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.