by Hugh Gilmore
If you have a favorite song, do yourself a favor and don’t ever use it at a memorial service.
On May 14, 1988, 26 years ago, I chose to play John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the funeral/memorial for my son Colin 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 soft high-note singing that stirs hope. It reminded me of my young, idealistic son.
“Imagine” is a 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 several years as the New Year’s Eve Ball came down. 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 review. My job was secure. Nothing was on the line. I still had grave dirt on my shoes (metaphor, my son was cremated in Hawaii and his ashes scattered in the Pacific. I sat and went through the motions.
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 my son’s age had pulled up in a convertible. What a beautiful sight: an 18-year-old with the whole world ahead of him, in a convertible, on a sunny day in June. As my bosses talked me through the checklist, 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 didn’t feel I could ask to be excused. 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 therapist, I supposed.
“No. It’s only been a month,” I said.
“Maybe you need to see someone,” my supervisor said. As though human suffering was 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 their notepads and pencils and fearing they might write, “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 long time 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.
A version of this piece appeared in the Local in 2012. Hugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.