“All your songs are sad songs,
why do you always have to see the worst of it?”
A couple weeks ago, we reached the two-year anniversary of our 12-year-old daughter’s cancer diagnosis. Two interminably long, dark, scarring years.
You can tell a lot about a person from the music they lean on during times of crisis and pain. In ‘momcology’ (cancer parent) circles, it tends to be heavy on the inspiration. “The Fight Song” is a favorite of many, for obvious reasons. Scared people need reasons to believe that tomorrow will be better.
But me? I’m a wallower.
It’s not one of my finest qualities, I admit; I wish I was better at finding silver linings and clinging to optimism, and god knows my wife wishes it too. And yet, when I’m down – which has pretty much been my perpetual state for the past 700+ days – positivity grates to no end.
It’s not that I lack hope, nor the will to fight. Somehow, though, embracing the darkness provides more relief than straining towards a light I cannot see. I need someone to sit alongside me beneath my darkened shroud, not pull me out from under it.
Which makes The Airborne Toxic Event a perfect fit for my current emotional state.
Now, I must disagree with Elizabeth. Not all their songs are sad songs, common perception notwithstanding. There is a thin line of hope running through the band’s work, under the despair.
That’s not to say the reputation isn’t well-earned, however. Mikel Jollett knows darkness intimately, and he’s not afraid to look it in the eye. He’ll eventually get through it, but not before he dwells in it, allowing himself – and through him, us – to feel its full weight.
That’s where I am, even as the presumed end of our cancer journey looms just a few months ahead. And that’s why I’ve taken solace in Jollett’s most devastating lyrics these past two years. These are the words I have returned to again and again, finding comfort in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, can relate to the endless night in which I find myself.
1. All At Once
We grow old all at once, and it comes like a punch
In the gut, in the back, in the face.
And I feel the water rising around us. Maybe that’s OK.
I feel the world changing all at once. I guess it’ll be OK.
“All At Once” is the first song I came to. On the night I received the frantic call from my wife, I was 700 miles from home. In the haze of confusion and emergency flight arrangements and near-paralyzing fear, the words lodged themselves in my consciousness: “Like a punch in the gut, in the back, in the face.” That’s how the news had landed: with a sickening, awful thud. It would be months before I could even begin to breathe again, before I could accept that maybe – just maybe – it’ll be okay.
Feeling the need to let it out, but not yet up to telling the world that my baby girl had cancer, I posted these lyrics on Facebook and just let them hang.
2. Why Why Why
And it’s foolish to think
You can bury it all in some endless drive to drink
Every person you meet can tell you’re a ship
Taking water in a storm and you’re starting to sink
I’m not a drinker, and that’s probably a damn good thing. Self-control has not been my strong suit of late, as the scale is all too quick to remind me.
The image of a sinking ship is cliché enough that it could easily be brushed aside, but damn if Mikel didn’t phrase it in such a way that it arrests me every time. My ship has come perilously close to going down under the relentless storm surges of life – and I have no doubt that everyone around me can read it in both my eyes and mood.
This journey has changed me. My reserves are stripped. My ability to bite my tongue has frayed. I fear I may have stepped on some people, which is not my way. But when you’re going under, all you care about is keeping your head above the water; you take your footholds wherever you can find them.
3. The Thing About Dreams
The thing about love: it’s never enough. Circumstance changes and life’s always calling your bluff. Enough is enough.
And when you sleep you’re alone. When you dream you’re just one of a million small pieces. My darling, I see you. I’m one.
I always believed we were more than impossible. You’re more than you seem and partly responsible for my lies, from my eyes. And now I’ve said too much and I’m not giving up. I can’t carry the weight of this over-filled cup. I just close my eyes like you’re close to the touch and I dream: You’re not what you seem.
Quite simply, my mantra.
When you’ve got a special needs kid, you expect more than your fair share of trouble. When you’ve got two of them, any remaining expectation of a ‘normal’ life goes out the window. It’s always rewarding, but always hard, too. And when you add childhood cancer on top of that, well…
Every once in awhile, the stars align just enough for it to seem manageable. The patient is at her healthiest, her little brother directs his boundless energy in non-destructive directions, and even the teen sisters seem happy.
And then – BLUFF! Life laughs and yet another shoe drops from the sky.
The over-filled cup and the sinking ship: they are one and the same. Either way, we end up all wet.
Well, I lost my innocence today. I could feel her in my bones, my blood. And I woke up tired, scared, and sad, so drained I felt so bad. Today, would you steal… would you say, what you feel, which is nothing but hollow, thin as air. I could die, I just don’t care.
And forget happiness, I’m fine.
When you no longer care if you die, you’re on dangerous ground.
A majority of cancer parents end up with diagnosable anxiety and depression; many show signs of PTSD comparable to those who return from war. My wife and I have not been immune.
Thankfully, I have never had suicidal thoughts – not now, and not at any other time in my life. What I have had, though, is a newfound apathy towards the prospect of my own eventual death. I don’t look forward to it, but it doesn’t bother me as much as it should.
When you get on a plane and you think to yourself, “It wouldn’t be the worst thing if this goes down;” when you find yourself taking comfort in the thought that, “If I can just get through the next 40 years, I can finally get some rest…” that is not a healthy place to be. I know that.
But before you can face it, you have to name it, and “Innocence” has helped me do that.
5. The Way Home
If you smash your life up against the wall, you want to break it like a bottle and just let go,
But I don’t know if there’s a God at all, I just know I can’t live like this no more,
I just know I can’t live like this no more.
“The Way Home” as been my anthem for a long time, for reasons that have nothing to do with cancer. The past two years have only intensified it.
To be sure, there are many great things about my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The most precious pieces – namely, the five beautiful people who share my roof – make every other part of it worth living; every battle worth fighting to the death. On my best days, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
But yeah, if I could somehow hold on to them while smashing the rest of it and starting again, well – on a lot of days, I’d be mighty tempted.
Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. When you’re 20 and single and life is spread out wide in front of you, every door is open. But each one you step through closes others behind it, and two decades later you have bills to pay and people to keep alive and not nearly enough options. And you love the people desperately; you just kind of wish you could transport them into different circumstances – to a place where life isn’t always calling your bluff and every cup is filled to the optimal level and your ship stays afloat even when the angry waters are rising around you…
There are other songs. Songs of hope; songs where happiness is not overrated. Someday I will sing them again.
But not today.
Glen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere and author of Toxic History: The Story of The Airborne Toxic Event. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.