As you may have heard, I bought a car recently. Not just a car…an adventure. This isn’t about the car but was inspired by it circuitously and kinda sorta, so if you haven’t yet, please feel free to read the two most recent columns and catch up. And then read the rest and share them with friends. I don’t make any money off of this thing but it makes me feel good to have my clicks up and it’s my birthday…
Ok, enough about that. I’m supposed to be talking about the things in my chronically overlong title. So, let’s do that. As most of my stories go, it starts with some backstory…
It was the first week of September, 1990. I’m certain there was something of note going on in the world but I had just turned 17, had my license, had a car, and my world was falling apart. I’ve covered my father’s illness and death here in this space a great deal, but if you’re new here, my father was dying of cancer. He would pass in October of that year. I was starting my senior year of high school and handling it and a number of other emotional and personal challenges with varying degrees of success.
What does this have to do with Don Henley? Well, not a ton, actually. He’s the guy that co-wrote and sang a really great song, “Heart of the Matter.” That in and of itself is not noteworthy here, though it’s a great song and all you Eagles haters should just settle down and hang in there. A good song is a good song.
This is all about timing.
Dad was in the hospital and Mom was with him most days. My sister had just graduated college and was out in the world creating her own personal brand of awesome so, I had a lot of time to myself. I was at the hospital a lot too but school had just started and it was decided among my parents that I should try to have as normal a senior year as possible. So I tried. It was amazing how quickly going to Princeton Hospital became a daily occurrence.
Among other things that should be mentioned as this backstory gets longer, is that I had just had a rather long-term relationship end, honestly as nicely as was possible, so that was on my mind too in the first week of September, 1990. It had just been my birthday. I got as a gift for my 17th birthday a car stereo of my choosing (within limits of course) to be installed in the Nissan, not the old Duster, as for the time being, I was going to using that car more often than not. So, I went and picked one out and it got installed and it was as a wise man once said, “most excellent.” AM radio AND FM, plus a sweet cassette deck with AMS, digital display, and METAL to non-metal cassette distinction options. Later on I even got an adapter to plug my giant portable CD player into it…but enough about how old I am. (42 is as special number!) It was really cool and I had an extensive cassette collection (still do) and I was really happy with it.
When I picked up the car after the installation I started it up and the radio was all static as none of the stations had been set yet so, I set about fixing that before I pulled out of the parking lot. I started with everyone’s favorite station in those days in Mercer County, NJ: 97.5 WPST, right out of Princeton. The moment I tuned it in I heard the opening chords of Don Henley’s “Heart of the Matter” and I just sat there listening to it. It wasn’t a new song really-the album it was on was over a year old, so I know I’d heard it before, but never in that time and that place.
But have you ever had that moment where someone said exactly the right thing at exactly the right moment? Or just happened to be in the right place at the right time for something significant to happen to you?
This was that in every possible way. The first song on the stereo that would be the last gift I would receive from both of my parent’s plays this song at that moment, when pretty much every lyric in the song speaks to something that had significance to what I was not only experiencing, but also the things I was avoiding. I was avoiding the idea that I might have to learn to live without my father. I was avoiding the idea that everything changes and that life goes on. I was definitely “Carrying that anger” despite the fact that “it’ll eat you up inside.” I did that for a lot of years afterwards too.
I know the song is, on the surface a song about learning that a former girlfriend had found someone else, and there was that too, but in that moment, the song felt like some kind of dispatch, what some call a “God Moment,” where it seems like you’re being sent a message. I sat there and listened to the whole song in the parking lot of that car place out on Route 1 between the Market Fair and the Mercer Mall and when it was over I turned off the radio and drove off into Princeton, towards the hospital to see my dad, but I stopped and parked somewhere first-I don’t remember where. It may have been our church, it may have been my old school, it may have been right on Nassau Street, I honestly don’t recall. I parked the car and for the first time since all the changes had happened-since my dad was diagnosed, since my relationship ended, since my world changed, since I’d been on emotional cruise control for months, I really thought about what it all meant: what “learning to live without you now, but I miss you sometimes” and “life goes on” and “I lost me and you lost you” and “Forgiveness” means. There’s a lot going on in the lyrics of that song, and so I thought about that and rather quickly, I completely and totally lost it tremendously and cathartically.
It was a good thing. Cleansing to be sure, but it was the first time I’d kind of let myself feel any of it to that point. I don’t think I’d been as honest and direct with my friends about what was going on and I think I tried to remedy that in the coming weeks. I remember feeling much more at peace, if such a thing were possible after that I and I drove on to see dad and had a good visit with him and mom was there too and we talked with his doctor and later mom and I had our first real talk about what was going on and how serious it was and what it meant to the family and what we needed to do over zeppolis at the Pizza place at the old Princeton Shopping Center. I wish I could remember the name, but it was a good conversation and I remember driving home with my new stereo-I had switched to the Jazz show on 103.3 WPRB as I didn’t want music with words right then as I wanted to process what I’d just come to understand: my father was dying and it wouldn’t be long. I was going to have to find a way to live with that and become a real person on my own. I was going to have to talk to my friends and I did to some. I wish I’d been more direct and honest with more of them. They were there for me after it happened in droves and to this day I love them all for it, but I wish I’d shared more as it was happening. Some of my closest friends didn’t know my dad was that sick. It was a lesson well learned. I barely shut up about anything these days. You all have Don Henley to thank for that I suppose…
So, that stereo I got for my 17th birthday went from the Nissan aka “Challenger” into the Tracer aka “Bullseye” before I had it removed when I bought the first outback. I kept it in a box. It’s gone through several moves within Jersey to Oahu to Virginia. It stayed boxed up in our laundry room here and then into a box in the old shed that leaked and into the new pretty shed that’s awesome, until I gave it to my new mechanic pals who installed it in the Duster. I was worried it wouldn’t play, but it works just like it did back in the day. This morning, I took the kids for their first ride in the Duster (I still don’t have a name for her yet-working on it) and connected my old cassette adapter to my IPod and we were rocking out to Bruce and Jimi, until it played “Heart of the Matter” as we drove down the local Parkway.
It was cool and a little breezy this morning, and since the AC hasn’t been re-installed in the Duster we had the windows open and the air was cool and a little damp. It reminded me of a morning back in early October of 1990 a little actually, when I knew before I was told that my father had died. Hearing that song with the kids, in the car I’ve been dreaming about since before dad got sick, with all of the significance that car turned out to have for me (as discussed in the earlier columns;) was really a nifty moment. I had a few memories that popped:
I remembered sitting in that parking lot listening to that song and how it had helped me come to grips with the relationships that were ending in my life and the fact that I was going to have to figure out how to live my life in a very new way.
I remembered standing on the high altar at church with my friend D. who arrived early to Dad’s funeral and gave me a hug and held my hand for a long time and didn’t let me go until I was ready.
I remembered talking to my friend A. before the service about how I could possibly write a eulogy and how she helped me through it.
I remembered hugging my Godparents in the room for families, so grateful they were there. I saw them recently so I wasn’t surprised to have them in mind.
I remembered how my sister’s friends had driven all day to come to the service and then had to go right back to take the GRE’s the next day.
I remembered the young woman who held my hand through the very awkward reception afterwards, even though we weren’t a couple anymore. She didn’t let go until I was ready either.
I remembered other things too but to be honest I only swam in that for a moment. They were all nice memories that I treasure and have written about before if not here, then elsewhere.
But then I took a breath and exhaled, and draped my arm across the front bench and put my palm out towards the Bear, and she grabbed my hand from the backseat and held it and then I thought about how fracking cool it was that I was driving my new old car with my kids listening to that song. I felt again, as I talked about last column, like something had changed. I felt calmer and a lot more at peace. I liked the moment I was in with the kids, and I like very much the way it feels now in my memory-at peace sounds and feels pretty sweet.
I told the Boyo, who enjoys specific facts about songs, “Hey-you hear this song? This was the first song this stereo played back in 1990 when I had it installed in Grammy’s old Sentra.”
And he said, “That’s cool.”
And it was. The next song that popped up on shuffle was Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” to which Boyo said, “YES!”
It’ll be 25 years since that all happened soon and, while I wish I could say everything went smoothly after September 1990, that would be untrue and generally uninteresting. There were a lot of years I still carried anger and it definitely ate me up inside. But I learned to live.
Now, as a delightful postscript, the first week of September 1992 was a real winner. There was this really pretty blonde that kissed me in the stairwell of her dorm on the night before classes started. That worked out pretty well for me. Impeccable timing once again…
If you’d told me while listening to “Heart of the Matter” in 1990 that I was only two years away from the love of my life well, I don’t know what I would have done with that. Probably would have written an awful song or an even worse poem. Be grateful you only have to read me in this form…
Today I am unequivocally exactly where I want to be. My family is healthy and happy, despite of and because of some of the challenges we face. I read to my children every night and it is a source of enormous joy for me. They are funny and fun and brilliant and artistic and thoughtful and amazing in ways I can’t ever imagine having been as a child. My wife is the greatest ever. I am who I am because of my relationship with them and the rest of you fine people. And I know that Don’s song, which he said took “42 years to write and about 4 minutes to sing,” said among other things that “Everything changes,” and that’s true, but sometimes it’s not. I still love my parents although they are both gone now. I love my wife and my children and my sisters and all of our family; even the ones who like Michigan. That doesn’t change but I think we do-well, I won’t speak for all of you, but I think I have changed at least a little.
The song also says, “All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning again.” I used to feel that line very differently than I do now. I used to take it as “I screwed up and am re-learning stuff I should know.” I took it that way because that was absolutely my experience. I screwed up a lot and had to re-learn it a lot until I didn’t. I like the line now though, as I feel like it’s possible to look back on old lessons learned and learn them again in a new way. Like reading an old favorite book-one always catches something new on a re-read.
Or maybe I just like the song. Could be that. Could be that Don was writing the song at 42, like I just turned while writing this. Whatever it is, the song, the stereo, the car, the first week of September, whatever it is, in the end, I think the Heart of the Matter has never made more sense to me than it does just now.