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Five Years After My Father’s Death, A Talking Heads Song Gives Me Peace

It’s the first night in August, and I’m standing on the stage of my favorite bar, Troupe429 in Norwalk, CT.

I’m dressed in a three-piece suit of peacock blue-green, matched with a tie of peacock feathers, embroidered slippers and rhinestone earrings. And it’s time to sing a song.

Confidence should be high; it’s my fourth appearance performing in this show, at this bar. A fair amount of the crowd knows me. But this time, I’m deeply unsure how it will go. Gone is my usual refracted pop-culture kitsch; no Gaga, no Britney, no “Thong Song.” It’s just me, a microphone, and snapping fingers; no safety net of a backing track.

I don’t know how this risk will go. I don’t know if I can even finish the song. But it’s time to try.

I open my mouth, and pour out my pain. I’m not performing for myself this time. I’m singing for my father, now five years gone.

“Everyone is trying to get to the bar. The name of the bar, the bar is called heaven.”

March may come in like a lion and go out like a lamb, but for me, August charges in like a bull.

Five years ago on August 5, my father died after dealing with bone marrow cancer. It broke his bones and shriveled his body, but he’d made it through treatment and was about to be declared in remission. Then, on that early morning, he fell in the bathroom with a heart attack, and didn’t wake up.

Since then, I’ve gone through my grief, my pain, my loss. I’ve gone from mourning him to simply missing him.

It’s OK. I’m OK. Most of the time. I can shed a tear or crack a smile when something reminds me of him, and both are fine. I’m fine. (Unless I’m watching the end of Coco; then I’ll weep like a baby! Thanks, Pixar?)

As summer does, July closes and August approaches. And I’m T-H-R-O-W-N thrown.

Anxiety sets in. One night my wife and I went out to eat, and I could feel my insides shaking while waiting to order. I’d climb into bed at night, waiting for my phone to vibrate in the dark and the screen to say it’s my brother, calling from the hospital like he did that early morning, his voice breaking apart into a million pieces.

Over the years since my father died, I’ve written about where he and pop culture intersect. How he was one of those children who watched George Reeves fly around as Superman, and promptly broke his arm jumping off a roof with a towel around his neck. How he loved The Day The Earth Stood Still, and hated Inspector Gadget. How he watched Batman cartoons with me and laughed his head off watching Jack Nicholson gallivanting as the Joker.

However, sometimes a piece of pop culture will pop up anew and smack me in the face with a memory or emotion of him. My brother one time sent me a song, “Last Glimpse of Gotham” by Joshua Redman, that he said reminded him of our father. Now I cry every time the saxophone picks up over those strings and that funereal bell. Redman was one of Pop’s favorite jazz men.

A few months back, I stumbled onto the song “Heaven” by Talking Heads. The guitar, piano, organ and bass combine with David Byrne’s echoing, plaintive voice, singing about the afterlife as a great bar where the party only ends to repeat itself, again and again, into eternity.

“The band in heaven, they play my favorite song. Play it once again, play it all night long.” My brother and I placed a John Coltrane album in Pop’s casket. Is he in that favorite bar, listening to Trane play?

The lyrics, when you really stop to mull them over, grow more unnerving. They move from slightly optimistic and absurd to something disquieting and waltzing with the uncertainty of what happens after we die, the uncertainty of oblivion.

“Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.”

“Heaven” goes to the Nietzsche place, and then the Samuel Beckett place. If eternity is just the same thing over and over, does the novelty wear off? Will boredom set in? Is there boredom in heaven?

If the same thing keeps happening again and again, does it after a while feel like nothing is happening, because nothing new is happening?

“When this party’s over, it will start again. Will not be any different, will be exactly the same. It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all would be so exciting, would be so much fun.”

Or is heaven “a place where nothing ever happens” because there is no heaven?

No afterlife?

No gods?

No anything?

They say nothing is forever. What if forever, then, is nothing?

I don’t know how much of those thoughts went into what came out of my mouth that night on stage. I only know that I pushed everything I felt within me out to the audience, and I could feel their acceptance, their love, their support. Some folks approached me afterward to talk about their own fathers long gone, as we embraced and cried for each other.

I’ve made peace with my father’s death. He shows up in the strangest places sometimes, like a Talking Heads song from 1979.

Life carries on, and I carry my father with me in my memories, in my heart, in the face that looks back at me in the mirror.

 

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