This March, we said goodbye to my father in Room 411 of St. Louis University Hospital. After weeks and weeks of fighting, his lungs were unable to recover from a virus that doesn’t care how much you love someone, how strong you are or how proud you are of your children.
We sat together, he and my mother and I, and even though the doctors and nurses didn’t believe that he was able to really understand our words, we knew that wasn’t true, so — just like every other Sunday — we sat and listened to my radio show on KTRM. We laughed about choices my co-host had made that my dad hated; we cried listening to songs that were so thoroughly him that we knew it would be impossible to listen to them afterward. And sometimes, when there were no words, we sat and listened. We let music do the talking.
I’ve always believed in the power of music. Other people have stared at me blankly when I’ve tried to explain how music makes me feel or have tried to nod and understand when all they had ever thought about music was that it makes good background noise on a drive to the grocery store. There have been very few people in my life who have echoed my crazed shouting about the chords or the vocal technique or that awesome guitar riff with their own excited yelling. Nonetheless, my passion for music, my love of chords and lyricism and musicianship, is what led me here, to KTRM; and it’s what has sustained me in some of my darkest moments or made me feel on top of the world in some of my brightest ones.
But that day, maybe more than ever before, I knew the power of music. We had been expecting to let him go the next day; but, as it turned out, his care team feared he wouldn’t make it that long. As I returned to his room, my sister held up her phone for him to listen to his favorite songs one last time, to keep his blood pressure up long enough for my brother to arrive to say goodbye.
And I knew at that moment the power of music. I knew the power of music because it was the only thing that kept us from tears in those last moments when we all held our breath and prayed that my brother would get to the room in time. I knew the power of music because we all knew the words to the songs our father had given us, all at different moments in our lives when we had been different people, and those words were a gift that we were able to give back to him as we remembered who he had been, and who we had been. I knew the power of music because as we left the hospital and our father there in it, it was the first time in my life that I never wanted to hear music again.
It isn’t easy for me to return to my show with my co-host, a show dedicated to music that my father had loved. Of all the members of my family, it was always my dad who best understood how I felt about it, how every note could be a breath in the lungs, how every rhythm determines when your next step falls, how every harmony is the sound that your heart makes when it’s breaking for joy. So much of my musical taste and choices I make for any given show, even who I am in the booth, are because of him.
If it were up to me, maybe I wouldn’t return.
But if it’s a Sunday, that’s where he would have expected me to be, so that’s where I belong, sharing the love of music that he gave to me with someone new over the airwaves.
My relationship with my father — and his music — was complicated, as I think everyone’s relationship with their parents can be. At times, I wanted to absorb as much music knowledge as I could; other times, I didn’t think I could stand to hear another Beatles song.
Now, though, I realize that every song is a memory, a moment in time, a connection to the person you were when you first heard it. And once that moment is over, you’re never the same, which is for the better. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is a frigid car ride home in the darkest part of winter, soaring on a vocal line and huddling in your coat late at night. “House at Pooh Corner” is golden sunlight streaming through car windows, my dad’s voice and the gentle wind of a peaceful summer day. “I Talk to the Wind” is a dance in a moonlit kitchen and tears and promises that it will all be okay.
Every song is a few minutes with the loved one that shared it with you.
That is the power of music.