God Bless America: On Grief Tolerance.

“I swear to baby Jesus, if I hear ‘God Bless America’ one more time I am going to lose my ever loving mind!” I said, lowering my voice to a stern rumble.

“Or ‘Walking After Midnight,’ or ‘Amazing Grace,’ or…” my Someone said crazily.

“I’m off Leann Rimes.  That’s it!  I’m off Leann Rimes and I’m off Patsy Cline and I’m off Perry Como. Forever!  And I love Patsy Cline!  But I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!”

We’d been parked in my sister’s driveway in Tallahassee for two months, leaving weekends to play shows.  Weekends are usually when Dick plays his music across the street.  We’ve never met Dick, but we know that he built his own alarm system that occasionally sounds off at 11PM, having us duck and cover like a couple of Cold War kids under our desks.  According to our brother-in-law, Dick can fix almost anything.  He fortified his daughter’s Keurig machine to become unbreakable.  And he also found an old stereo system, completely busted, and rebuilt it.  The stereo system is now, according to my brother-in-law, set to play in two main areas of the house– the backyard and the garage– or both at the same time.  It’s complete with a 5 disc CD changer, of which Dick has filled each one and has fixed to go on an endless loop so that he never has to touch the stereo until he turns it off for the day.  And he never changes the CDs.

But we were gone most weekends, so what did it matter?  Except that early on Monday morning two weeks ago, I heard the blare of Leann Rimes wafting into our camper.

“Dick must be taking the day off today?” I said.

“He’s retired,” my Someone said. “Maybe he just needed an extra boost?”

For the rest of the day, we listened to Dick’s 5 discs, looping over and over until after dinner time.  I hummed “She’s Got You” until bedtime.

On Tuesday morning, we walked the dogs, ate our breakfast, and started our day of working in the camper.

Oh, say! Does that Star Spangled Banner yet waaaaaaaaave?

“Why is Leann Rimes singing the National Anthem right now?!  It’s Tuesday!” I said.

“I don’t understand what’s happening…” my Someone murmured.  We worked the rest of the day outside, listening to Dick’s 5 CD’s until just after dinner.  I asked my sister about it.

“He only plays it on weekends– usually for Sunday Funday,” she said.

“But it’s NOT just Sunday, it’s been for three days straight now!” I said.

“Oh dear,” she said. “Maybe it’s the only thing that keeps his wife soothed?  She’s dying, you know.”

Dammit.

Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, just after dinner I hummed “Walking After Midnight.”  It was the least irksome of the lot I listened to all day.

It’s been two weeks.  Yesterday, my Someone cracked.

“I CAN’T LIVE LIKE THIS ANYMORE!”

“What do you mean?” I said, smiling like an insane person.

“We are hostages!  We are living in a permanent Leann Rimes hell!  We’ve got to talk to him!” he yelled, waving his arms like a Muppet.

“You know his wife is dying, right?”

“Dammit.”

000431630018“I don’t think it’s right,” Elizabeth said, “I don’t think they should be putting those little white crosses on the side of the road.”

I liked Elizabeth.  She’s a native German, but has sweet drawl of a South Carolinian, having been planted there since she was 10.  But Elizabeth has no problem saying whatever it is that’s on her mind, whenever the thought occurs to her.  I had the distinct pleasure of being the recipient of these thoughts for all of November while my Someone and I house sat our Vermont friends’ Air B&B.  Elizabeth had been there since March.  She spent her day as a nurse, traveling to clients in the area, and she spent her nights tucked in her room.  We hardly saw her except when she made coffee in the morning and pasta at night.  But she lingered more and more as I lured her with fresh baked cookies and vegan pot pie.

I took a real delight in Elizabeth– mostly because I never had any idea where the conversation was going.  Lake Monsters could be in the same breath as Chinese Conspiracy in the same paragraph as universal health care.  And always delivered with a cheery, tinkling voice and a smile.  This particular abrupt opinion didn’t shock me nearly as much as her idea of Trump’s Master Plan.

“What’s wrong with the crosses?” I started, a little eager, “aren’t they for people who have died in accidents at that place in the road?”

“Exactly,” said Elizabeth.

I stopped stirring my oatmeal and turned around.  Elizabeth was rustling in the refrigerator, pulling out the organic non-GMO soymilk for her local coffee.

“What’s wrong with that, though?” I pushed, genuinely curious.

“I just don’t think it’s fair,” she said, “when all I am doing is driving down a street– a street that everyone drives on!  I’m sorry they lost someone and everything, but I don’t think it’s right that have to reckon with their grief.  I don’t want to be thinking of that stuff.  I just want to enjoy my drive and get to where I am going without having to think of their dead person and how sad they are.  I don’t put a picture of my dead people in parks and stuff.  It’s public space.  It’s just not right.”

I turned back to my oatmeal and stirred.

“You know,” I said hazily, “I guess I’ve never thought of that before.”

“Okay, well, have a good day!” she chirped.

And then Elizabeth was out the door.

000431620020It’s Day 16 of Dick’s 5 CD changer.  My Someone and I have moved our work to a local coffee shop in the morning, letting the whir of espresso machines and the chipper soundtrack of the Beach Boys and ‘N’Sync drown the sound of Leann Rimes singing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” still ringing in our heads.  We try to stay busy indoors in the afternoon, or take the dogs for a walk, or our niece and nephew to the movies to avoid it.

For all we know, Dick has always played his music this loud.  But I can’t help thinking that we are darting our eyes away from the crosses on the side of the road.  Confronting someone else’s grief– or even the potential for someone else’s grief– is awkward business.

But then I think of the Joan Shelley record I played again and again after my dog died two Novembers ago– how my Someone endured it three, four times a day, back-to-back– not even a Patsy Cline song to break the monotony.  Then I think of the other hundreds of little white crosses I’ve put up.  The songs I write.  This blog.  Photographs.  Learning to play the accordion.  A few paintings.  To avoid my grief is to take apart significant parts of who I am now.  To leave our grief in a cemetery may give us fewer roadside crosses, but we may also lose out on too many beautiful living relics.

I’m not sure what that means for the highway crosses, or if Elizabeth is right.  But maybe it would help to think, not of the tragically dead, but of the gratefully alive, stirring their comfort foods and listening to their favorite sad songs, and going out walking after midnight…

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