This was supposed to be a happy song. It was a happy song. But almost as far back as I can remember, it has always made me sad. But sad in a unique, disquieting, unusual way. And though it was always associated for me with a first love, it took the death of my longest, deepest love for me to recognize that feeling for what it really was.
The less we say about it the better
Make it up as we go along
Feet on the ground
Head in the sky
It’s ok I know nothing’s wrong
She was my first serious relationship, and I was hers. When the dates for the Talking Heads tour were announced, tickets went on sale for the Seattle show before a Portland show was even confirmed, so we bought them and made a field trip of it. The other couple we went with found seats on the side, but we headed straight for the front. She had slam-danced with the best, er, worst of them (the terms “moshing” and “mosh pit” were still a good 6 or 7 years in the future), so there was no way we would let a Talking Heads crowd intimidate us. By the time the show started, she was at the barrier and I was right behind her, directly in front of Tina Weymouth. I remember thinking how especially attractive she looked in just a t-shirt and jeans that night. Simple, plain, almost innocent, without her usual adornments. A few bigger frat-boy types thought they might squeeze in front of us, but we were invincible. I felt masculine, proud, strong, sexy. Me and my girl. One look and they knew not to fuck with us. In part because we were just too damned happy. This was before the arguments, the hashing out of family-of-origin crap and fundamental personality miss-matches and not enough inter-personal skills or wisdom to find our way out of a really big paper bag. All of that was in the future, unknown to us then.
At one point Tina looked down and smiled a big smile right at us, and it seemed like she recognized how cute we were. And when they played this song, even though it was too sappy (even for me, at the time), I think we both knew it was for us.
Home – is where I want to be
But I guess I’m already there
I come home – she lifted up her wings
I guess that this must be the place
I can’t tell one from another
Did I find you, or you find me?
There was a time, before we were born
If someone asks, this is where I’ll be
But cute and happy only go so far, and first relationships need a lot more than that, which we of course didn’t have. We stayed friends, and were happy at the news of each other’s weddings, even though we weren’t invited. We got to talk and compare notes on parenting after the death of a mutual friend a dozen years later. 10 years or so after that, she has reached out from far away to support and comfort me in my loss.
I was working on my computer, at a coffee shop (surprisingly, something I hardly ever get to do), while the kids were at a special summer group at the Dougy Center. Normally, when the kids have their group, we parents have ours. But this was a summer session that was a part of their training program, where people come from all around the country to learn how to help children in grief. So, there I was, when this song came on. (Perhaps my psychotic mind-reading iPod had begun communicating with other devices, ensuring they spit out profoundly relevant and comfort-disrupting songs in my presence. I wouldn’t put it past it. Not for a second.) What’s more, it wasn’t even the studio version, it was the live version. From “Stop Making Sense.” It was as close as you can get to the version they played that night in Seattle, “for us.”
And there was that feeling. Again. That strange, sad, but not just sad, previously unplaceable feeling that had always tripped me up every time I had heard that song. Of course, I knew that thinking of us, then, so young, happy, blissfully ignorant of the storms and sadness to come—of course that is a sad thing to be reminded of, even after years of no longer being angry at the person and of successful marriage and life that have given you compassion not only for them but also for yourself, for who you were, then, for the mistakes and stupidity and meanness and selfishness and pain you had caused. But there was always something more, something I couldn’t place or recognize.
Only now it was clear as a bell. It could have walked up to me and shook my hand. It was my not very old friend, with whom I had become so intimately acquainted over the past sixth months. Now, I recognized it instantly and without any ambiguity or doubt as to what it was.
It was grief.
Out of all those kinds of people
You got a face with a view
I’m just an animal looking for a home
Share the same space for a minute or two
And you love me till my heart stops
Love me till I’m dead
It took the death of my wife of 19 years for me to recognize that feeling that came whenever this song reminded me of my first real adult loss. Losing my father to cancer at the age of 7 helped make me an insecure and impossible to live with 22 year old, but the inevitable loss of that first real relationship was so totally different from that childhood loss, it took a much greater and deeper loss for me to recognize the feeling it for what it really was.
So this has made me wonder: how many other things do we feel without really being able to know what they are? Naming something can be very empowering. Not being able to name or recognize something can make you feel powerless, confused, at the mercy of forces that you don’t understand. Naming may only be a first step to understanding, but it’s an important one. It may even be a prerequisite.
But at the same time, who in their right mind (or with an ounce of understanding or compassion) would compare the loss of one’s spouse to cancer after 19 years of marriage to someone’s first real break-up after barely two and a half years? A marriage that lasted almost longer than I had been alive when we first got together! Has widowerhood completely scrambled my brain and deprived me of any and all perspective? (Don’t answer that!)
I think that maybe the feelings are in fact closer than we think, in part because of a simple concept: proportionality. The time from my first “relationship” (however loosely defined) to the time of the breakup of this first serious relationship is roughly 5 and a half years. Two and a half of that I spent in this relationship, which comes out to about 45%. If you take the percentage of time since my first “relationship” that I spent married to my wife, you get roughly 64%—not all that different, after all! At least not as different as if you try and compare 2 ½ years to 19 ½ years!
When we are young, we don’t have the sense of perspective that we do later. There’s a lot of living that hasn’t happened when you’re that age, and so big things are, well, enormous. And people discount that, saying, “You’re young. You’ll find other boyfriends/girlfriends. It’s not the end of the world.” Oh, yeah? Teenagers commit or attempt suicide at an alarmingly higher rate than older people. Maybe those feelings aren’t so “small” after all? And what price do we pay for treating them as if they are? How many times has a discounted young person felt that nobody understands or takes their feelings seriously? How many of them turn to alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or cutting or much, much worse?
If we are honest with ourselves, we will all remember how big these feelings felt when we were that age. Those memories deserve respect—and so do the feelings our children are going through, right now.