A Songwriter and All the Stuff
Small stuff, big stuff, and lies The Dead Man told me
This two-sided sign sits on my desk.
When I was young enough to listen, but old enough to worry, Pops told me a story from his days in the Army. A sign, similar to the one above, sat on the desk of his Sergeant. Pops admired this man, his quality of ease even when everything was chaotic.
Pops liked to quote this saying, often while reiterating his opinion that there was truth in saying that Sergeants, not Officers, ran the Army.
Pops liked people who worked at something, and distrusted people who worked at being famous, being popular, being important, being political. So Pops liked the Sergeants.
Ironically, he left the military as a Captain. And he got a little famous, pretty important, and very popular.
When Pops first got sick, he told me stories of people he knew who had lost loved ones and how they had kept a stiff upper lip through it all. He would tell me about people he admired for their realistic approach to life and death. He had a lot of these stories.
In every story, life was embraced, death put in its proper place, as just another event to know about. There was always a next day and a next thing. Life is sweet, life is what we speak about. Death, that is for poems and songs.
It won’t surprise you to learn that the story of the Sergeant came up again, with the admonition that even death was small stuff.
It was still the early days of his cancer, and we were still telling each other jokes of death and mortality. If you don’t understand, you probably aren’t Jewish. But trust me, the best jokes, like the best ballads, are the saddest.
We didn’t talk seriously about death. We talked seriously about life.
Death was small stuff and we didn’t sweat it.
This was interesting, coming from a man whose entire life and writings had been influenced by his deep sense of loss after losing his father as a young man of 22.
He was always trying to save me from the inevitable disappointments . When I started playing music he would always tell me that I could only do the work, that fame, fortune, and all the stuff of legend was mostly a combination of luck and naked ambition.
He was right.
And when I was a young talented athlete, too much in my own head to make the next steps to getting better enough to maybe keep doing it until somebody paid me, he would tell me what he imagined an athlete’s life was like and why it was short, painful, and not something to want.
Later in his life he would tell me that he regretted this, but he was only doing what parents do, trying to cushion the fall. He never stopped me, or discouraged me, he just told me how he thought it would be.
We celebrated the good stuff as big stuff, but when there was bad stuff, that was to be small stuff.
Bad reviews, broken contracts, deceitful peers, stolen songs.
Losing my corporate job at 54 with no hope of being hired by anybody except in retail or food service, and at a quarter of the income.
My friends dying, too young, one after another.
A phone call that started, and ended, everything.
The surgeon accepting that Pops wasn’t going to have surgery and telling him that he’d die within the year. And the look that my father gave me that said, “please, accept this, and get me the hell out of this hospital!”
Pops suffering through the Chemo haze while losing any sense of himself.
My mother and brother and I, sleeping in shifts that got shorter and shorter.
The Covid-19 Pandemic rules that meant only one person would be allowed to accompany him during his hospital visits, so my mother and my brother (all the family there is/was) listening in on a conference call.
My mother at his side after the heart attack when the surgeon came in wearing a beret and said that he would ignore the DNR (do not resuscitate) because he always finished his operations.
My not being in that room (Covid Rules) so I couldn’t knock that beret off that asshole.
When he died, and I helped wheel the gurney with the body (just a body, now) out over Iowa ice and snow to the back of the custom Toyota Sienna that served as a hearse.
My mother and I deciding there was no need to follow the body (just a body, now) on the 60 mile drive to the Crematorium.
The empty bed, silent oxygen machine, leftover vials of Morphine, and all the THINGS that dying requires, less useful now.
And whatever I had been doing, or not doing enough, or doing too much of, or at the right time, or wrong time.
This was all to be small stuff, too.
But my father, my friend, lied to me right up until the very end.
I’m a father, too. I’ve told the same lie, that it’s all small stuff, to my children.
It turns out that it is all BIG stuff.
Huge, even, because it’s your only life. And everything you feel in that life is big.
Breaking up with your boyfriend/girlfriend when you’re 15 years old is huge.
We tell you, “this too, shall pass.” It will. But it’s no small thing.
A fashion disaster, a “reply all” email, losing a wedding ring or an earring, forgetting your lines on stage.
All things that fade into the past, but never small things.
Everything that happens to you is in the right now. It may be a an unpleasant feeling, or a moment of misunderstanding, a slip, a fall, a heartbreak, an insult, a white lie you regret, a trick of light or language. From the future, looking back, it will look small and you’ll say to yourself, “what was I so worried about, why was I sick to my stomach, afraid, ashamed, when it was over so quickly?”
But at that moment, it’s big stuff.
Here’s a new, more accurate, sign. With a picture from a foggy day. Inspirational signs should have a random picture of nature.
We learn to live with the big stuff by telling ourselves it’s small stuff.
I think Grief is just too big for that kind of emotional trickery.
Grief is so big that we have to have extra rules for dealing with it, because saying “this too shall pass,” or “you’ll grow out of it,” or “it’s all small stuff” is as dismissive and useless as it sounds.
Another irony is that my Jewish “it’s all small stuff” father, knew how seriously the Jewish culture treats Death (with a capital “D”), and always knew that nobody sits in mourning (Shiva) for 7 days for small stuff.
Grief- deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone's death. "she was overcome with grief"
It’s widely accepted that there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
There’s really only been one stage of grief for me. I went quickly to acceptance. And it started months before Pops had died. It started before he started telling me stories to be heard clearly that he was choosing to die, and die faster.
In fact, I never questioned what was going to happen when he first called me to tell me that it was likely cancer, and a lot of cancer. I didn’t bargain. I had a few minutes of anger where I went out to the garage, put a stupid amount of weight on the bar, and did bench presses unsafely until I found myself yelling the word “no” over and over again. But when I struggled the bar back on to the supports, I was resigned. I’d thought about death from a very, very young age.
I had never not expected that phone call.
I was reminded of the story I tell (as often as Pops told the “small stuff” story) of the Buddhist Monk who hears a knock on his door late one night.
Standing outside is a local man, a father, who is clearly in distress.
He says to the Monk, “you have to help me, my heart is broken. I wake up in the middle of night knowing that I will die, and then my children will die, and their children, and so on and so on. I can’t stand it!”
And the Monk simply says, “ would you prefer that the order was reversed?”
So I ask myself, “would I have it the other way?”
And knowing what it is to be a parent, I know the answer.
So, I made it small and we never bargained.
I drove to and from Iowa over the next three months certain that there would be no reprieves.
Within an hour of my return to the house on College Street, he was telling me the first story of acceptance.
We went straight to the big stuff.
We went straight to the big job of living and dying.
But, of course, it’s all big stuff.
You might ask me why, if it’s all big stuff, do we tell our children that it isn’t?
The simple answer is that we actually think we can protect them.
But they learn soon enough.
Because life and all the stuff starts big and gets bigger.
I’m writing this on the 2nd anniversary of Pop’s death. And I can say that at least once, every day of the past two years, in my mind, I’ve seen the movie of his last few minutes.
Sometimes, right before sleep.
More often during the most banal of moments: opening the garage door, while carrying stone to build a path, looking at a menu in a restaurant, or unfolding my glasses before driving.
I don’t always obey Pop’s instructions not to show my sorrow.
I have wept with my crush, on the trail to Mount Pisgah, in North Carolina, and felt tears streaming while watching our birds, not aware that I was sobbing until my breathing came in gasps. I have choked on a word in the middle of a song, in front of an audience, and not sung the next line, or the next.
I hate to cry. But what are you going to do?
My sorrow is greatest when I am most happy, and I am happy most of the time.
I know that I have also said I am sad all of the time.
That’s true, too.
None of this is small stuff.
None of these days are small days.
I know you knew that, Pops.
And I have this poem that you wrote when I was a young man that proves that you have always known.
Gemwood to Nathan and Jason, our sons By Marvin Bell In the shoppes they’re showing “Gemwood”: the buffed-up flakes of dye-fed pines— bright concentrics or bull’s-eyes, wide-eyed on the rack of this newest “joint effort of man and nature.” But then those life-lines circling each target chip of “gemwood” look less like eyes, yours or mine, when we have watched a while. They are more like the whorls at the tips of our fingers, which no one can copy. Even on The photocopy Jason made of his upraised hands, palms down to the machine, they do not appear, his hands at five years old— why did we want to copy them, and why does the gray yet clear print make me sad? That summer, the Mad River followed us through Vermont— a lusher state than our own. A thunderous matinee of late snows, and then the peak at Camel’s Hump was bleached. As a yellow pear is to the sky— that was our feeling. We had with us a rat from the lab— no, a pet we’d named, a pure friend who changed our minds. When it rained near the whole of the summer, in that cabin Nathan made her a social creature. She was all our diversion and brave. That’s why, when she died in the heat of our car one accidental day we didn’t intend, it hurt her master first and most, being his first loss like that, and the rest of our family felt bad even to tears, for a heart that small. We buried her by the road. in the Adirondack Mountains, and kept our way to Iowa. Now it seems to me the heart must enlarge to hold the losses we have ahead of us. I hold to a certain sadness the way others search for joy, though I like joy. Home, sunlight cleared the air and all the green’s of consequence. Still when it ends, we won’t remember that it ended. If parents must receive the sobbing, that is nothing when put next to the last crucial fact of who is doing the crying. From “Stars Which See, Stars Which Don’t See.” Atheneum, 1977
I remember that big lie, meant in kindness, Pops: that I didn’t kill my friend by not paying attention to something so obvious: in the heat of summer a car, even with the windows open, is also a coffin.
The next, even kinder, lie was that I would someday not think about that day.
50 years later, it occurs to me, at least every other week, that I was a fool to not know that the heat would kill her. The thoughts come in, and all the pictures of that day along with them.
Many days I think of the day you came to me in the middle of a work shift, in the cool basement of the Bivouac clothing store in Iowa City, put your hand on my shoulder, and told me that John Bowie, my mentor and the only guitar teacher I’ve ever had, had died. I was 17, John was 27. Every song and every note I play reminds me of that day.
And Jimmy? Jimmy was was just back to being alive when he suddenly dropped dead, when his supposedly fully repaired heart gave out. Sometimes, especially before shows (my friend Jim McCandless was a wonderful songwriter) I feel the beat of my own heart, and he dies again.
There have been others: friends and families, suicides, lingering maladies, accidents, alcohol, drugs.
I remember their lives, but equally so, their deaths.
This is how death has always worked with me, at least. All the deaths stay.
It IS true that the the heart enlarges to hold the losses and my heart is bigger than the sky now, bigger than the universe
Someday it will be bigger than all universes yet to be found.
I’ve learned to live with this enormous, cumbersome heart.
What else is there to do?
You can’t sweat the BIG stuff and live.
If you choose this life, you will do the next thing, and the next, while your heart swells with love, and grief, and fear.
And we will lie to each other. We will say, “It’s all small stuff.”
But as a father, a liar myself, I forgive the lies.
Because each lie we tell, we tell more to ourselves more than to those we love.
We wish so much that it could be true, that everything is small stuff, that we can’t help ourselves.
I will keep the sign, the lie, on the heavy, grey, steel desk that was my father’s father’s, then his, and now, mine.
In his honor and with gratitude.
I know that worse than your own dying was that you knew how we would feel, day after day, after you were gone.
I know that you were still the son of a man who had been driven out of Ukraine for being Jewish and likely told, truthfully, that anything less than genocide was small stuff.
I understand that you loved your life so much that you needed us to keep on loving ours.
I understand. I hate other people’s pain more than my own.
I love you even more for trying so damn hard to make this different.
But I won’t lie.
I see the next thing.
Big grief. Now and forever.
Or it isn’t.
And that’s going to have to be good enough.
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I haven’t read “Gemwood” in a long while. Thanks for bringing it back to me, as its clear, subtle, tactful voice brings back Marvin saying, in a faculty reading at Iowa, “Here are some stories about things that happened,” and taking us all away with him.
Thank you for this, Nathan.