Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Music + Memory

And so it starts. 'It can't get much more painful than yesterday,' I thought to myself. The key turns forward in the car ignition. 'Today has to be better.' As I turned left out of the hotel driveway, I reached for my iPod. Jo Ann and Grady were in the car in front of me. They were on the way to Grady's school. I was scared. Waking up and venturing out into the world is when it all starts to hurt. A few seconds later music was rattling the windows of my car. My kind of scene. It was 7 a.m. and this rattling felt good. Surprised the hell out of me.

Since Pablo died, music has not been a reliable refuge. I've gone to music to take me away. To underpin my rage. To be the canary in the empty coal mine that is me. For weeks and months, the music has clumsily soothed and ham-fistedly sparred with my rage. I couldn't fake it and I couldn't take it. My relationship with music has never needed a crutch. It's always been there for me. It's always worked. The perfect drug. On many drives across LA—Venice to Pasadena, Burbank to LAX—I've rolled on down the highway in silence. Audio impotence. The grief has gotten its hands around my jugular that tightly. For months, music has not worked for me. And music is something that's saved my life—over and over and over.

This morning, like a runaway lover walking back in the door after a season in hell, the power of a rock song took hold of me and dragged me down the road. The old songs that used to work started to feel good again. Music changes my chemistry. Music is not something that wafts around in the background of my life. Music is the blood splatter on the wall of life—each lyrical stab a bullet that splatters more blood in all directions.

It started with The Smiths 'The Queen Is Dead.' Amazed, I tried another from the same band. 'I Started Something I Couldn't Finish.' That one worked too. Another by the same band: 'Hand In Glove.' From our hotel in Pasadena, it's a short drive to Velo Pasadena, the start point for my bike ride with my friends Hrach and Lon. As the car lunged into the back parking lot, I wanted to keep driving, skip the ride. But I've got this commitment to ride across America and it starts in three weeks. So the songs had to wait.

A few hours later, back in the car, iPod in hand, the addiction got back into motion. Only problem is this addiction, like all good addictions, is highly progressive. I couldn't get the car stereo loud enough. And so I chase the tail of the audio dragon. For miles and miles and miles. But it feels good. Much better than driving in silence while feeling lonely and empty. Trust me.

After rock and roll saved my life, I headed to the lobby at CHLA. Today was their annual radiothon. Another chance to talk about Pablo. Another chance to speak clearly and plainly about the need for financial assistance at CHLA. I figure radio listeners are a good target for the message of Pablo + help. One thing I know about the people on the other end of a radio microphone: they have ears. And hearts. That's two things.

While I was waiting for my mic time, I went up to the Oncology Clinic. Hugged every nurse, doctor, tech I could find. Those people are our friends. They are soldiers in a very important war. They are the ones who look into the eyes of all the children a hundred times a day. It felt good to say 'Thank you' and 'I miss you.' Our friends in the clinic can't possibly hear those words enough.

From there, I ran up to 4 West to say hello to the nurses. Was it challenging being up there? Yes. I want to tell you No. But that would not be true. The elevator doors opened. I inhaled deeply. Gratitude was in my heart, and I wanted to give it away. It's never going to be easy for me to be around children with cancer. But it's always going to be important to say 'thank you' to the men and women who helped my little boy through his journey. I must have hugged a dozen people up there. Those nurses are our family.

Standing at the nurse's station, my brain said 'No' to looking at room 435. My eyes did not agree. I looked right at that room number, a blue plastic square glued to the wall. That's first and last room Pablo was ever in at CHLA. A lot of energy was released in looking at that plastic wall plate. I remembered Friday June 26, the day we wheeled Pablo out of there and took him home. I held that memory. A film in my head of something that really happened. A memory of a day my little boy was still alive. The wheelchair. The sound of him crying. The way Jo Ann held him in her arms, protecting him, loving him in the final 18 hours of his life. It's all etched into my memory. Staring room 435 in the face was part of the journey for me. I'm glad it went down this way.

I love Pablo. Do I now say I loved Pablo? F*** that. I love Pablo. That it not a thing of the past. My love for Pablo is here, now, powerful, bright. Loud. Much louder than the car stereo. No wonder Pablo always asked me to TURN IT DOWN, PAPA!


Anonymous said...

F*** yeah.

Megan RN said...

Love this post!
First, as a Pediatric RN, I want to say thank YOU for taking time out of your day, out of your grief, to stop on the unit and hug the nurses and take a moment to thank them. That is just beautiful. and yes, we rarely hear that from patients. Yes, we hurt too when our little patients pass away, we miss them too. But, we keep soldiering on, to rally around yet another child facing the cancer battle. A battle NO one should EVER have to face. EVER.

And, as a parent who also lost a son to cancer, I cannot imagine the incredible pain and strength it took for you to return to the hospital, to the very unit, the very same room where your precious Pablo spent time fighting his battle.
You are a lot stronger than I was. It's been 3 yrs, and I cannot even drive past that hospital, let alone go inside and walk the unit again. Thank god I work in a totally different hospital. In a totally different town. You are obviously a lot stronger than you think you are.

I hope the music continues to soothe your soul and bring you warm memories of Pablo. "Turn it down Papa!"

dwight said...

wow. speechless. you're so brave...

Tish said...


I have not gone back to CHLA since Thomas was "permanently" discharged on March 12, 2009. Just thinking about it makes me cry. You have conquered so many healing milestones since Pablo's passing on June 27th; you're really a lot braver than you think.

Although, in general, people grieve and heal differently - in magnitude, in thought process, in tackling the beast of pediatric cancer for other families, in longevity, etc. - I've grown to realize that "gratitude" is the common ground. The nurses and doctors at CHLA are like family and, like you, my hopes are to some day muster up the strength to head back through the doors of CHLA and embrace those who have compassionately cared for our little Thomas.

Our "correlating" minds are similar, and I just have to tell you that you have been an enormous inspiration to me. Relating to your post very well - and without going into detail as to why a particular room holds a special place in our hearts - I have yet to conquer going back to Rm. 433, where Thomas "lived" for over a month in BMT; he was in this room at this time last year until Oct. 1st. Thomas passed away at 4:33 p.m., 3 weeks and 3 days before Easter on the 3rd month of the year.

We hope that facing Rm. 435 was healing for you, and that the music will continue to be the perfect "drug" to soothe your soul. Thank you for sharing your courage; you are helping more people than you realize... and hugs to JoAnn and Grady as we all continue this path of life without the physical presence of our precious boys.

Blessings always,
Tish & family

P.S. LOVE the new Pablove gear!!! :)

Anonymous said...

I gotta' stop reading these posts at work. People come in my office an wonder why I have tears running down my face. You sir, are a gifted writer. I am fortunate enough to have not lost anyone close to me to cancer - YET. (Statistics say it's only a matter of time...) But I am amazed at your courage in facing the loss of Pablo and all that your are doing through the Pablove organization. Good luck on your ride. I will be looking for you when you get to Austin, TX. I will crank a little VanHalen in the car on the way home tonight in your honor. - Dan

Nancy said...

How wonderful you visited CHLA and the medical personnel that took care of Pablo. It had to be so hard, I cannot imagine. I have often wondered how those wonderful nurses and doctors can go on day after day when they see the suffering these children endure. Bless them!!

Stephanie said...

It's strange sometimes, coming here.
It feels so good and it hurts so bad all at the same time.
You truly have a gift, you know?
They're not just words on a page here. They're more, something visceral.
I never come here and leave the same person.
Thank you for having what it takes to keep it real. No matter what.

Anonymous said...

Jeff: I sent you an email earlier about my daughter and the Nov. 2 concert. I had no idea you had lost your son. I am very sorry. I read the comments and I think the post from a mom who lost her son actually is someone we know here in Camarillo who also had their son at CHLA. We are all in the same parish. As a Stephen's Minister it is heartwarming to know that all of you hold eachother up. As it should be. I also have a good friend (Peter deStefano) who goes to CHLA to play his guitar for all the sick children. I will keep you and your family in prayer. Thank you for sharing your love. Patty L.