Larger than this: ballads, liver donations, and story

This morning I was listening to a favorite song, “When the Roses Bloom Again”— an old ballad sort of song about a solider going off to war. He promises to return to his sweetheart when the roses bloom again, but is killed. As he’s dying, he requests/promises/ wishes to be with her again someday. I have a penchant for sad story put to song. The poignancy of simple stories and stringed instruments cut to something elemental and familiar in me.

I appreciate that torn  rawness that that sort of story can call forth. I think of my grandfather, who so easily cried when he heard music, and I nod to some yet unknown gene that connects us, even in his absence, this way.

Perhaps I am simply drawn to these sad things. I am reading a book by Studs Terkel called May the Circle be Unbroken. It is oral history– short transcriptions of conversations with people talking about what death is to them. It is organized by chapters: medical workers (doctors, ER workers, nurses), mothers and sons,  military/soldiers, religious  leaders. It is captivating and touches that same space that music and ballad does.

Last night I read a chapter by a man who donated part of his liver to a man he didn’t know–to a local newspaper writer.  And then before too long that writer, despite the new liver, died. It was captivating: this man’s giving of an organ we possess which can remake itself. This man’s belief around what he is here for, and then the painful experience of his good will, his literal suffering, still not saving this man. Another man speaking of his experience with stage 3 cancer told of laughing hysterically with a friend when his spleen was hurting him from cancer. He said “my spleen is killing me.” And then recounts that he and his friend laughed hysterically for a long time because they looked at one another and realized that literally, his spleen, filled with cancer, was killing him. And yet, he doesn’t die of the cancer– he’s recounting the story 20 or 30 years later.

As I listen to “When the Roses Bloom Again,”  I see black and white images of my grandparents before the war. Stories from Terkel’s book by soldiers who have come home from war and who describe the loss and death in war, flash in my mind too. I am amazed that I exist. What strange force protected my grandfather in that time in the Pacific that he could return and continue this family? Or my other grandfather in Korea?  How easy it would have been for this song to be the story that either of their lives told,  rather than their stories continuing in the lives of their children, grandchildren, great grandchildren?

Earlier in the week a friend and I talked about the challenge of living outside of organized religion: who is there to hold you in loss? What can you turn to when you face death and tragedy? Her husband, she said, thinks that religious belief/god is magical thinking. And I wonder, what is magic, and what is the opposite of magic? I can’t say that I have a good answer for that.

As I read the short stories people tell about death in Terkel’s book, I find myself feeling something that is not rational in each person’s narrative, something that nods to large-ness, or larger than this-ness. It is vague and won’t be tied down, which is what I love about the book. It is simply people’s experiences, as they face loss of loved ones, or death, and how they learn to navigate existence afterwards. There are no answers, just stories. One women in her 80s no longer believes in the catholic god as she once did. But finds herself haunted by worry suddenly after years of confidence in her decision: ‘what if ?’she asks.

Perhaps that is the unavoidable “magic” or “not magic” we all face: what if, what then? The unknown.

Perhaps we answer this with science, religion, logic, magic, fantasy, but in the end all we know is that we don’t really know.

I think this is what makes ballad touch me so: that they do not try to explain the why of it all. They simple tell a story: there was a man who went to war, and he wanted to return. He didn’t, but even as he was dying, he wished and hoped that he would somehow, reconnect to the one he loved.

Children accept this differently that we do. Still  developing rational thinking, they cannot explain the things around them as we might. *

Last week as I was finishing reading my 4 year old a good night story– his ankles crossed over one another in tie dyed socks he had made, two toes sticking out of one of them– I stopped and looked at him. “I love you Jonas,” I said, “you and Papi, and Elias.” (His dad and brother.)

He said: “Mom, when I die you will be not so sad because Elias will still be here.”

I don’ t know where this came from. He looked at me so matter of factually. “Well, Jonas,” I said, “usually children live longer than their parents.”  “I know” he said, “but Elias will help you.” (Very short pause). “Let’s be slow cats now, ” he says, headed to the base of our staircase, where, every night after we read, we crawl slowly up the steps– him under me– meowing until we reach the top of the steps, where we stand up again, returning to ourselves.

“Good night Jonas” I say, taking Elias, freshly bathed, from his dad to rock him to sleep. On this particular night, I found myself humming “When the roses bloom again” as the rocker squeaked and he nursed, which is what led me to play the song today.

As I reflect on the song now, I am struck by the line:  “And their hearts were filled with sorrow, For their thoughts were of tomorrow.” Tomorrow isn’t yet really a solid concept for a 4 year old– who needn’t be paralyzed by the thought that any of us might die, because right now, we’re not dead, we’re just here.  He doesn’t need magic– things seem to be just what they are for him, for now.  We can talk about dieing and then crawl up the steps pretending to be cats.

My husband and I had a poem read at our wedding, by Erich Fried, in which Love is personified, and to each rebuttal given, answers: “it is what it is says love.” I think so. Which is why story is so powerful– they simply are what they are: people’s stories/experiences in living. Individual stories are somehow, in their small-ness, so much larger than all the other things that they make up (logic, rationality, science, religion, belief, history).







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