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Watching Death

“The more intimate and honest your lyric is,

the more universal its appeal.”

I’ve started and given up on three posts this week. All have been about what I think I should write. None have been what I feel compelled to share.

Long ago I attended a songwriting seminar in which one of the clinicians shared the sentiment I quoted above. If you sugar coat your experience, or try to make it easy to understand, or describe it from a distance that safe for you, then your song isn’t worth didley. To write a song that’s worth anything, you have to wallow in muck of life and share your very human experience with the rest of us.

I am in the muck of life. My dad is dying of dementia.

Until last weekend, I told people my dad had dementia. Even a couple of months ago when he was moved into a memory care facility, he had dementia. Now he is no longer my dad with a disease. He has become his disease.

You know in Into the Woods, when Little Red shares her realization that “nice is different than good”? That’s my dad. He mostly wasn’t very nice to us. But he was mostly good; loyal to his family, steadfast, worked for social causes, and always showed up on time. He loved reading. He had a huge collection of books, and knew more about theology, the American Revolution, and the Puritans in North American than anyone I’ve ever known. He talked a lot, and typically steered the conversation so that he could be the smartest guy in the room.

Now he can’t make a sentence.

The sum of all he was – his knowledge and experiences – is no more. His childhood in Quincy and summers on Cape Cod, his 50 years of activist work, the family he grew from and the family he made, his righteous opinions and fierce work ethic are all gone.

What are we without our own history? His disease has drained him of himself while he yet lives. It feels mean and iniquitous to me. And sad. Tragically sad.

He was my dad. My dad who made things possible for me, who allowed me to know that if I took a risk and failed it would be okay, who scared me and comforted me; my dad who bought me my first bike when I was six and taught me to ride it. My dad who was ever distressed with my choice to be a musician, and supported me in it anyway. My dad who was always there.

Now he barely knows me. He cannot feed or bathe himself, or put himself to bed. He is confined to the tiny world of his memory care place, and his ever-smaller interior world. To be with him breaks my heart. To abandon him is unthinkable.

There are experiences that must be lived to be known - childbirth, divorce, loss of a loved one, and disease – and that are common in the telling but will rend your heart in the living of them.

This is my honest lyric in the making. Thank you for reading the first verse.

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