Good Grief Episode Two: Nostalgia

At the beginning of 2018 I lost my mom to a very brief but brutal fight with lung cancer, we were extremely close and I was pretty lost when she passed.

I began journaling my personal experience in an attempt to share what my grieving process has been like in hopes that anyone going through something similar will find this helpful, because it truly has been for me.

I turned these journals into a podcast which you can listen to here, or just scroll down to read this episode’s transcript.

This week’s theme? Nostalgia

As my plane from Burbank made its descent into Oakland through the familiar soggy marine layer of the Bay Area, I tried to calculate how long I’d been away from home — the past few weeks with my mom in the ICU felt like months.

It was really just a few days ago when her intensivist was computing the alchemy diuretics to ativan to blood oxygen levels against a rapidly shrinking sliver of hope. I felt like we had lived our entire lifetime to the rhythm of a respirator.

If I could make a pie chart of the my memories of mom that I could recall in first few weeks after she passed, 90% of it would be composed of her final days in the hospital, the remaining thin slice would be dedicated to the previous 34 years we spent together. It was like her cancer had spread through all of our memories.

As I would later find out, this is actually a pretty common response to trauma. Here is how it works:

While this may appear to be a cruel game your brain plays on you, it’s actually a trait that you’ve acquired to help you survive. It’s the result of an observed physiological heuristic called the “Peak-End” rule. In essence (and I’m paraphrasing here) it states that the entirety of an experience, every little detail, it’s way too much for you to remember, so your brain logs the apex emotion you experienced (the peak) and the last emotion you experience (the end). This way you can quickly and easily shuffle through your memories without having to relive every painful moment. Living in 2018, you’ve certainly heard the term “trigger,” well this is how and why your brain creates triggers to help you avoid more, future trauma. For more on this, google colonoscopies and memory.

This is also be a reason why nostalgia is so powerful and can make us do some weird (or regrettable) things. And music is an incredibly powerful trigger, this cannot be understated, it’s used in all kinds of trauma therapies to help people create new associations and play back old ones.

It does weird things to your memory, it distorts your perception of the present, it’ll makes you dig through your ex’s Instagram when you’re a few drinks in after you hear that banger from the summer of 2010. The awful things they did, the discomfort and insecurities, fade and are overshadowed by the simple fact that you have history, that they’re something familiar and sometimes that is enough to forgive or at least momentarily forget.

Nostalgia is like playing telephone with younger versions of yourself. As you pass messages through past versions, it slowly drifts farther from the unattractive facts and closer to something you actually want to remember.

All of this is to say that your memory doesn’t always remember things exactly as they happened, and nostalgia is frequently something that happens when you begin to mourn the end of a time in your life, for a lot of us, it’s mourning the death of our youth.

This isn’t just my clever reflection, this is the basis for emo music, and the reason why country singers talk about tailgating on dirt roads when they live in penthouses off of Broadway in Nashville — they are using triggers.

If this song is playing, I will literally do anything my wife asks me to do.

The philosopher Theodor Adorno even wrote an entire Marxist critique on popular music, stating that “The social and psychological functions of popular music [are that it] acts like a social cement to keep people obedient and subservient to the status quo of existing power structures.” That’s right Kenny Chesney is actually a tool of the bourgeoisie elite to keep you willingly oppressed by the confines of capitalism. Ok I’m not going that far, I’m just saying that there is an profound manipulative power when you combine memory with music, so maybe you should wait until you sober up before sliding into the DMs after hearing that deep cut from High Violet.

This emotional whiplash can work to your advantage if you know how to ride the wave. If you can trigger the right memory at the right time, it can accelerate you through some really dark places and bring you back to the light.

And my mom was the master of this technique-

See she fucking loved rock and roll. Love isn’t really the right word for it, and for fear of sounding trite, I would say that rock and roll was her religion. That is to say that before she loved god, before she loved country, really before she loved anything but me, she fucking loved rock and roll. Deep cuts and rare 7 inches. Lyric sheets and liner notes. She was Springsteen’s Bobby Jean, Tom Waits’ Martha, Adam Duritz’ Maria, the heart of Saturday night, she was an American Girl.

Raised on a farm in rural Arkansas in the 60’s and 70s, she was acutely alone with music. Alone in a way that most people will never be able to experience in the age of digital media and smartphones. Imagine every media input you have, imagine Instagram, and Facebook and YouTube, and then imagine that it has all been replaced by about 50 songs, their lyrics, a few bottles of coca cola and a whole lot of hormones. Springsteen’s Greetings from Asbury Park was released when my mom was 13, Born to Run — 15, Darkness on the Edge of Town — dropped 14 days before her 18th birthday.

When she left the University of Arkansas after sophomore year to move to Hollywood, it proved that this music was more than the “soundtrack” to her youth, it was the script she would act out, it was her destiny. When she ended up pregnant with me a few years later, I became the conduit of that destiny (It should be noted that I was actually conceived a few months after Nebraska was released, and I do not believe this is in any way a coincidence).

Like a proper Springsteen narrative, our life was not without darkness. Probably the most painful, the most nagging, was, money. It was the source of many sleepless nights and silent car rides home from court-ordered child exchange locations where mom would pick me up from visits with my dad.

In those dark moments, she would sift through an assortment of worn cassettes, select the appropriate flavor of nostalgia, turn it to 11, and the hot rent check would clear faster, or the ¼ tank of gas would get us all the way home, or the looks we got from the neighbors when the muffler of our ancient Toyota station wagon would scrape as we pulled out of the driveway would disappear.

Occasionally my mom would turn the music down and look me directly in the eyes and say, “Remember son, remember to play this song at my funeral.” As a child, I thought she was being pretty being dramatic, in those days her health was impeccable and she took such good care of herself that we were frequently mistaken for siblings. Little did we know she was actually creating some powerful triggers for me.

When we were planning her memorial, there was an incredible flood of support, she touched a lot of people and the bulk of the work was lifted from the shoulders of my step dad and I by people who wanted to pay tribute in some way. I had one request, that I be able to fulfil my duty and play all of the songs that she asked me to all those years ago.

I spent some long nights curating the ultimate funeral playlist for the Irish wake that my mom would have wanted, occasionally asking my fiance if it would be appropriate to play all of the 59’ Sound or Born to Run.

Listening to it all, I pulled decades back from the cancer side of the memory pie chart. It was my mom’s way of showing me that, no matter how big overwhelming heap of awful shit was that my have landed on my plate, it can always be momentarily overlooked by the transformative power of rock and roll played very fucking loud.

This has been episode two of Good Grief, thank you for listening. Do you like American Music? I like American music, here is a link to my mom’s playlist if you’re curious.

If you liked this, please subscribe and tell all of your podcast friends about it. If you have any questions, comments or feedback reach on IG or twitter @blakeoftoday or just shoot me an email at blakeoftoday@gmail.com

I’ll leave you with this line from a Gaslight Anthem song my mom loved so much,

“When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms, I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life.”