(if you don’t read this whole thing, you’re already forgiven. i already know it’s gonna be a loooooong one.)
it’s just after 11:30 – i just tucked him into bed with his two faithful dogs, and after the day he had, i’m pretty sure he’s already asleep.
i can’t tag him in this post, because he’ll definitely see it if i do…it’s already likely he’ll see it anyway, but for now – this will just be between us.
as some of you know, i should be in Philadelphia tonight…wrapping up the first of two day’s worth of sessions and looking forward to a weekends’ worth of shows, but i’m still in Nashville – sitting in a quiet house as midnight approaches and pondering the last two weeks – and considering the implications of the next two weeks and playing out multiple scenarios in my head, wondering which is most practical or most likely or most (or least) likely to extend the clock as much as possible.
for some vain reason, i feel compelled to tell you why.
you guys remember that fake email that made its rounds back during the halcyon days of the internet? the one that purported to be “Kurt Vonnegut’s commencement address to MIT”, but instead was a column written by a Chicago reporter…the “sunscreen” email?
the relevant passage:
“Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.”
Some Idle Tuesday has fallen on our formerly calm household.
let me fill in the blanks for you as best as i can…
those of you who know me beyond what instrument i played in what band at what time know a little about my attitudes towards family…i’ve likely bored most of you with my diatribe about how family is something you create, not something you’re born into – and how you can’t feel responsible for being saddled with a horde of people who just happen to share a few chromosomes with you, when you have literally nothing else in common, and all that jazz.
truth? i still believe that. even all these years later, after i’ve moved from being a weed in the garden to being something of a partriarch, all these years later, with my own children and with fewer and fewer folks who could lay claim to having known me when i was younger…i still feel as though family absolutely MUST have some foundation to stand on that isn’t simply built on shared DNA – there has to be a bond there that goes deeper than having shared the same vaginal path into the material world.
so yeah – i was never close to my family. they seemed like fucking aliens to me, and i’m pretty certain that i seemed like an alien to them, too.
but then, there was my brother Jim.
just to fill in the blanks…the first thing you have to know is that my dad was the epitome of a fucking Garbage Human. absolute trash, a racist alcoholic shitstain on humanity who should have spent his life in prison (although, paradoxically enough, i wouldn’t be here to type this if he had…so there’s that).
he had a number of wives, thus siring a number of children – two prior to my particular set of siblings…the eldest of us, my brother Jim – and his younger brother Bob…before moving on to other pursuits…namely, my mother – who gave him three more children. who the fuck knows how many other siblings might be scattered out there, but i gotta go with what i know.
Jim is the first…the oldest of the lot. I was the oldest of my particular strain.
i remember seeing a specific photo of him with his first wife, judy – he was living in the UK at the time, and he was always something of a Rock Star In Absentia to me. i grew up with cousins and aunts and grandparents who farmed and picked cotton and grew their own food, but i had this half-brother who lived in ENGLAND! he wasn’t like the rest of us! he had managed to find his way out into the world and actually have a life, to go to faraway places and live somewhere other than West Fucking Tennessee – and i can’t say, even all these years later, if i would have figured out whether or not it was possible to live outside the constraints of my birth circumstance if it hadn’t been for hearing about “my brother Jimmy” when i was a small kid, and wondering what it must’ve been like to live in England, to actually travel the world, to somehow have that ability to shake loose the circumstance of your birth and say, “nah, fuck that…i can do better.”
when i was older, my mother sent my brother and i to Memphis to spend a couple of weeks with my brother Jim and his Mysterious English Wife, Alex – a saint of a woman if ever there was one. i remember my well-meaning mother warning me before we left that they were Buddhists – because apparently that’s something you warn people about when you come from where we did.
that time was transformative, to say the least.
it was summertime, they stayed up with us to watch movies, we got to see Doctor Who for the first time (for-real Tom Baker Doctor Who, vintage shit), i remember watching “Alien” with them and falling off a chair when the alien sprang out of the escape pod with Ripley in it), and – at a very, very impressionable point in my life – figuring out for myself that life wasn’t just about where you were planted when you landed, but about where you were able to land once you figured out what the notion of home meant to you. you didn’t have to marry a girl from your hometown, you could go out into the world and find a soulmate. you didn’t have to get a job at the same plant that everyone else in your hometown ended up at, you could cast your net out into the world and find something that fits…and not SETTLE for whatever landed in your lap.
i’m pretty confident that my big brother had no idea that he taught me this stuff, but he sure as hell did, in an indirect but significant way.
lessons taught by example are ALWAYS more powerful than academic instruction or advice.
i grew up. i played music and weaseled my way into bands in high school and figured out who i was, what i was, and what i was supposed to do, and it became patently obvious that i needed to cast my net further than my hometown…so i joined the Navy (cheaper than college), ended up in the Philadelphia area, married (twice), had three amazing kids who’ve taught me far, far more than i bothered to teach them.
i’ve been far, far luckier than i deserve to be.
but i largely abandoned my biological family. time passed, shit happened, and i didn’t have any real emotional tie to most of them as it was, so i let nature take its course, and the distance took its toll. my mother would call and i’d talk to her, i’d visit home once in a blue moon, and i’d commiserate with them when life required it of me, but i still never felt close to most of them.
but Jimmy? Jimmy was different.
i can look up from my laptop this very minute and see a photo he took of me when i was no more than thirteen or fourteen, sitting behind the drums in my room at the house we lived in…yard sale clothes on my back, frizzy hair, holding drumsticks and pretending to play – i still have a vague memory of when that photo was taken.
at that point in my life, i did almost nothing but eat, sleep, go to the bathroom, and play drums…and while everybody else looked at me as if i was insane, Jimmy came to visit and actually asked me to pose for a picture behind my drums.
he acknowledged me.
he validated me.
it probably seems stupid, but any creative soul existing in a vacuum such as the one i grew up in is always one criticism away from throwing in the towel and getting a landscaping job or selling weed at the Quik-Mart when you grow up in a town like my hometown.
without burdening you with too many details of my adolescence, let’s leave it at this – Jimmy was a role model, a hero who demonstrated with his actions that it was possible to escape a future of baling hay and picking cotton just like the rest of my cousins who embraced their lot in life and never made an effort to do anything outside their assumed birthright.
so i pushed a little harder.
i made a little more effort.
i aspired to things that most people considered foolish.
i made plans.
i dared to dream of something other than burning out in my hometown.
and i have a number of people to thank for that, but maybe first among them would be my Big Brother.
now, all these years later, i have half a century of memories filed away – and i’ve travelled the world, i’ve played music in almost every state in the union, i’ve lived what i consider to be a pretty memorable life, and it’s still going…and i remain thankful for all that i have – both in terms of friends and experiences.
and while i’ve fallen out of touch with most of my family (especially in the years since my mother died almost 15 years ago), Jimmy has been a constant.
we haven’t been great at staying in touch, but whenever the phone would ring, it was as if barely a month had passed since we last spoke. he was always there, somehow, and while he was a patchwork quilt of The Old South, Buddhism, Europe, the Big City and the Country – he was never inaccessible, and i never stopped looking up to him…even as his own personal cracks began to show and he revealed himself to the Adult Version of me to be just as flawed as we all are.
when i moved the family to Nashville in 2014, we reached out to him, and it was at a crucial time. as fate would have it, he was about to go into the hospital for what turned out to be a quadruple bypass, and we welcomed him into our home during his recuperation period. he got back on his feet, went back to his home in Hohenwald with his dogs, and we saw each other when we saw each other…he came to my sporadic shows in Nashville, and visited on Christmas…and we went to his house for Thanksgiving…just every so often, ya know?
we’re all getting older. ALL of us. some of us faster than others.
i used to think that Jerry Garcia got it right…he packed several lifetimes’ worth of living into his 53 years, and he checked out without failing organs or dialysis or chemotherapy or invasive surgery or any of that shit – and to a degree, i still feel like Jerry got it right.
once your quality of life starts to desert you, things get dicey.
but if you’re lucky, you get to make that call. you get to look at your circumstances and decide, for you and your family, whether the quality of life questions outweigh everything else.
me? i’ll take a pile of Klonopins and check out on the spot…but that’s my choice. it’s not everybody’s choice, and i get it.
recently, Jim has been confronted with that choice.
he called me about a month ago with the news…he had checked into the VA emergency room with shortness of breath, chest pains and the like…and they had admitted him, done a scan, and – in the process – they found approximately 15 lesions on his brain during a CT scan taken during his stay.
his doctors didn’t pull any punches. after other cancer treatments, kidney issues and a quadruple bypass, this was going to be the final act.
best case scenario?
anyone in his situation has three options: surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. in his case, two of those options were immediately off the table due to age and medical history, and the final one – radiation – has no hope of actually eradicating the cancer that’s consuming his brain on multiple fronts.
i spoke with his oncologist and arranged for him to come live with us here in East Nashville, because we’re less than a half hour from Vanderbilt and the VA hospital, and – perhaps selfishly – if he only gets a short time, i kinda want to have him close. i want to help out in whatever way i can, because the truth is – I OWE HIM.
so he’s been here for two-plus weeks’ worth of appointments, of surgery followups, of radiation consultations, of ER visits for pneumonia and fluid on his feet and ankles…it’s been a handful. it’s also been hard watching his memory fail him, watching his frailty robbing him of basic things like the ability to walk to the bathroom unescorted, and fatigue starting to become a 24 hour adversary.
so…for the time being…we have a diagnosis – stage 4 brain cancer.
but we also have a plan.
I’m going to do everyihing i can on a daily basis to help him continue to make new memories and to tell me ALL about the ones he wants to share.
so – for the foreseeable future, we’ll be watching TV, going to doctors’ appointments, trying to stand up to whole-head radiation, and the like.
we’ll also be going on road trips, driving past old houses, eating at the biscuit house, finding barbeque, looking at old pictures, and watching the sun go down through the front window of the house from “the dan may chair” (a recliner that Dan gave me years ago when he was remodeling his house).
we have a motto here, now…”eat the fucking bacon”.
derived in no small part from Warren Zevon’s “enjoy every sandwich”, it gets marched out whenever we get too precious about choices around here.
so for the time being, i’ll leave you with that…”eat the fucking bacon”.
hopefully, i’ll see all my PHL friends in due time…and for this aborted trip, i want to offer my sincere apologies to Michael Braunfeld, Skip Denenberg, Gordon Glantz, and Jon VanSpriell for my absence this week – know that I’ll get to you guys in due time. (also, Tony Rosario – we’ll get squared away ASAP. I promise, ok?)