Even if you knew it was coming, the death of a spouse or other family member creates an absence that feels physical; that heavy blank space over there is where he is not.
And it feels like that absence is a thing – a weighted blank thing that lurks in chairs where he should be sitting, over there on the rug where his hospital bed used to be, by the stove in the kitchen where he should be cooking.
I spent the last fourteen months managing that thing, first raging at it, crying and sobbing and panicked by it, hating it, feeling attacked by it, as if it would erase me or reduce me to a shadowy thing myself, some kind of half-being, ghosting around aimlessly. “I’m just a ghost in this house.”
Then I decided to engage it. I started talking to it, taking it out places with me. I created a sort of “memory tour,” attending concerts and events Mike would have enjoyed, trying and many times succeeding in feeling him with me in the car, in the box at the opera or the too-expensive seats at the hockey game.
And I went to see the BoDeans.
Years into our marriage, Mike and I discovered, in casual conversation, that before we met, we had been at the same BoDeans concert at the Riviera Theater in Chicago. I was there alone, he with whoever his then current girlfriend had been.
And Sam was there.
If you haven’t heard this band, go back in time to their earliest albums – Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams, Outside Looking In, Black and White, Home.
But you really should listen to their live compilation album, Joe Dirt Car. The BoDeans are a kick-ass live band and put on a great live show.
And the lead vocal you hear on almost every song is Sammy – Sam Llanas.
I remember that show at the Riv as just that – kick-ass rock’n’roll fun – singalongs, clapping, stomping, great time.
That was a long time ago – 1989.
I had put the albums (yes, vinyl) and CDs away years ago, and hadn’t thought about them until last year when I saw a poster around town announcing a BoDeans show – they were playing at a benefit at a community center very close by, and I couldn’t believe my luck at getting a chance to hear them again, and to take Mike’s “present absence” with me, and remember with the memory of Mike what fun it was, to dance and stomp and sing along with this band.
And I went and they put on a full-blown, burn-the-house-down rock-n-roll show with lights and fog and great sound at this recently rehabbed little theater that started life as an elementary school auditorium.
I had a great time there by myself with the crowd, as I had done so many years before.
But Sam wasn’t there.
Because something happened, years before, as often does in marriages, and in bands that have been together for a long time – Disagreement? Jealousy? Misunderstanding? Resentment? Exhaustion? Who knows.
But Sammy wasn’t there – Sam’s voice wasn’t there.
It didn’t really register with me too much last year at that event – the band seemed to stay away from the songs that really had to have Sam’s voice to make them what they were. Or maybe it was the crowd – a liquored-up, wealthy, charity-event attending crowd that knew how to party and was on their feet, dancing and singing along the whole show (so this is how rich people party? Oh, OK. Pretty cool. And for a good cause.)
And then this year, by accident again, I found that the BoDeans were playing within reasonable driving distance, almost exactly a year (less one day) from that show I went to in memory of Mike.
So I went, and this time I knew that Sam wouldn’t be there.
And his absence was very present for me this time.
Maybe it was the geriatric nature of the crowd – they just wouldn’t get up and dance, even with the bar open, until after the break, when several women of a certain age, dressed as if in memory of their younger years, got up to shake and bounce what they had, groupie-dancing down by the stage.
And I was shakin’ it in the aisle, dressed in my own recently-achieved too-tight jeans and shirt, trying to remember the fun, but hearing that live album, Joe Dirt Car, in my head, and missing Mike, and missing Sam.
There were some fun moments – a Tom Petty tribute inserted in the middle of the show, some amusing musical quotes of other artists, and the sing-along songs that depended more on the crowd than on Sammy’s voice. And although geriatric, the crowd at least managed some singing along.
And then the band did a song called “Naked.”
I can think of a lot of BoDeans songs, “Black, White and Blood Red” or “Going Home,” or “Far, Far Away from My Heart” or “Misery” that require Sammy’s voice, but none more than “Naked.”
It’s about sharing your secrets, committing to not holding back in a relationship – at least that’s what I hear in it – “I’ll stand naked with you, you’ll stand naked with me too.”
And when Sammy sang it, there was a raw, raspy desperation in the sound, like he really was tearing himself open.
You just can’t sing it without that – without Sam.
So you have a choice – don’t sing it.
Or forgive, forget and ask Sammy to come back.
Because he can. He’s right there in Wisconsin. It would have been a few hours drive, no more.
Mike can’t come back. He can’t come with me to a BoDeans concert, ever. In fact, after our child was born, we never went to a rock show together. He’d go to shows he wanted to go to, and I’d go to mine, and whoever wasn’t going was staying home with our child because we didn’t use sitters, not with our special needs child – our beautiful, vulnerable amazing child.
So we switched off, took turns – called it a “shift change,” when I got home from work, and he, exhausted from a day of cooking, cleaning, playing, shopping and chauffeuring, retreated upstairs to read and relax.
No shift changes for me anymore. Adult child is far less vulnerable now, and I’m doing the best I can at my job of enabling greater independence, but each day there’s still, “A day without Dad. You ok Mom? You’re here in this world, the first world, with me? Right? You’re not going, you’re here. You’re good.”
Yes, my lovies, for as long as I possibly can be. I’m here right now, for you.
But Mike can’t be here for me, or for our child, anymore.
Life is short. Forgiveness is worth it.
I have to wait until the end of my life for a reunion, but you guys don’t.
And I find now that the presence of Sam’s absence in that band means I just can’t see them again. And listening to Joe Dirt Car just makes me sad now, thinking about the permanent presence of absence.
Because Mike’s not here for me, and he can’t be, and he can’t be here for our adult child either, and the best I can say is “remember what Dad told you? Dad’s love never ends.”
And it doesn’t, but it is so hard even for a neurotypical person to understand that, and to feel the abstraction of love from the next world. How can I help an autistic person understand that?
My year of dating Mike’s shadow, his present absence, is over, and I’ll have to find something new, a new band to follow or maybe a new person to love, to be a presence for the two of us, now.
But I’ve been honest with our child – we’re never going to stop missing Mike, or stop feeling incomplete, without him. That is a present absence we will just have to absorb, and carry, within and around us, every day. We can’t add anything or anyone that will take that absence away. We can only try to love what we carry – memory and hope and whispers of love in songs we hear in this world as Mike’s messages from the next.