When I was a kid, I suffered from night terrors that would prove to be a lifelong affliction. In the earliest one I remember, my childhood dog was ravaged by a roaming pack of wolves that crashed through my bedroom window and brought the fight into bed with me. Then, after the delinquent parents of some neighbor kids down the street allowed the viewing of an R-rated vampire flick, the night terrors got real weird, real fast. My mother had a stroke of genius and created “Monster and Wolf Go-Away Spray”, a mixture of water and a few drops of her perfume with which I would douse every nook and cranny of my room under the assurance that the concoction would repel unwanted visitors. Because fear is relative, the trick worked for a time, but, unfortunately, its effectiveness began to fade as I grew older.
In middle school I began listening to music while I fell asleep since night terrors one night often inspired insomnia in the next–a fear to sleep for fear of what may come. Mostly classical at first–movie soundtracks, Erik Satie, etc–but this was too light. Then I moved onto the harder stuff, like Bush, but that was too much. Then I found the sound that was just right: Nat King Cole. Jaunty and melodic, there are nothing but feel-good rhymes, sentimental songs, and finger-snapping tunes that come from his smooth and perfectly pitched voice. There was something about falling asleep to this aura that soothed me completely, and from that point forward I listened to music of his sort every time I slept alone.
As life has gone on longer and times they’ve gotten tougher, Nat’s voice has seen me through the roughest of it–namely the loss of the two brightest guiding lights in my life. As I wrote some time ago, Nat King Cole held a prominent role in the soundtrack I orchestrated for my father’s funeral when I was just 26. I also included him in the mix the night we said our final goodbye to a beloved grandmother just last year. These were deliberate choices, to be sure, but on other pivotal occasions he has found a way to appear free of personal selection.
Two years after burying my father, we sold the rambling ranch home I had grown up in and left Los Angeles for good. We packed my childhood into boxes and sold what didn’t fit, hauling the load to San Diego where we had summered all my life to be nearer my father as he followed the race track circuit south each year from June through August. Now the place was our permanent home, my mother’s mostly but also mine too, and after a long, exhausting day, my uncle suggested we go out to dinner. We showered up and ventured down the road to a restaurant my father had watched in each stage of construction, poking his head in for opening updates and assuring the owners that he and his girls would be their first diners. We were and the place was a favorite family eatery thereafter because it was good but also because it was close to home.
That night, I sipped my glass of wine, chatted with my mom and favorite uncle, and commented on the music playing softly in the background–a well-curated mixture of indie and contemporary music. Then it happened. Anathema to any music that played before or after it, Nat King Cole’s “Smile” came up in the queue. Since this is the song I chose to play at my father’s funeral, the one that played as my mother and I left the church, arm in arm, it stopped our table cold. No one said a thing since to speak would be to sob. We shook our heads, took an extra hard drink of our preferred poison (black coffee for mother, wine for we drinkers), and individually sighed heavily. We finally made eye contact, and my mom said “That can’t be a coincidence.”
Later that night I asked our waiter who had made the playlist for the evening. Turns out, it was Pandora–a randomly selected station that played randomly selected songs. Meaning Nat King Cole had found his way into our moment to soothe the fear of what may come, or perhaps he was sent to us from another stratosphere by a bundle of Stardust energy from beyond doing what it had always done best: protecting its girls.
I frequent the same coffee shop every morning on my way to work. This addiction means I’ve developed a rapport with the staff, particularly a young kid from Mexico City who has an earnest sweetness to him. This morning, the morning after Father’s Day, he asked me “Did you call your Dad this weekend?” I replied, with an uncomfortable chuckle, “Uh huh, no. I didn’t. My Dad’s dead,” as I scurried to the other end of the bar and away from the eager customer behind me, jonesing for java on a Monday morn. When I turned the same question on him he told me he didn’t know his father. Never did.
I bid him good day, and walked out to my car. Sliding into the driver seat of the VW my Dad posthumously purchased for me, I took a moment. I set my latte down, tossed my piece of illicit crumb cake onto the passneger seat, and rummaged for a CD from the glove compartment to realign my professional comportment. Fish, fish fish and found it–Anais Mitchell’sYoung Man in America.
I forwarded through to Track 6, “He Did,” which accompanies this post in video form despite it delivering no video (not my preference, but it’ll do the job in a pinch). I default to music in times of (let’s say) stress without a second thought, as compulsory as an irregular heartbeat, because music makes memory move and marks moments; it heals through submersion since feelings felt fully are the ones that will eventually form a scab. While it probably made other customers uncomfortable, the exchange with my beloved barrista reminded me that while the void is very deep, still, in spite of passing years, at least there is a hole to fill. A path to find. A row to hoe. And an empty page to fill. It reminded me of how it feels to be my father’s daughter, alive like this.
Three years ago today, I buried my father. I flew south through a lightning storm only my father could conjure on the day he’d passed, and for once had not a shred of fear for flying. I bought a shitty black dress I’d never touch again, picked a casket, his final outfit and my final thoughts. Except those thoughts were far from final, but I knew nothing about that then. Wandering through the childhood home we would dismantle and sell a few years later, I stopped at his office; it smelled of medical decline and cologne. I went through the CDs he kept beside his desk, just under the candle that lit the night with fragrance while he worked. Vanilla, always vanilla. Elvis, The Four Tops, Louie Armstrong, a smattering of 1990s divas (he loved his Whitney Houston), The Supremes, and, last but not least, Nat King Cole all entered my eardrums well into the early hours of the morning as I wrote his obituary and soundtracked the funeral and wake. As always, I communicate best through music.
On October 23rd, 2010, we said goodbye from the chapel in which he’d married my mother some 30-odd years before, to the day. As always, Daddy drew a crowd. Faces from all stages of his life had come to tell tales of the man whose largess we all assumed could never be felled. In between these stories the music played: first “Stardust” by Nat King Cole, for his nickname was Stardust Mel; then “(There’ll Be Peace) In The Valley (For Me)” to note an end to the man’s suffering alongside his love of Elvis; and, finally, “Smile” again by Nat King Cole because that song spoke best to his persistence. Then I took the stage. Ever the introvert afraid of public speaking, my words came with incredible ease even if they were strained by the circumstances. I told a simple story of his role as father.
Once a week, my Dad would take little me with him to a mom-and-pop newsstand in Temple City where he picked up the latest edition of the Racing Form. He’d leave me in the car, parked just out front, and come back with the paper and a treasure trove of sweets–always careful to note that I was not to tell my mother. We’d sit in the car for a few minutes to devour the contraband, and he would teach me how to snap my fingers, roll my tongue and whistle. Never did get the hang of that whistle. While approaching signals on the ride to and from our destination, he would gauge the change in lights and, just as it was about to shift, he would blow a mighty gust of wind towards it–changing the light from red to green. Being little, I literally believed my father could control traffic lights. As I paused to hold back tears, a thought came to me and I shared it with the group: my Dad spent the rest of his life ensuring I had nothing but green lights; in fact, he did that for us all.
Somehow we all made it through that month and year, and we live on because we have each other even if we we’re missing him. Although some days, the bad days, it’s easy to slip into confusion. Death is nonsensical to a woman who never bought into the fairytale of an Everafter with its pearly gates gleaming through a watercolor sunrise and a fatherly figure welcoming you home. Though all condolences were much appreciated, I began to resent those who cooed, “Don’t worry, sweetheart: he’s in a better place.” A better place. A better place? A better place for my father would have been on our couch, in perfect health, watching the Dodger game with my mother and me. While these people may have believed in Heaven they did not know it to be true, nor did/do I, nor do any of us and the last thing grief seeks in its surge is a blatant lie. So while those thoughts were well intentioned and I do not begrudge them their beliefs, they sent me on a fools errand to find a text that would tell me where, precisely, my father had gone. Where in the ether was he now?
I wanted science; an A + B = C of death and the afterlife. The problem there is that most texts on the subject are either religious, spiritual non-religious, or philosophical and decidedly anti-quantitative. After a few false starts I found the opposite of what I sought, which, turned out to be exactly what I needed at the time. At Green Apple Books on Clement Street, I stumbled upon a staff recommended book titled Mourning Diary. Hailed as a “unique study of grief–intimate, deeply moving and universal,” Mourning Diary is a posthumously published compilation of notes written daily by Roland Barthes following the death of his beloved mother in October 1977. In it he documents all the stages of grief in concise sentences owing to the small scraps of paper on which he wrote them, and in the process made phonetic all the ungraspable emotions I was attempting to define: the first realization of an imminent mortality; the sick impulse to charge into the future with more purpose, what he called “futuromania;” the infuriating inconsistency of grief–sometimes happy, sometimes sad, oftentimes an emotional paralytic–and the guilt associated with not knowing which one you prefer; and the “domestication of death” where the notion becomes a fiber in the fabric of daily life. In total, he owns up to the paradoxical nature of death for those who have died and for those who continue to live. Sometimes we just need smarter people to explain how we feel.
With Barthes in my back pocket, I found the perfect companion piece in Mary Roach’s Spook over a year later. In Spook, Roach attempts to find the mathematical equation for the after life I so desperately sought for so long. She addresses various angles with which people approach the great beyond from reincarnation to seances and telecommunication, near death experiences and ghost hunters–all through the lens of science, the law and a healthy dose of dry wit. A decided skeptic, she talks of and to believers, such as Mary Todd Lincoln or members of the International Ghost Hunters Society, and men of science who wanted proof to appease the nagging of an unanswered question, such as Duncan Macdougall’s quest to prove the existence of the soul (by weighing it at the precise moment of death, as it left flesh for the heavens), or Professor Bruce Greyson’s computer-reliant examination of near death experiences in operating rooms. In almost every instance, people on the hunt for proof of an afterlife–whether spiritual or scientific in nature–are motivated by loss, which only makes sense as questions never formulate without precipitators. In the end, Roach could not prove the existence of the soul or the sphere to which it traveled after death. However, she also could not disprove it and that very fact changed her decidedly skeptic stance to one of cautious acceptance of the unknown.
Through all my searching, this is also where I have landed: the realm of unknowable knowing. Belief is incredibly intimate and informed by each micro and macro nuance of our existence to date. It is subjective and as such we hold “this” but not “that” as true and fold it into our worldview–how we believe the world (and our place in it) to be. While I can’t bring myself to fully believe my Dad is looking over me from on high, I’m able to understand where my Dad “is” thanks to Gerry Nahum, a professor at the Duke University School of Medicine who was interviewed by Mary Roach. As a quantum physicist, Nahum believes that the soul is merely a group of information which must have an energy equivalent. Since energy cannot be destroyed, it can only be displaced, then the soul, the entity that makes us who we are, merely exists somewhere else after we die although most likely not in the same exact form. Incredibly enough, this is the same explanation my Fella gave me in October of 2010 and, as such, it’s what I now believe. Fella + Physicist = A Believer.
Perhaps this search would have been moot if I knew my father’s thoughts on the matter. Unfortunately, we never had that talk since he refused to speak of his own demise, save for one moment of disabled terror where he looked my mother in the eye and asked, “Am I going to die?” All she could muster was an “I don’t know” and he grew silent, thinking of what I can only imagine. Not that I blame him for this, it’s just another regret; there are so many in times like these. But regrets never change the past, and the living must decide to decay under the weight of loss, live a deadened life, or live better, stronger and more intentionally to honor those that left us. Most importantly, the living must speak of the dead so that they live on in a different but equally as substantive a way.
May it be good or bad, I am the one and only progeny of Robert Meldahl–I work with hands like his, I speak with inflections like his, I live with afflictions like his. In this there is comfort, and nothing makes me happier than speaking about my father, who was a great man, a flawed man, a man of stories, professional accomplishment and stubborn pride. This stubbornness is why, despite myself, I think he speaks to me through the radio. For this I have my reasons which revolve around my belief that there are no coincidences in life; feel free to comment or message me if you’re keen on hearing the stories. This nonsensical notion makes sense to me because a) beliefs emerge from sensory experiences more often than they do from words or logic, and b) if we revert to unbundled energy after we die and are returned to the universal electromagnetic field then radio waves would be the easiest way to communicate with a daughter obsessed with music.
So if you’re out with me and Nat King Cole or Elvis comes across the air waves, give me a little nod and I’ll know you believe what I believe, and we’ll believe together.
Here, faithful readers, is a poem taken from a newspaper column in the women’s section of an 1890s San Francisco Chronicle title “Behind The Mask” by Nora Perry–an American poet and journalist who wrote for the Chicago Tribune. It is for the lonely ones who know not what they do.
Death creates a sense of manic urgency when it invades, when cemeteries cease to be abstractions and become home to ones you love. Every twitch of sinew is weighted with importance. Waste not, regret not for tomorrow is uncertain; It is No longer guaranteed.
This makes you a martyr fallen on the blade of memory. But only you will know and this is the cross that you will bear. To want so desperately to make your name, but stay exactly as you were when he last saw you should he be fumbling in the dark to find his way back home.
This is your darkest secret. It is the steam that holds the air and surrounds you. Because an “I” has meaning only where a “Thou” is granted; where there is no Alter an Ego cannot be.
It’s interesting, what memories remain. John Berger states in his collection of essays titled About Looking that only the frame of a life continues, while the rest, the idiosyncratic experiences that act as content, is like daily newsprint: forgotten practically before the ink is dry. My memories seem to follow suit. I remember my childhood vaguely as happy and well adjusted, but individual memories have largely become the fodder of yesterday’s news, composted into the foundation of my adult life. They are my maker, and I not their master. Blame this on one too many nights of heavy drinking during my “experimental” college years, the fact that computer memory now substitutes for its organic human predecessor, or whatever you desire. Regardless of the reason, in the wake of my father’s death I’m acutely aware of what my memory chooses to frame.
As a wee little lassie my Father would take me with him to pick up a Racing Form from the local newsstand around the corner from our humble house situated in a Horse Racing mecca at the southern end of California. I piled my gangly, uncoordinated limbs into his Acura, which always smelled new with a hint of the vanilla air fresheners so despised by my Mother, and away we’d go through traffic with the greatest of ease. He navigated using a system I would come to call ‘Blind Driving”–a technique which entailed drifting from one lane divider to the next. From the center, slowly to the left until eanh eaNH EANH!! Thwump thwump thwump. Whoops. Center again and then the process repeated to the right of the lane. Back and forth, back and forth; a relatively soothing sway to an unlicensed driver with no concept of danger.
It was during these trips that I came to understand I was special because my Father had magic powers: he controlled traffic lights. When approaching a red light, my Father merely had to blow in its general direction and the light magically turned green. My Father was the Jack Frost of traffic control. Once we arrived, I waited for him in the car certain he’d return with a treat. What would it be this time? A lollipop? A Kit Kat? No, a Snickers?! It was anyone’s guess. Inevitably he’d shower me with more candy than one kid could stomach (a diabetic vicariously indulging his sweet tooth through his daughter), and we would eat most of it in the car so my Mother would be none the wiser. While exceeding my sugar intake for the week, he taught me how to whistle and snap: two valuable assets for a tomboy living in the Land of the Boys. I cannot convey how many hours were spent snapping and whistling. Or rather my Father snapping and whistling and I snapping and spraying soundless wet air onto the Acura’s dash, much to his chagrin.
I never did learn to whistle. As for my Father’s magical powers, well, I suppose you can chalk it up to a slight of wind executed by watching the opposing signal as it turned yellow and thusly timing his gust to coincide with an inevitable green. Be that what it may, I know what I remember. I remember a life filled with green lights, free passages, and cloudless intersections thanks in no small part to my Father’s protection and guiding wisdom. And now that this memory is framed in print, saved from the cyclical scourge of forgetfulness, my Father’s magic is no longer a hazy biographical fragment but an integral component of narrative in the story of a daughter and her father. Act I, Scene I.