(Originally Published May 11, 2016. Behind the song “I Dont Have a Life”)
journal: August 11, 2007 9:59am Nashville, TN
I’m at my prayer table kleenex scattered all I know is Dad had a stroke. Mom said he was COHERENT when the paramedics were up there with him. He was in the blue room upstairs in a cold sweat, so dizzy he couldn’t stand.. I came home sat here and prayed the rosary out loud, even the Apostle’s Creed which I had to look up in the book Dad gave me on the Rosary- a brand new hardback. Inside his neat handwriting “I’m very proud of you. Love, Dad”
I had been up that morning. I got up at 5:30am and took my dear friend Jen to the airport. “At the risk of sounding like a 70’s TV Dad, you’re somethin’ else” she said. After dropping her off, I heard a Cat Stevens song. I felt like I was floating as I drove through the green suburbs near my home in Nashville, remembering a moment in the basement of the house where I grew up, singing in our play spotlight. I was 6 years old and thinking “I only like singing the songs I make up.” Cat Stevens sang “you’re gonna wind up where you started from” and I sang with him, smiling. I noted the time on the digital car clock and remember feeling particularly, inexplicably, peacefully happy. I later found out that at that very moment, my Dad was having a massive stroke in the base of his cerebellum.
Feeling happy was an odd thing to note, because although I was determined to make everyone think I was happy, I wasn’t. I was working really hard making albums and bringing them to all kinds of cities to sing and sell them, and teaching yoga in my empty dining room back in Nashville. It was maximum output minimum result, really. It sucked. I drove my own tours and opened for established acts that reminded me I wasn’t, and sang musical diary songs for couples that had something I wanted, but knew nothing about. They were mysteriously hand in hand, thanking me after the show, and then I’d go kick open another hotel room door, my arms full of frustration and gear. I didn’t make enough money to warrant the help of someone carrying my stuff, and I didn’t know how to let people help me out of kindness. Sometimes unable to sleep, I’d write, and with the help of copious amounts of coffee and yoga, go to early radio interviews in lots of mascara to cover up my sad eyes. I was constantly writing (mostly bad) songs, which was my barometer of fulfillment, and ignoring the fact that I was personally suffering. I was tolerating a life without a normal, healthy emotional support system in a city that didn’t feel like home. I made a point to look and seem fabulous and attend lots of scenes, but the truth was, once I sat on my piano bench and had to think and think to remember the last time I hugged someone. One summer evening at home in Nashville my cleaning lady, an adorable woman from Belize, pulled up and dragged all of her half-asleep children out of her mini van with her bewildered husband, and came inside the house because they were “in the neighborhood”. I pressed for a real answer, because they lived in the neighborhood. She looked up at me, touched my arm, and quietly replied “because you’re so lonely.” I laughed. Here’s the thing: I was. But I laughed because I didn’t even know it. I did not discover how deeply lost and lonely I was until I got to the silence of my father’s hospital room.
journal: August 11, 2007 3:26pm I-65 somewhere in Kentucky , McDonald’s parking lot
I am 80 miles outside Indy. I got a diet coke to stay awake. I am not listening to music, just everything around me. But I am not hearing, I am HEREing. I am still wearing the Lilly Pulitzer sundress I tried on at Jen’s this morning before the airport.. She had a stack of them, her friend owns a shop and Jen said “take one! they’re free!” So I put the one with the meditating monkeys pattern on it and left in it. There was a lady that works at McDonald’s cleaning the coke machine and she complimented my dress and I said “give me your address, I’ll send you one, my friend has a surplus” So she did- she got a pen, and gave me the paper and she said “how much?” I told her they’re free, and she said, “really? can I give you something anyway?” and I said “no, no, they’re free”, and she said “how about a hug?” and I said “yeah, you can definitely give me a hug” and she did
journal: August 11, 2007 11pm Mom and Dad’s lake house Long Beach, The blue room
They let me come in past visiting hours and Dad woke up! And he was happy to see me. “What a pretty dress!” (slurred speech) he said. He is so happy to be alive. He’s like a different person, like a blissed-out hippie. I told him Ram Dass calls it getting stroked. A lightning bolt to the consciousness and a chance for awakening his inner yogi. He really liked all that, and it didn’t even come close to an argument about the One True Church. I said won’t your watercolors be interesting with a shaking hand? He said “my aarrrecoverrray pieces!”
We’re funny folks. My three siblings, a fiance, visitors, everyone cracked jokes that week. But me? Somber. Because when you sit in a hospital room and there are forms to fill out and calls to make and calls to receive and people coming, you can’t help but imagine what you’d write or who you’d call or who’d visit or call you. You can’t help but notice the time that has passed, with all those clocks on the wall, and your soggy plans, and where you’ve been. And as I sat on the couch and listened to my father snore, while his brain miraculously healed itself, I realized that nobody was getting a percentage from this trip, so nobody was calling me.
The silence of the hospital room joined hands with the silence of the NOT-A-LIFE waiting for me in Nashville, and it was deafening. I watched my brother’s fiance read Vogue one afternoon on the couch of the hospital room. She seemed so calm, relaxed, and content, somehow responsible for the perfect rectangle of sunlight that was resting on her shiny dark hair and lighting up her diamond ring. She matched. She was wearing wedges, and delicate earrings. (I noted my ratty sandals and shorts and internally justified that my clothes only matched and mattered for shows.) She leaned over to my Mom with her magazine, pointing out colors and imagining what the temperature will be the night of her fall wedding. I had been to therapy. I had read almost every self help book Oprah had recommended since 1994. I had been doing my inner homework. Why did it take watching my brother’s fiance read Vogue while my father snored to realize that I didn’t have a life? How was the mundane silence of the hospital room somehow more effective than any therapist I had ever listened to? I thought if I was following my dream, writing with shows booked, I had a life. I didn’t.
One of those days that week as I sat on the edge of Dad’s hospital bed, he took my hand and asked “do I recognize any of the jewels?” He gave me gold jewelry all through my adolescence. I wasn’t wearing any of it, though. I gave a lot of it away the year we didn’t speak to each other. I’d respond to compliments on a piece of jewelry by removing it on the spot and handing it to the person. “here. you can have it”, I’d shrug to a stranger who had come to a show, or a fellow waitress. I lived in a van; I didn’t have any drawers. And it hurt me to look at it. Now my stomach turned to think about my own stubbornness at that time. I did keep the sturdy gold signet ring he gave me, with my initials carved into the face. “here-you’ll remember who you are” he said as he tossed me the box from my bedroom doorway on Christmas eve, right before I went to sleep. And suddenly fully aware of my Dad driving downtown to the jeweler and picking out a gold ring for me when I was sixteen, I ran to the bathroom like someone with morning sickness, only to sob.
journal: August 14, 2007 10:20am Chicago, IL
Dad’s been moved to a VIP corner room in Mercy Hospital, for having practiced medicine here himself. At the moment he’s cranking out a sales pitch to the OT for the house we grew up in, despite his slurred speech.
Now there is Dad Before, and Dad Now.
Dad Before yelling at whoever spilled anything/Dad Now spilling his jello like a 5 year old
Dad Before asking “how’s your car?/Dad Now talking about feelings
Dad Before healthy and isolated by retirement/Dad Now sick and surrounded by old friends
Dad Before scoffing/Dad Now so interested in my songs
Dad Before giving us hardback books of our own, inscribed/Dad Now and his library book
Dad Before, gone at 5am, busy, mad/Dad Now cheerfully remembering a hospital aide he worked with thirty years ago, and her whispering to my brother through her warm brown eyes brimming with tears, and saying “he always talked to me. he was kind. and in those days some of them doctors pretended like I wadn’t even there”
Me here thinking if I’d married ex he’d have helped Dad-Now to the bathroom and we’d have had a child by now and and I never did love him but he and I would’ve provided more people to soak up all the sadness in this hospital room because right now everybody has left and it’s just me
journal: August 15, 2007 Mercy Hospital Chicago 2:22pm
Dad sat up after lunch and told me stories of the challenges he faced while acquiring his spot as a resident. This was during the 50s, and he’s telling me like it was yesterday. Tears running down his face, and mine. Troubled times. Almost like he was confessing to me that he slammed the administrator’s door so hard he broke the glass. Eyes wide, like, ‘will you forgive me for that?’ Then the story of the nurses hanging a towel out the window if they needed him so he could watch the collegiate football game next door to the hospital. Listening, I never doubted that he’d see the towel if they needed him. The story of his broken down Chevy on the way to Pittsburgh and his best friend Larry coming for him in his Fiat.“everything I owned fit in that Fiat” he sobbed. That was right after the unexpected last visit with his father. The story of staying with his Mom after his Dad died and telling her to leave the Sears bill on the window sill if she needed help with it. And how each week the stack of bills in the window sill got higher, until their unspoken agreement outlived her. The stack included his sister’s wedding, a family car for his brother, medical bills and went on. “What else could I do?” he said. After that, he abruptly fell sound asleep.
Dad’s a person. A person who was under pressure.
A person that was struggling while I was a kid.
A person that I just met.
I spent that fall taking as much time off as possible to use my skills as a yoga teacher to help my Dad learn to walk again. The week of my brother’s wedding in Manhattan Beach, California, I stayed with my parents in a beachfront house. One morning during our daily walking workshop, a very potent moment intersected with my gut. All at once, my sister ran up the street with her new guy, (that she would marry a year later) my brother pulled up laughing with his fiance, and a surfer that looked like Aaron Eckhart walked by and winked at me. I realized I hadn’t gone on a date in years. I went inside and called Jen. She had just gone on a third date with a new guy (that she would marry a year later). I hung up and realized I had traded the life I didn’t have as a touring musician for another version of not having a life: spinster.
After I flew back to Nashville my sister called to say she had a dream. In it she yelled at me “PEOPLE DON’T HEAL PEOPLE GOD HEALS PEOPLE” Her words soared out of the phone and clutched my gut. I thought I was living out some miracle. The girl that had the father who broke her heart returns to heal him.
guess what? NOPE.
There is only what happened. I was born an artist. I lived for self expression. I listened closely to every writer rocker chick that plugged in her voice and soared and followed suit. I was a walking New Hampshire license plate: LIVE FREE OR DIE.
That made my father really mad- enough to not even speak to me for awhile, and I didn’t care, because I really, really, really, really didn’t want to be an art teacher in a Catholic school in Chicago just so my Dad would be pleased. But I will say I “overcorrected”. I was obnocsious. Sinead O’Connor’s stunt with a picture of the Pope on SNL informed my brothers’ nickname for me, “Shinamy” with good reason. What I was able to do from actually “meeting” my Dad after his stroke, was accept that my Irish immigrant grandmother came here at 15, uneducated, and worked for other families so that my father could go to school and get a degree and put me through school, so I would never have to do something like go work in a bar or for another family.
And I got my start as a singer in bars. And for a day job, I was a nanny.
Acceptance demanded me to see that he was neither adversary, nor my Lifetime Television miracle story. He was just the Dad I got, and I was just an artistic, odd social moron and although blonde and thirtysomething and still able to fit into my prom dress, I didn’t even know how to have a light flirtatious conversation with a man in line at Starbucks. I had some more work to do, and I did it.
After finding a “Welcome to California” Hampton Inn hotel key on the ground at the precise moment I needed to, (more on that here) I cancelled the rest of that year’s shows, left Nashville and moved back to California where I belong. Several years later, when my song was placed in a soundtrack, I was invited to a party where I met Aaron Eckhart. He asked me if I knew Tim McGraw (I don’t) and pitched me a country song called “Mrs. Me” by singing it in my ear. (he smelled good) Then he politely said goodbye and was whisked off to another party. I considered it a good omen, and it was. I met my surfer that fall and got married a year later. Now I’m a songwriter among other things: I am a wife, a stepmom, a friend, a sister, and an aunt-that lovely fiancé who was sitting in the sun was granted the perfect wedding night temperature, and has given birth to two beautiful daughters.
And I’m a daughter who thought she may be driving to a funeral in 2007, and instead has received for nearly a decade and counting, a lovely, easy, warm and accepting relationship with her Dad. (he just texted a response to a pic of my blooming pots. “Bravo! Beautiful!”) My daily life holds a lot of hugs. And Cat Stevens was right- I did wind up where I started from: home with family, singing the songs I make up.
Dad and me, April 2016