August 4th would have been my grandfather’s 70th birthday. He passed away seven years ago, and I still miss him a lot. So, to remember him on his 70th, I decided to put together this little list of songs that help me feel closer to him, even seven years after his passing. While a couple of these songs are ones that I associate with memories from when my grandfather was alive, the rest are actually songs that helped me grieve after he died. I listened to them over and over and still revisit them from time to time. It’s weird to think of someone you were once so close to being gone forever. He never will turn 70. These are all songs that helped me cope in one small way or another, and I think anyone who’s experienced any kind of loss can appreciate at least a few of these.
“Deck the Halls” from Caribbean Christmas (1994) by Kokomo Jo
It took me forever to find this song on the internet (update: sorry, I guess the YouTube video got taken down), and honestly, if you’re looking for reggae-style Christmas songs, there are certainly ones out there I like better. Still, my family used to have Caribbean Christmas on cassette, and my grandpa would play it over and over again every day during the holiday season. He loved Christmas and being goofy and festive, and hearing this song reminds me of how he used to sing Christmas songs at the top of his lungs (and horribly off-key) as he went about his day. He didn’t seem to care who was listening, which is something that makes me smile now when I think about him.
“Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)” from The Wall (1979) by Pink Floyd
Okay, so this song doesn’t necessarily have some deep emotional significance to me or anything, but I was talking about Pink Floyd with a friend of mine the other day and was reminded of something from when I was a little girl. I had wandered into the backyard (or the “junkyard,” as my grandpa liked to refer to it) one day to hear this song blasting on the radio. My grandpa always kept the local rock radio station at full volume in the backyard whenever he was out there working or whatever. Anyway, I knew I had heard this song before, and I thought I liked it, so I decided to ask my grandpa what it was about. He looked at me with a perfectly straight face and said “drugs,” and walked away with no further explanation. I had kind of been hoping for a little more than that, but he seemed busy, so I didn’t really say anything else. Of course, it occurs to me now that “Drugs” is actually an alternate title for “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 3),” so maybe that’s what he was referring to — although for a long time, I kind of just figured he was trying to get me to stop asking him questions. I don’t know why that memory has stayed with me, but I still find it amusing.
“All My Tears” cover by Jars of Clay
This song is originally by Julie Miller feat. Emmylou Harris, but the version I first heard was from the Jars of Clay’s Good Monsters album, which you can hear below:
“When I go don’t cry for me. In my father’s arms I’ll be. The wounds this world left on my soul will all be healed, and I’ll be whole.”
“It don’t matter where you bury me. I’ll be home, and I’ll be free. It don’t matter where I lay. All my tears be washed away.”
“So weep not for me, my friends, when my time below does end; for my life belongs to him who will raise the dead again.”
I was in my freshman dorm room listening to Pandora, as I did most of the time, when this song came on. The lyrics caught my attention — I suppose because of the subject matter since my grandfather had just died — so I paused Pandora and searched for a video on YouTube I could replay at will. I found one, hit play, and ended up sobbing facedown on the floor of my dorm. The loss of my grandfather devastated me, and this song was the first real comfort I was able to feel. Lines like “So weep not for me, my friends, when my time below does end; for my life belongs to him who will raise the dead again” seemed especially poignant because of the way my grandfather apparently chose to experience his death (I say “apparently” because I obviously have no idea what was going on in his mind; I just know what I saw). In his last couple of days of consciousness, he was barely able to speak, and the few words he was able to gasp out were hardly intelligible. Still, as my family prayed with him in his hospital room, he mustered enough energy to whisper, “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen,” and “hallelujah” over and over again.
I’ve never really had any trouble accepting death as a part of life, even as a kid. I think having grown up with lots of pets is part of what helped me learn about that when I was younger. Still, the process of dying as I’ve witnessed it seems like an ugly one. Watching my grandfather’s body slowly shut down over the course of a few days, as his lungs filled with fluid and he had to be sedated — it really hit me that the act of dying itself can be such a terrifying thing to go through. Even so, my grandpa’s last words were in celebration, not fear. “The wounds this world left on my soul will all be healed, and I’ll be whole … and I will not be ashamed, for my savior knows my name.” As my grandfather laid in his bed whispering “hallelujah,” he seemed to truly believe these words. He believed he was going home.
While I was crying on the floor, I was also reminded of a time my grandpa took me to church not too long before. He was introducing me to a friend he had met there, and he made a point of telling her that I was the one who convinced him to start going to church in the first place. Seeing the faith I had helped him come to his own faith. At the time, I was kind of embarrassed that he was going on and on about this to some random church acquaintance, but after he died, I realized that he just wanted me to know how I had helped him in that way. As the song lyrics brought back horrible hospital memories, I found comfort in knowing that he himself took comfort in his faith. His final hours were uncomfortable and probably painful, but he chose to find peace in the belief that something better was waiting for him on the other side — a belief that I helped to give him. I don’t think you have to be religious to feel comfort in knowing you helped someone while they were on their actual death bed. It’s a powerful thing.
“Wonderful” cover by Lucius
Of course, no playlist of mine would be complete without at least one Lucius song. This one’s another cover, originally by My Morning Jacket:
And you can also hear better quality recordings of the Lucius version. The YouTube video I included above is just the way I first heard the song, and so I became attached to that one.
“I will never grow older – at least not in my mind.”
“I’m going where there ain’t no fear. I’m going where the spirit is near. I’m going where the living is easy, and the people are kind – a new state of mind. I’m going where there ain’t no police. I’m going where there ain’t no disease. I’m going where there ain’t no need to escape from what is, only spirits at ease.”
I think the fact that I took my grandpa’s death so hard is pretty understandable. I mean, we all have a hard time when we lose someone we love. I noticed something in myself as I was grieving, though, and it wasn’t sadness; it was anger. I think feeling angry when someone dies is common, but it stood out to me because it felt different than what I had experienced before. When my great-grandmother passed away a few years prior, of course I was sad, but I was also relieved. Growing older was not easy for her; she was sick all the time and in a lot of pain, and she hadn’t truly seemed happy for a long time. My grandpa was sick for a long time before he died, too. He had to carry an oxygen tank with him everywhere and couldn’t really do much without exhausting himself. So yeah, I was kind of relieved that he wouldn’t have to deal with all that anymore. What angered me, though, was the timing of his death. My whole family was right in the middle of a period of heightened dysfunction, and the whole situation seemed to affect him more than I thought anything could. I only ever saw him cry once, and it was during this particularly rocky time in my family’s history.
I was also having a really hard time with all the family drama. I remember one day, my grandpa and I were the only ones home, and I was just so upset about everything that I started screaming, trashing my room and flailing myself to the floor. (I know it may not seem like it based on what I’ve written on this blog, but I’m generally a pretty composed person. Ever since the incident I talked about in a previous post, I rarely take my emotions out on my room and my physical belongings. I only have such strong reactions when things get really bad.) My grandpa heard me freaking out in my room and came running in. He wrapped his arms around me, and we both fell to the floor. I just kept sobbing as he tried his best to assure me that everything would be ok.
This memory stuck out in my mind after he died because the truth was that everything wasn’t ok. Things in my family stayed pretty out-of-whack for at least another few years, and it just really angered me that he had to die in the midst of such chaos. He didn’t live long enough to see everything calm down and become generally okay again. I hated that. The first time I heard this song was three years after my grandfather died, and the part that really stuck out to me was the bridge, starting with the lyric, “I’m going where there ain’t no fear.” Like I said above, my grandpa believed in an afterlife, and even though it had been three years, it comforted me to imagine him singing the words to this song. I liked to think that wherever he was, he really did feel wonderful now, with all the drama of our family’s past behind him.
“Everything of Mine” from True Melodies (2012) by Cheevers Toppah
“‘Til the day I get to see you again, I will always remember the things you’ve done for me.”
This has become my go-to song for whenever I find myself missing my grandfather and just want something peaceful to remember him by. I don’t really remember how I came upon this song, but I remember looking up Cheevers Toppah afterward and thinking the concept for this whole album was pretty cool. The Canyon Records website summarizes it this way: “Drawing upon his training in choral singing, Toppah renders songs composed in the traditional song style of the Plains with multi-part harmonies and vocal arrangements.” In this interview with Tiny Mix Tapes, Toppah explains that for True Melodies, he basically just took a bunch of different Native American vocal songs that he or one of his friends had written and added choral harmonies over them. Cheevers Toppah is himself Native American (Kiowa and Navajo), which is part of what makes me think of my grandpa when I hear “Everything of Mine.” Even though I never got the chance to ask my grandpa more about his connection to his heritage, he loved being Apache, and he really liked anything that reminded him of his Native roots. I’m pretty sure he would have liked this song.
Toppah also explains in that Tiny Mix Tapes interview that all the round dance songs on the record (including “Everything of Mine”) were meant to be love songs with lyrics inspired by what he thinks women would want to hear (lol). I think the love expressed in this song can be applied to any kind of relationship, though, which is why I’ve connected with it so much. “Til the day I get to see you again,” is obviously a sentiment many of us take comfort in when someone we love passes away, and I was no different. The second half of that line, though — “I will always remember the things you’ve done for me” — was really what spoke to me. I remember one day when I was in high school, I showed up to school wearing flip-flops. It ended up being a cold and rainy day, so I called my grandpa to ask him if he would bring me my Vans and some socks during lunch time. I met him in the school parking lot, changed my shoes, and threw my flip-flops into the back of his car. After I closed the door and he drove away, the vice principal (who had been keeping an eye on the parking lot) asked me, “Did he drive here to bring you your shoes?” I told her that he had, to which she responded, “Wow. That was really nice of him.” It’s not that I never realized how much my grandpa did for me before, but that was the first time I ever really stopped to think about it. He did that kind of stuff for me all the time, which is why it always just seemed normal. I realized that a lot of other parents probably would have just let their kid suffer the consequences of their poor choice in footwear.
I think part of it was the fact that even though he and my grandma did raise me, he was still my grandpa and not my dad. Grandparents just love you differently, you know? (Yes, I know parents also do a lot for their children, but no one goes to “Mom’s” house to bake cookies, okay? They go to “Grandma’s.” It’s different). Looking back, what makes it feel even more special was that he was actually my step-grandpa. I even called him by his first name. He chose to love my siblings and me and do everything for us, as if we were his own. He didn’t have to.