September 20, 2008
Back in February of this year, I reviewed “You Can Let Go”, a single by a new artist named Crystal Shawanda. The song hit home for me, having lost my father to cancer only a year earlier. I tried to keep a professional distance, and only alluded to this in my review:
I knew where “You Can Let Go” was going to end up by the third verse, but I was still choked up by it, as the songwriters painted an achingly accurate portrait. I won’t give away the lyrics here, but if you’ve witnessed this in your own life, you’ll know that the way they describe it is exactly what it’s really like.
Ever since that review was published, there’s been a consistent trend in its comment thread. Every few days, another reader shares their own personal story about losing their father, and expresses how the song has brought them some comfort. It’s easy to overlook the power that music can have, and songs like “You Can Let Go” can be dismissed as cloying or manipulative because they deal with such heavy emotions. But the reality is that once you’ve actually lived through an experience like the one in this song, it helps you deal with the devastating emotions that go along with it.
There’s a line in “You Can Let Go” that says, “It was killing me to see the strongest man I ever knew, wasting away to nothing in that hospital room.” I first suspected something was wrong with my father when we were moving furniture on to the back of his truck, having promised to deliver it to my aunt’s apartment. After so many years of him doing most of the heavy lifting, I knew something was wrong when he was quickly winded, and felt so sick he had to stop to rest.
My mind told me something was wrong, but I figured it was a hot summer day and hey, he’s getting older. But the back pain he was complaining about was getting worse. It had to be pretty bad for him to complain in the first place. This was a man who worked construction jobs as an electrician, and would use duck tape as a band-aid when he cut himself at work. The second week of September, he was diagnosed with cancer. The last week of January, we held vigil around his bed as he slowly slipped away from us. That last night, we told him to go. That we’d be okay. That we wanted him to go to heaven. That he could let go.
There’s a numbing effect that surrounds you when you go through the wake and the funeral, but nothing prepares you for the emptiness that awaits after it. People always ask how you’re doing when they know someone you love is sick, and the good friends are there for you all the way through the end. But it’s the aftermath, the months and years that go by with that person still gone, that are so hard to navigate. People who haven’t gone through it yet cannot understand it or relate to it, and the last thing you want is for them to be able to.
It’s here where the coping power of music comes into play. A song like “You Can Let Go” gives the needed catharsis, allowing those feelings to be released. I won’t call it a healing power, because the loss of a loved one never heals. You just cope with it better every day, until the emotions are so far from the surface that they’re nearly undetectable. The comments this song has produced are so open and vulnerable that I wish I’d been that honest and brave when I originally reviewed it.
What I’ve learned is that I’m not the only one who copes with hardships through music, and I think that country music in particular can be a tremendous resource when dealing with issues of loss. For me, the song that I keep going back to is Iris Dement’s “No Time To Cry”, which was later covered by Merle Haggard and Joe Nichols. She wrote it on the first anniversary of her father’s death:
But now I’m walking and I’m talking,
Doing just what I’m supposed to do.
Working overtime to make sure that I don’t come unglued.
I guess I’m older now and I’ve got no time to cry.
I’ve got no time to look back, I’ve got no time to see,
The pieces of my heart that have been ripped away from me.
And if the feeling starts to coming, I’ve learned to stop ‘em fast.
`Cause I don’t know, if I let ‘em go, they might not wanna pass.
Great songs hold up a mirror to the listener and allow them to see the true reflection that they’ve been dodging. Hearing this song made me wonder if everything I do – teaching, tutoring, graduate school, catechism, and yes, even blogging – are just me “working overtime to make sure that I don’t come unglued.”
Maybe just listening to songs like this help me keep it all together. I don’t know for sure. But music’s a lot more powerful than the individuals who draw their strength from it. I suspect I’m not the only one who has needs songs like “No Time to Cry.” I hope that some of our readers will share the songs that have helped them cope during difficult times.