“Without Music, Life Would Be A Mistake.”
Why Nietzsche knew music is cheaper than therapy…
*Originally featured in The Basement Series, a literary series sponsored by Lit Camp, an annual juried writer’s conference in the San Francisco Bay Area.
See a dog upon the road
Running hard to catch a cat
Car is pulling to a halt
Truck behind me doesn’t know
Everything is in the balance
Of a moment I can’t control
And your sympathetic strings
Are like the stirrings in my soul…
I could go at anytime
There’s nothing safe about this life.
— Anytime, Neil Finn
The first time I heard Neil Finn sing these lyrics I was standing at the kitchen counter in my family’s home on Martha’s Vineyard making dinner. I couldn’t say what day of the week it was, or what kind of food I was preparing, or whether there was light pouring in through the surrounding sliding glass doors, or thunder shaking foreboding skies. What I do remember is the chill that ran like spiders through my spine, and then a dizzying wave, the kind that awakens something primal within and forces your eyes closed, if only for a moment. Mysterium tremendum et fascinans they called it in graduate school — the existential mystery that simultaneously overwhelms, frightens, and fascinates. I had read about it, understood the concept, even felt its effects once or twice in my life, but never from music — until that moment, and it was entirely heart stopping. Who would have known?
Some years later, Neil was again singing this song to me. It was summer, like the previous time, only then I was standing at the bathroom counter in locked combat with a Corian sink. My husband, at the time, and I had just purchased a home in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Ever impatient to make the place ours, I decided I was perfectly capable of hoisting the vanity from its stand and hauling the engineered beast, which weighed more than me, out the back door, down a rickety and narrow staircase, and into the garage. It seemed like a good idea at the time, as do most things when enthusiasm, youth, and the confidence of innocence are on your side. In retrospect, I can see that it, more than any other in my life, was the moment when I realized that “anytime” was the ultimate price for life.
Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away.
— Gimme Shelter, Rolling Stones
Seventy-two hours after mastering the Corian gorilla, I was lying on my back on a table so narrow that even I, hovering beneath a hundred pounds, was teetering. The room had glistening white walls and shiny steel cabinets, and a paper screen hung in front of my chest, and a monitor was suspended from the ceiling.
“What are all those things that look like spiders,” I yelled out, slurring my words thanks to light anesthesia.
“Those are your coronary arteries,” said Dave, the kindly nurse who was standing at my head, monitoring my vitals.
“Which is the one trying to kill me?” I asked, adjusting myself to get a better look.
“Try not to move,” he said smiling, turning to someone else. Then I heard him say, “She needs more…she’s way too coherent.”
I’m not sure I ever did get “more” of whatever drug Dave was referring to, because within a matter of moments, Mick Jagger’s hallowed wail was bouncing off the operating room walls. Then came a boom. Then a figure in green appeared out of nowhere, holding his arms up by his head. Everyone in the room — the medical techs, nurses, newly minted Fellows and excitable interns — all snapped to attention. And then I heard the green man yell over Keith’s guitar solo, “Let’s rock and roll!”
Kenny was his name — well, that’s at least what the patients and staff called him, hardly the salutation of most other surgeons I knew whose need for authority was firmly planted in the use of a proper title. And Kenny was what I was instructed to call him when I came to some hours later in the ICU at Mass General Hospital. “You’ve had a heart attack,” he said, smiling incongruently to the topic at hand. “A pretty nasty and rare one actually…but I fixed you up…We don’t see your kind around here very often. Everyone’s all excited.”
Boom, swish, swish.
Boom, swish, swish.
Pound, pound, pound, pound.
Boom, swish, swish.
Boom, swish, swish.
Pound, pound, pound, pound.
The next day I was on a gurney, heading to radiology. I passed beneath a sign pointing the way to the MRI. When we got there, a few people gathered around and hustled me from the mobile bed I was laying on to the one at the mouth of the ominous beige tube. My head was pounding. Apparently a heart attack at age thirty-three, for no identifiable reason, with no risk factors or family history to speak of, wasn’t enough of a test of one’s limits; some time in the course of that morning I’d developed a raging migraine for which treatment, I was told, had to be delayed.
“We need to assess the health of your aorta and carotid artery,” said the tech, “to find out if there’s any indication that your vessels are at risk of giving out. Do you have a problem with claustrophobia?” he asked, lacking Kenny’s comedic compassion.
You’re fucking right I do, I wanted to yell. I got stuck in an elevator when I was ten, and ever since have hated confined spaces. In all honesty, the reason I didn’t scream out in protest had nothing to do with maintaining decorum. It was more that finding the words at that moment, let alone speaking them, was like a knife slicing into my scalp. I somehow managed to get out a muffled “yes.” So they gave me a pill — a sedative no doubt — and then stuffed me through the metal hole.
“Breathe in and hold it for ten seconds,” said a lulling voice from beyond. “Now turn onto your right and breathe in again.” What is this, an online yoga class? I thought. How can I uninstall this app? But again the migraine forced my silence. I moved as instructed, inhaled and exhaled on command. Direction after direction. Waiting and wondering. A minute is a lifetime when life hangs in the balance.
Fuck you, I wanted to yell again — to who or what didn’t matter. I had reached my limit, one foot over the edge, the fall into oblivion a burning desire. My patience for this situation, and frankly, for life itself, at that moment, was saturated beyond capacity. I was happy to give myself over to eternity if it made the pain in my head and the weight upon my chest go away. I closed my eyes, looking for the darkness, and instead all I could hear was sound. Boom, swish, swish. Boom, swish, swish. Pound, pound, pound, pound. Over and over. It wouldn’t stop. Was it the machine scanning my artery to find out if it, and subsequently my life, was going to irreparably tear to shreds? Was it the eternal heartbeat of life, beckoning me to come back? I couldn’t say. All I know is that I’m still here.
I want to live where soul meets body
And let the sun wrap its arms around me
And bathe my skin in water cool and cleansing…
And feel…feel what its like to be new…
— Where Soul Meets Body, Death Cab For Cutie
Death Cab For Cutie has always been one of my favorite bands — hearts and smarts, gentle yet powerful, edgy and soulful, what’s not to like. So it’s obvious that they would be among my playlists. What’s curious was that “Where Soul Meets Body” was the first song that randomly came up when I got onto the treadmill at Cardiac rehab some three months later.
Yes, I said cardiac rehab — the place that is notoriously spurned by cardiac patients as a waste of time, a “senior’s pick-up joint” I once heard it called, where balding, barrel-chested men and thick, grey-faced women, with grandchildren older than me, go to be educated about the dangers of a diet that consists largely of doughnuts, drinking, and dessert.
“Try replace’n sow’wa cream with Greek yo-git,” said the stout nurse with a hard-core Boston accent.
“Why live?” said Frank, the seventy-two year-old investment-banker-turned-part-time-fisherman on the exercise bike next to me.
In fairness, cardiac rehab was anything but a waste of time. It was utter comic relief — a Beckett play spotlighting the absurdity of human existence.
“Just because you’ve had two hip replacements, doesn’t excuse the fact that you’re only doing three miles an hour and I’m doing four and a half. Keep up or get off old man,” I once said to Grover, the eighty-two year-old who had triple bi-pass surgery and an appetite for the ladies.
“I’d give my heart ten times over if only I could get off again,” he said, smiling.
I listened obsessively to Where Soul Meets Body in the weeks and months after my heart attacks (Oh, I forgot to mention that I had a second heart attack a week after the first), especially in cardiac rehab, because it was there more than any other, where the physical and the emotional both fought and came together: fear and trepidation of doing too much, of it happening again, of never being what I once was, of becoming the shell of my former self, of enduring a life without meaning, combined with seemingly small accomplishments, like lifting a five pound weight, which I admit made my heart sing with hope.
Please, remember me…
As in the dream…
Who the hell can see forever…
— Trapeze Swinger, Iron And Wine
My heart attacks, like any other’s heart attack, like anyone who has ever had a significant challenge or loss, setback or transition, or crisis of faith, tore at the fabric of my very being: Who am I? Why am I here? What’s the point? Why should I care? Do I actually care? Who do I want to be — now?
The following October, three months into life post-HA, was my ex-in-law’s golden anniversary. “Fifty years deserves a trip to Paris,” they told us with smiles on their faces, “and we want our family to come along…on us.” An all-expense paid vacation for two weeks to the City of Light and the surrounding pastoral countryside sounded like far better medicine than the triple blood thinner regimen that had turned me into walking bruise. “We understand if it’s still too early for you to come,” they said empathically. The hell it is, I thought, and determined to talk to Kenny.
“Just don’t be stupid,” he told me, leaning against the exam room wall when I mentioned the trip. Again, he was flashing that knowing and compassionate smile. “Take it easy on the hills. Get others to lift your suitcase…”
“And enjoy the wine,” I interrupted. “I hear it’s good for your heart.”
He smirked and nodded. “You don’t have a sword of Damocles hanging over your head. Go live your life. If it happens again, which we hope and expect it won’t, come back, and I’ll fix you up…Just don’t wait three days this time before coming in.” (Mistake number two after yanking out the Corian sink.)
I boarded the plane in early October with a lightweight bag, a translated printout of my medical history, as well as the name of Kenny’s French-surgeon-friend, “just in case,” and a calm I hadn’t had for some time — in truth, ever. You see ever since I was young, as early as I can remember if truth be told, I feared the unknown, the darkness — the fact that life here on earth has a shelf life with no identifiable date, but that beyond that is anyone’s guess. The idea of death was anathema to me, and yet the idea of forever too much to conceive.
I buckled into my seat, took out a piece of Juicy Fruit gum, as is my flying tradition, and tried to forget the fact that eight years prior, my brother-in-law died tragically on a commercial airlines flight. And for the first time it was easy to do. I watched out the tiny oval window as a man waved his arms to guide us backwards. I sighed loudly when we turned and stopped and waited for those ahead of us to take flight. And when the engines roared and the cabin shook and we motioned forward, first slumbering, then accelerating, and finally lifting off, I closed my eyes knowing that “I could go at anytime”; and that even in the midst of sun and warmth, a “storm is always threatening my life”; that the “boom and swish and pound” we all will experience at some point, if only metaphorically, is nothing more than the rhythm of life that simultaneously keeps us awake and alert, yet also lulls us into existence; and that “body and soul” work to reveal each other, and go hand in hand, like inseparable lovers, or perhaps even like adversaries who need each other, and sustain each other, when one is injured.
When we reached 30,000 feet, and the seatbelt sign went off, and I realized that the ascent wasn’t going to cause my heart to blow open again, I turned my iPod to another favorite artist, one whose lyrics never fail to capture the beating heart of life, the colorful panoply of human experience, and whose sound both slays and stimulates with every note. “Please…remember me…” sang Sam Beam of Iron And Wine, “happily…fondly…at Halloween…mistakenly…as in the dream…with misery…seldomly…finally…who the hell can see forever…” Who the hell would want to? I thought, sipping the wine Kenny agreed I could enjoy. It only would kill the dream.
The spectrum of things that that lifts us up, soothes our soul, offers a balm, provides meaning, and calls us into existence is infinite. But as Nietzsche said, “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
Michele is a writer, ethicist, and therapist. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Daily News, The Ascent, and The Basement Series publications, Partners HealthCare journal, Living Well magazine, and Be Well and Life Without Baby blogs. Her non-fiction books include Stirred Not Shaken and Spirit Wellness. Her upcoming novel, The Unfaced, won the 2015 Mystery Writers of America’s Helen McCloy Award for Mystery Writing. She’s lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. She is represented by Kimberley Cameron.
You can find me at micheledemarco.com, and reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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