There was a moment of panic on my part when I realized the guitar I had there in Tennesee was the Miller, the low-action acoustic guitar Bart had given me years ago, and not the Ovation. Not that there was anything wrong with the Miller. The main problem was the case didn’t have the same compartments in it, and in particular it didn’t have the book of staff paper nor my usual song notebook in it…
That came close to derailing me, right there.
But Ziggy had a notebook we could use, and he pointed out that it wasn’t like I was going to write out a symphony on the spot. Tab and jottings of melody were going to have to be good enough. We didn’t have any way to record anything right then. I had a vague notion that me or Court could go find a Radio Shack tomorrow and at least pick up a cassette recorder. Heck, maybe Remo had one in his luggage…
I couldn’t let worrying about that stop us. Ziggy kept me on track, too, making me articulate the song concept and then tossing melody and word combinations back and forth with me until it started to gel. With both of us singing, I quickly found a harmony to slide into his melody as the chorus came into being.
I threw away a lot of verses and lines for verses, because the song kept trying to turn into a criticism of the Church. Which is weird, since the song was supposed to be about my mom dying, but the imagery coming from Candlelight and carrying through kept making me wish there actually was a Church that was as good and holy and perfect as the one I tried to believe in as a child. A place where love and forgiveness were actually practiced, instead of just being another pillar of oppressive power, perpetuating itself with beliefs like, for example, “queers deserve to die.”
If I squinted in just the right light I could see how my brain used to hold thoughts like that off to one side, but keeping them out of the main part of my mind took energy, it took work, and maybe some of my self-preservation instinct was damaged by having to do that all the time. The thing that made it easier to wall it off now was the energy that came from that day in Manhattan when we’d gone to the Pride march. Hundreds of thousands of people falling silent and then filling that silence with a living, breathing roar of affirmation… I was still carrying around the strength it gave me, beating right inside my ribcage.
That was the living spirit of love and nonviolence I thought we should build churches to.
But that wasn’t what this song was about. Focus, Daron.
Time stops when you get into a zone like we did. You go into a kind of bubble, where the only thing you can see is the next bit that needs to be worked on, and the next, and the next, and you don’t have a sense of being hungry or tired or anything. We did remember to hydrate because singing makes your throat dry, but I didn’t have any sense at all of how much time was passing.
It felt good. “Is four verses enough?” I asked Ziggy at one point. We were sitting on the squared-off couch, and my fingertips were on fire but I didn’t care. Everything else felt so good I could ignore the pain in my fingers. Thank goodness I’d done what little building up of calluses that I had, or it might have been physically impossible to hang in there like I did.
“Four verses is plenty,” Ziggy said, “but this is only three.”
“I know, but I think it’ll take one more to round off the idea.” I jotted with a pencil on the notebook in front of me on the coffee table.
“What it really needs to elevate it, though, is a bridge.” Ziggy yawned suddenly. “By which I mean a vocal bridge and not just an instrumental one.”
“Yeah.” I could feel it, like a shape was forming in my mind–in my chest, really–that I needed to sketch for him, not on paper with the pencil, but in the air with musical notes. We’d settled on A minor as the key for the song, and I felt like the bridge needed all the suspended notes the chords could carry. Which sounds odd, I know, but if a bridge is going to do its job, its there to open up the song, to expand the palette and give it another dimension.
I switched from strumming to Travis-picking, which only made it very obvious to me how out of practice I was, but I tried to ignore that by telling myself that could get better with time. The song itself on the other hand couldn’t be fixed or improved until it existed, so we had to get something down, even if it wasn’t all genius.
He started to hum as I picked through a progression but I stopped him with my pick hand, gesturing him to hold back. It took me a little noodling around to get it sketched out, and I added a couple of la-la-las to give an idea where I thought the lyrical cadence belonged, even though I didn’t have any actual words for that part yet. “Something like that?”
“Yeah, good,” he said. “Let’s do the verses and then this and see where it leads.”
Every run through it seemed more like a song, more like reality, and less like an abstract concept. The final verse loomed, but it was kind of like now that we’d firmed up ideas of everything leading to it, the final verse was inevitable, just a matter of time. Time, that thing that had ceased to exist, at least until the phone rang at three in the morning.
If your first thought when it rang was “oh shit” then you are on my wavelength. I immediately panicked that I wasn’t there at the hospital where I was supposed to be. Ziggy answered the phone and made grave-sounding noises. And the next thing I knew we were grabbing our jackets–to put on inside the over-airconditioned hospital–and hurrying out.
I drove, because I always drove, but my hands were shaking and we didn’t get two blocks before Ziggy made me swap places with him. Then he drove, and I made myself drink a bottle of water. “I’m really all right,” I felt the need to say.
“I’m sure you are,” he said soothingly. “But you’ve been taxing your hands so why don’t you let them rest.”
I had the sound of the song in my ears, in my head. “It’s been so long since we did that.”
“Wrote a song together?”
“I still have the tapes, you know, that we made in my living room.” He let out a breath. “I’m so glad I didn’t hand them over to Jordan. I almost did, at one point.”
“You could have dubbed them and given him a copy,” I pointed out.
“Whatever. He was trying so hard to play matchmaker for us, you know?”
“In hindsight, I see that.”
“This song is as much for him as it is your mother.” He pulled us off the highway toward the hospital.
“Who better not have died while I was working on her song,” I said folding my hands like maybe I was praying just a little bit. “Dear god, let her not have been alone.”
“Court was there the whole time,” Ziggy reminded me. “Remo came back to the hotel and could hear us and told her what was up.”
I still felt a pang of guilt, though, that I was supposed to be the one with Claire overnight, and I had shirked my duty, even if it was to do something that she had asked for. That kind of dilemma was the sort of thing Claire used to engineer all the time for me when I was a kid. This time I didn’t think there was any intention behind it, but the feeling that I’d let her down was all too familiar.
“She was still alive a few minutes ago,” Ziggy reminded me.
But not responsive, according to Court. Ziggy pulled us into the parking lot and sensibly parked us close to the entrance. I tried not to run, but my heart beat as hard as if I had.
Court met us at the door to the room. Remo arrived a few minutes after us. No one spoke much, and we settled in to wait for any change in Claire’s condition.
There was none by morning, and the feelings of panic we’d had abated because they just couldn’t be sustained. Court called our other sisters in the morning, and they each came by for a visit that day, but Claire slept through both. She would occasionally sigh or make a slight moaning sound or say a few words like someone talking in their sleep, but she didn’t open her eyes or speak to us.
“If it’s her pancreas that has the cancer,” Lilibeth asked at one point when a nurse came to check on her, “then why’s she out like this?”
The nurse barely gave Lilibeth a glance when she answered, “The rest of her’s been fighting the cancer so long, something’s gotta give out.”
“I guess,” Lilibeth grudgingly agreed. “I just want to be sure you’re not drugging her into a stupor or something.”
“Give it a rest, Lili,” Court told her, and that shut her up.
It was at some point that day, when I was alone with Claire, that I held her hand and told her. “You know, Ziggy and I worked on your song last night. That’s why I wasn’t here like usual. The song is really good. It’s… really really good.”
I got a sigh out of her with that. So maybe she was hearing me.
By that night the urgency of the vigil had faded a little, and Ziggy and I were in her room around midnight, when Ziggy said, “We should sing her a little of it, you know? It’ll help us keep it fresh in our minds.”
“Yeah.” I closed the door so we wouldn’t wake anyone, or so I hoped.
We stood on either side of her bed, each holding one of her hands, and stumbled through the first couple of verses and the chorus, trailing off when we got to the yet-to-be finished bridge. I had a sense of the areas to be filled in, and as we fell silent, my mind wandered into imagining what it would be like when the song was whole.
Claire seemed to mutter something. Ziggy bent down. “Claire, are you trying to tell us something?”
The answer was another sigh and what might have been a repeat of what she’d said.
“Did she say ‘it worked’? Or am I being too optimistic?” I asked him.
“It sounded kind of like ‘it worked’ to me, too.” His cheeks flushed and he looked away.
I took that to mean that if Claire had any consciousness left at all, that she approved. Maybe it was grasping at straws, but hey, I’d take it.