I have a dear friend (we’ll call him Nathan). Though I haven’t seen him in years, we keep in touch as much as life’s seeming entropy permits. I met Nathan in college when I began voice lessons and needed an accompanist. As proved typical for me, I simply looked for the most dashing, accomplished pianist available to join me in practicing my Italian arias and favorites from Phantom. Though young, Nathan was a great musician, and though our personalities couldn’t be more opposite, I held a great amount of respect for him.
One day, a curious thing happened. I was driving on my way to school after grabbing coffee when I saw Nathan walking down the road about a mile out. I was already nearly late to class, so I rolled down my window and offered him a ride. When I became close enough to see his face, I understood immediately that Nathan would not be joining us in World History that day. We awkwardly mumbled something to each other, he declined the ride, and I reluctantly kept going. When I arrived in class, I discreetly explained to the professor that though I was unsure of the cause, something was very wrong with Nathan, and he would be absent for the day.
As time passed, Nathan and I became inseparable. As I was a couple years his senior and lived off campus, it became the unsaid ritual that after choir, we’d grab food. After ensemble, I’d kidnap him to Starbucks so he could tease me as I refused to budge until I had studied for my philosophy class for no less than 4-6 hours at a time. He tried to help me in music theory, and I tried to help him gain confidence in singing. Although like many pianists, he had a lovely but timid singing voice, I really never heard it until recently – some five years after meeting him.
A year or so into our friendship, Nathan transferred to a college back home. I was devastated, as I had lost my best pal. Who was I going to call for a long drive to do nothing but sit in silence and listen to Radiohead’s Videotape over and over when it felt like my existential world of faith was caving in? Who was going to teach me the rest of the Mendelssohn piece (by ear, mind you, as I refused to read the sheet music at the time)? Who was going to roll his eyes at me when I showed off in the ear training portion of collegiate, or play Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu for me as only he could? I didn’t know. I eventually made new friends, but the uniting factor that brought us together was a bond so strong it was never replaced, and has never faded. The type of bond that although we haven’t seen each other in four years, he remains available for my call anytime, day or night, and I for his. That bond is the blinding desolation of loss, and the dogged, unyielding courage of resilience.
When Nathan tragically lost one of his best friends the day I found him slowly trodding down the side of the road, I somehow knew. Though up to that point, I’d only lost a few people in my life, I was no stranger to loss of the purest kind. As Nathan and I grew closer, we grew to develop a stronger empathy for one another – many demons that plagued him also plagued me, and sadly, the young friend Nathan lost that day was not the first, and would not be the last. Although the friend I lost to cancer at age 18 was nothing short of heartbreaking, it could not prepare me for the following loss of my gran, my father, and a dear friend taken far too young just last summer.
I have never written about that friend publicly, but as he was loved by so many, it was a terrible loss. I had shared many a silly, procrastinating evening listening intently to his outlandish stories in college, and have been affected in so many positive ways by his compassionate charisma. When I got the news, I knew outside of his family and immediately local friends, telling Nathan would prove the toughest, as it seems he is cruelly losing a loved one every time I turn around. I believe it is because of this, however, that we have remained the strongest of allies. There is no more universal plight than death, and a multitude of historical events simply show that trial, grief and hopeful resilience simply bring people together.
A couple of weeks ago, Nathan sent me his cover of a Say Something (A Great Big World feat. Christina Aguilera) with little explanation other than “Listen to this if you will – you can’t imagine the day I’ve had, and I’m sorry my voice is frail but this holds a lot of personal significance to me.” I received the email mid-lessons, and only remembered to put it on right before pulling into my apartment for the night. I figured I would hear a few moments, and then replay it later on when settled. However, for whatever reason, from the split second I heard the first four solo notes in complete isolation, I knew this was going to be a tough listen. As the song opened and the words “Say something, I’m giving up on you” fell from his mouth, my heart jumped to my throat. Nathan was currently going through a loss of the worst kind, and I knew immediately the type of “day” he had been referring to.
As the song played on, it fastly became one of those pieces you never forget the first time hearing. It was also the first time I’d truly heard Nathan sing, and it was beautiful, captivating, and utterly devastating. Surrounded by the common and simple vi IV I V progression, his voice radiated of pain and brokenness, but also of survival – he had recorded it, after all. After sitting stunned for what felt like ages, I went inside, dropped my books on the floor, immediately pulled up the lyrics for the song, played, recorded and sent the first portion of the song back to him.
Though the song was poignant and evocative then, it passed into vague memory until quite recently. I lost something myself, this time, that left me feeling like nothing more than a bewildered little girl hiding under the bed. As I wandered aimlessly around my apartment that evening, I remember the song Nathan had sent me, and the words came rushing back in my head like a merciless yet somehow relieving migraine. I made myself a cup of coffee to brave the chill of three in the morning out on my balcony, put my headphones on, and watched the video to Say Something for the first time. Maybe the most surprising thing was not even the almost at once literal depiction of the little girl hiding under the bed (a harsh but tender parallel indeed) but that the song depicted more than one type of loss. The two lovers, the scared, sad child, and the elderly man mourning his fading wife on her deathbed. I do not know what it is about such a simple song – maybe the slight, fleetingly frozen dissonance in the V chord, or maybe the emotion with which it is performed, but that song somehow brought to life everything that I could not.
I’ve since spoken to various people about the song’s effect, and have heard only the most positive things. “My boyfriend and I split this morning, and this song just helps me feel.” “I’m moving to a new city by myself, leaving all my friends behind, and I can’t stop listening to it.” “My dog died recently, and I know it’s silly, but it’s so pretty that it soothes me.” I also caught the video that recently went viral of the young boy moved to tears by the pop ballad. Though the dad was wise enough to request the ‘thumbs up’ to confirm the little guy was okay, 4-year-old Jackson was clearly and utterly moved by the music, as assuredly so many others around the globe have been. Does the young child have the capacity to intuitively understand what’s going on in the song or in his brain to evoke such elicit feelings of sadness? I don’t know. What I do know, is when the father provided the option to change the song, Jackson objected – he wanted to hear it.
Why is it that circumstances of loss and turmoil unite us so? Why is Banksy’s girl with the red balloon (always just out of reach) a personal favorite of thousands? Why was Adele’s Someone Like You a global affective phenomenon? Why was I glued to my phone and laptop nearly every moment of the Egyptian revolution a couple years ago? Why it is that Nathan and I always know exactly what to say to each other (which is often little more than solidarity’s knowing silence) when something dreadful happens? And above all, why does it so frequently involve or resort to music? Can music truly heal? I know it can, because I am a living attestation.
To speak plainly, sometimes the events of our lives can leave us feeling shattered in tiny pieces, strewn so haphazardly across the floor that Heaven only knows how or when we’ll find the strength to put them back together. Unfortunately, all the psychiatric drugs, diversions of the city, yoga classes and mindfulness apps in the world remain unable to glue us back together all at once. No, the process of feeling whole again can sometimes seem long, arduous and even hopeless. But if we make a little progress as often as we are able, slowly those little shards of who we are will begin to soften back into place, and the stiff and aching joints of defeat will begin to piece back together in a strengthened empathy and love. I am convinced now more than ever that music can be one of the most compassionate and brutal yet tender healers. I am overwhelmed with learning more of how this may be possible, and I intend to continue reporting my findings along the way.
Though we may always be able to see those little lines of glue reminding us of the time we nearly fell apart, healing is possible, and there is hope to be found.