Posts Tagged ‘grief’

By Colleen

[Read Part 5 here]

The frantic gallop of Steven’s guitar.  The soft and gentle pull of bows against strings.

These are the sounds of an invisible curtain that lifts to reveal The Airborne Toxic Event, performing tonight in these stunning ruins.

The lights illuminate the stage to a cool glow that shines on sober, downcast faces.  Anna clutches her shining viola at her side, waiting for the moment at which to wake it.  To her far left is Noah supporting an upright bass, his brow lowered and serious.  Beside him is Steven, launching us out of the gate with the precise gallop of his guitar.  In the back and center, Daren waits patiently for his moment to strike the drums, and we are waiting with him as one might wait for a pulse.  And behind them all is a force waiting to be unleashed – a seemingly endless sea of faces with instruments, eyes fixated on the conductor, the master of this musical tempest.

With his back turned to us, Mikel is at the center of this tempest, and we wait with bated breath to see what is to become of us.  Of them.  Of this moment we have been reaching for, dreaming of, and clinging to like the guardrail in front of us.

This is the uphill climb of the rollercoaster.  This is the beginning of a two-hour ride through a man’s struggles, heartbreaks, reflections, and triumphs.  All we can do is hold our breath and hold on when he suddenly turns around to sing.

“We were born without time

Nameless in the arms

Of a mother, a father, and God.”

I find myself invisible.  Transparent.  Though I can feel the presence of a thousand bodies, I can no longer feel my own.  His empty gaze at the audience is a reflection of my own emptiness, in that I have lost myself in the music.  The beautiful crashes of drums and the flashes of light from violins have emptied the contents of my figurative soul.

They are spread unseen before my eyes.  Images.  Memories.  The sounds of my past.  They light up the sparkling night sky above the stage, and I remember everything.

All at once.

The struggle to survive.  To go on.  To live.

The heartbreak of losing what you thought you could never lose and yet somehow go on living.

The reflection of the time that has passed and the persons you once were.

And the triumph of having made it this far.

These are not just his struggles, heartbreaks, reflections, and triumphs.  They are ours.  They are mine.

And tonight, we celebrate them all.

We start with “Gasoline.”

This tongue-in-cheek ride leads into smiles and screaming the lyrics at every sudden drop of Daren’s beat.  Noah’s bass line dissolves our hearts into that heady mix of adolescent hope and angst, then Steven lights a match with his guitar and sets us ablaze.  Anna turns her viola into a siren of rock and roll, and even Mikel’s sedated seriousness melts into a smile of disbelief of something only he knows.  But perhaps we are all thinking the same thing: that this is more fun than we could have possibly imagined.

And then he throws us down a “Wishing Well.”

We have all been there before.  We have all been the coin, and we have all cast our hearts into a fountain of hope with waters we can only dream of reaching our parched lips.  It is quite possibly this song that connects us the most, and what connects Airborne fans in general.  We have sat in that dark corner, fearing that This is All There Is.  Afraid we may never come out.  That the sun will never shine again, and if that happens, we will surely wither away to nothing.  But we haven’t given up hope just yet, and we cast that hope into a well.  And tonight, it feels as though our dreams may come true after all.

But not before we all experience a “Changing.”

Lighthearted foot-stomping, eager clapping, and cheerful cries of “I am a gentleman” ensue when Mikel turns the mic on us.  They are the hosts, and we are the life of the party.  This atmosphere easily transitions into “Happiness is Overrated,” the most tongue-in-cheek of them all.  “I’m sorry, I really lost my head.”  We all have, Mikel.

The ride picks up speed with “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”  Mikel abandons the Gretsch for a roving mic and an energetic romp into the audience.  We are delightedly laughing and singing with him like children.  This energy bleeds into “Something New,” where Mikel carries his roving mic and daredevil skills to climb the scaffolding that flanks the stage, singing above our heads.  The rest of the band takes advantage of his absence onstage and each has a turn in the spotlight.  Steven demonstrates his impressive, precise talent.  Noah just seems to want to make the women swoon and the men jealous.  Anna enchants with her delicate, ethereal voice.  And Daren is ever faithfully keeping them all in time with the beat.

They change the pace with “Safe,” and I start to regain a kind of self-aware consciousness.

“It was early for a summer . . . “

The piano has us hooked, as if we’re watching a story unfold.  The strings paint the skies with their earnest beauty, and the drums beat in time with our hearts.

I can feel a return of awareness, of who I am and why I’m there.  There is no rhyme or reason for this.  It is simply the power of the music.

But it is this music that begins to transform the landscape in a way I had not anticipated.  The wilderness of these ruins begins to twinkle, as if the trees are blooming with stars.  The carved faces of the mountainside begin to glisten, and if I look closely, I can see the lyrics flashing like patterns of sparkles in granite.

I quickly glance over a few faces in the crowd.  No one seems to notice the magic taking place around them.  Their eyes are fixed onstage, as they should be.  But I am equally mesmerized with the surroundings as I am the music that is living in front of my eyes.

They begin to play “All For a Woman,” and I am temporarily distracted with memories that are not mine.  No matter how much time has passed, or how far away from that mystical place that is my imagination, this song will always remind me of writing my first book.  Seeing them perform it here, and watching as he sings the words that call to mind such yearning, causes tiny flashes of “Where AM I?” to occur.  Because surely this must be a dream of mine, just another product of my imagination.  Surely this isn’t real.

Then the yearning changes to that of another kind as violins sing the opening of “A Letter to Georgia.”  The piano pulls out sutures with every note, and Anna’s viola tugs at heartstrings, so that my heart is rendered completely open, fragile, and exposed.  I am powerless to stop the shameless weeping that occurs.

“Your face reflected in the glass

The lines on the pavement go past

Just like the lines around your eyes

That held the weight of all these sad goodbyes.”

This ride has suddenly descended into our deepest, darkest fears.  He is guiding us there with “Innocence,” and I am skeptically wondering if I am going to come out of this without completely losing it altogether.  But this song is gorgeously arrayed with the gems of the orchestra.  In a similar way, the lights in the trees around the stage are twinkling in time with the music, and a warm glow shines on the surface of the rock formations left when a tidal wave ripped through this land.

Something incredible is taking place here.

The song builds into an uphill climb once again.  We are clapping along with the beat, like warriors in a song of victory.  We are all fighting the same enemy, and we will all lose one day.  Yet still we go on fighting.

This ride takes a dark and passionate turn with “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.”  It is a wake-up call.  It is my wake-up call since those early days before I knew the name, when it was just an alarm on a cell phone every morning.  Now it is a living, breathing monster of a song that we taunt with chants and screams and then slay.

“Arm your fears like soldiers, and slay them.”

“All I Ever Wanted” trickles through the air like a soothing rain.  But we know this is a storm.  Flashes of light are conjured with strings, cast down from the clouds of words like “Your eyes all wet, your face so warm and inviting” and “Love is defying.”

We are breathless and taken.  I wonder if there is an end to this, or if they will just continue to play all through the night.  Maybe forever.  I could certainly live in this kind of euphoria for as long as there is a sun and a moon in the sky.

Then they introduce the belle of the ball.  The beautifully adorned, tragically lovely “Sometime Around Midnight.”

That familiar melancholy now sounds like a beautiful nightmare.

“Listen to him!” I had said two years ago.  “This is AWFUL!”

And now we are right there with him, watching this madness of a legend unfold.  The One That Got Away.  Such a familiar theme in art of many forms, but never more gloriously displayed than in this song.

I remember this song reaching past the broken and twisted barriers of a heart so broken it seemed unreachable.

I remember running to the music festival, this song in my ears and carrying my footsteps.

I remember running to this song when I finished my first 5k.

And I remember the lessons I learned from an artist’s amusing mistakes when he tried to play this song on New Year’s Eve.

But he remembers something else.

“You just have to see her

You know that she’ll break you in two.”

We have all been there, in one way or another.  Whether it’s a breakup at a bar or the death of our first child, we all are going mad from a kind of unrequited love.

I have fully regained consciousness now.  I am standing in the front row, no longer transparent.  I am fully present, fully aware of who I am and what I’ve lost.  I’m so distracted with my own tragedies that I fail to remember I share them with others.

The lights in the trees suddenly go out.  The charming lamp posts that line the perimeter of the crowd have mysteriously gone dark.

When the stage falls silent, I panic.

Have I cast a spell on this event with my own descent into darkness?

Have I ruined everything?

Then a pale light shines on Mikel as Steven and Noah lead us into “Timeless,” and I sigh with relief.

Timeless.

I remember you, too.

You were like a validation of everything.  You were a declaration, a protest, an acceptance, and a truth.  You were a secret I would cry over in the car, or collapse to in the middle of a run, or whisper in a moment of panic: “Everything we have, we have everything.”

Now, you are the climax to a story.

As the realization that this is truly the end nears, I am fully present.  All of my past images and memories have been carefully returned.  I am Colleen, the girl with the bird emblazoned on her face.  And just like the bird, I am wounded, too.  Now you know why.

I just had this broken heart, and they were just a band.

On the surface, I am nothing but a common fangirl.  Some might call me a fanatic.  I don’t try to dispute these labels anymore.  And when I turn around, I know why.

That you have come here shows your compassion and bravery, whether you are a fan of The Airborne Toxic Event or not.  These ruins are not easy to view.  Ruins never are, whether they are written in prose or in song.  They are ugly, distorted, twisted renderings of destroyed dreams and painful tragedies.

But your presence here makes them beautiful.  And whether you are here for me or The Airborne Toxic Event doesn’t matter, because we all share these tragedies.  You, me, and them – we are all fighting.  Some of us are barely surviving.  And some of us are trying to write them all down to make sense of them, so that maybe we won’t feel so alone anymore.

I remember a statement Mikel once made a long time ago.  Perhaps it was on Twitter in a question-and-answer session with fans, or something I read in an article.  In any case, I can’t remember the exact quote.  What I do remember is that he had expressed his wish that he could play these songs “on the moon” with an orchestra.  I remember this statement being amusing to me, and then thinking “I wish I could see that show.”

What he perhaps doesn’t realize is that he doesn’t have to play on the moon.  He plays in the hearts of people every day, and some of these hearts are just as desolate and barren as the moon itself – isolated and impossible to reach.  But somehow he still does, the power of music transcending all physical, mental, and emotional barriers.  If his goal was to connect with one person, I’m so glad it was me.

But not just me, as evidenced by the faces in the audience here tonight and elsewhere other nights.  We are all like wounded birds, desperate to fly.  He is not alone, and neither are we.  We have all been “tied in tethers” by the power of this music.

As the bridge of “Timeless” plays on, suddenly I remember the reason I am even here.

It has nothing to do with the band, but with the man who first introduced me to the band.  The man who has stood behind me this whole time in so many ways, and has lifted me up every time I would fall.

In his kind and loving eyes, I know the meaning of this song.

We are timeless.

Everything we have, we have everything.

You are the only thing that makes me feel like I could live forever with you.

Not even death could tear us apart.

In this beautiful and touching reminder comes a sudden change our surroundings.

The lights begin to twinkle again.  The landscape begins to glow.  These ruins truly become stunning, but it’s not my doing.  It’s the people in them that make them shine.  And it’s the unfinished journey that adorns them with hope.

At the swell of the song, the sky erupts with flashing lights and colors.  The booms and flashes of fireworks help finish the last song, and the band appears just as surprised as you.  But we are all enchanted and amazed.  This is the grand finale of a celebration of life and death and everything in between.

This is what sets this show apart from one on the moon, and from every other show there ever was.

Now it is over.  We must return to our regularly scheduled lives.  And they have other shows to play and other hearts to play in, no matter how much I wish they could stay.

One by one, the band disappears backstage as we cheer and cry and whistle and scream.

But Mikel jumps down from the stage, right in front of where I stand.

I don’t have time to think or move or breathe.  He wraps his arms around me and holds my head against his chest for a moment.  Then he kisses my hair.

“That’s for you,” he says.

When he lets me go, he has already started tying something around my wrist.

But I’m not watching.  I’m looking straight into his eyes, because I want to see.  I want to see what is behind them.  He is every bit a mystery to me as an artist should be, and yet it feels like I know him as well as a close friend.  And even though I am just a blip on his radar, I wonder if I’m not the only one who saw these ruins light up and the memories flash and play as they performed here tonight, for it feels as though he knows me, too.

What I see is what I’ve always thought all along, but perhaps had forgotten.  Beneath his rock star exterior, he is human.  Just like me, just like you, just like everyone else here.  And we all share the same struggles, heartbreaks, reflections, and triumphs.  We are all wounded birds.  And we are all timeless.

We were born without time

Nameless in the arms

Of a mother, a father, and God.

I blink once.  Twice.

By the third time, he is gone.

Everyone has left.

And I am standing in an empty venue as the sun begins with rise, leaving me to wonder if this has all been just a dream of mine.

Then I look down at my wrist, at the humble, black thick string tied around it – and I remember everything.

The music whispers in the early morning mist.  It echoes in the steep canyons.  It sings softly between the trees.

I take a deep breath and close my eyes.

I don’t know what will happen next.  This is hardly the end of my story.  It is merely a chapter, but it is one that I had the courage to write.  I decided to make it happen, no matter what stood in my way.  I am not ashamed of who I am anymore.  You, the band, the music – you all have left something beautiful for the person I am now and the person I have yet to become.  But no matter who I am –  fangirl, fanatic, bereaved mother, wounded bird – I am more the phoenix than the ashes, and if I am a phoenix, then I can fly.

And that is when I know what it feels like to be truly airborne.

 


When she’s not front row at a TATE show with a bird emblazoned on her face, Colleen can be found blogging regularly at These Stunning Ruins, where this post originally appeared. She and her husband have also been known to occasionally lay down a wicked Airborne cover.

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By Colleen

[Read Part 4 here…]

“Hello, darling.”

I had been waiting patiently beside him, though I initially found myself there on accident. Pressed into a crowd of a hundred eager faces, I was just another fan awaiting my turn. Only this time, the music pulsated from the speakers. Onstage, Steven Chen – Airborne’s lead guitarist – was DJing the party. At the outskirts of the fan crowd, a few people had begun to dance. Still more were returning with posters and T-shirts to the masses near the stage where Mikel Jollett stood, graciously signing autographs, smiling in pictures, and hugging pretty, giggling girls. Someone even handed him their boot. He looked at them as if to say, “Really?”

This wasn’t a dream. This was the first early morning of 2013 at a Chicago venue after an especially heartstopping, intimate, and lengthy show. It had been nearly six months since I had seen them the first time during my throw-of-the-dice daring jailbreak. Things were different now. As a band, they were more relaxed, appearing to have enjoyed themselves just as much as their audience. This was their party, after all, and it seemed they weren’t about to let us have fun without them.

As a result, there were mistakes made. Mikel had to restart “Sometime Around Midnight” at least three times. I was standing to his right, resting my hands on the stage, wondering what it must be like to be in his shoes. The singer. The songwriter. The front man. The rock star, with the song everyone is aching to hear, the song that everyone loves, the one we all identify with. And he couldn’t make it sing.

I’m not a musician, so I don’t pretend to have understood the logistics of what happened. Was the guitar out of tune? In the wrong key? The distortion incorrect? In any case, he hid frustration behind good-natured jokes in an attempt to set us at ease.

But things were different now. I was different. It had been three months since I received the letter from him. Three months of these ruins being open, of Colleen Without Bars. Three months of letting people in, or letting myself out – as I now was in Chicago. Three months of facing and slaying fears. And three months of taking on the feelings and situations of others – making friends and fighting off negative feedback, both from the outside and within. I was in the middle of a battle that early morning in January, of claiming myself and my life as worth living.

That night, however, I just wanted to be the fangirl. I had no past. No heartbreaking tragedies. At an Airborne concert, I leave them at the door, and I and the music are one. There is no yesterday, no tomorrow. Just now.

I was also feeling very tongue-in-cheek that night.

“I believe in you, Mikel,” I said genuinely, but wearing a teasing smile.

Perhaps it was presumptuous or prosaic. But he seemed to think it was funny, stopping from tuning the Gretsch to point at me and laugh.

At the next attempt, he nailed it. The crowd cheered, everything having been set right again.

But the time between failures and success felt like hours. People were getting impatient. The instant it failed the first time, the pressure began to build at an alarming rate. When you fall, most people don’t offer to pick you up. They stand there impatiently, wondering when you’re going to get up off the ground. They want you to succeed, but they’re not willing or able to offer the help you need. And when you keep falling, time and time again, they think something is wrong with you. They’re quick to pass judgment, to think “Well, obviously, he’s not good enough,” and some will even brand you a failure.

However, there are a few brave people who both witness your failures and share in your success. These are the people you want in your corner, offering a helping hand, no matter what obstacle is tripping you up.

In those three months, I had begun collecting those people, and I aspired to be one myself. After months of relative isolation, of hiding behind my grief in a desperate attempt to protect myself, I was ready to embrace this new person I had become. I could do this forever, I thought. I could just be Someone’s Fan. A fangirl.

But transition is often slow-going and riddled with failures itself. I was – and still am – painfully shy and withdrawn in crowds. So when it became apparent I would not have to approach Mikel Jollett at all this time – that I would eventually be pushed into his personal space by an eager crowd – I decided to go with the flow.

Standing beside him for a few moments, I had a rare opportunity to observe the way he treated each fan. I also took a proverbial step back to observe the way each fan treated him. I realized we are a demanding, grabby sort. We want to be recognized. We yearn for a moment, a memory. We all want our piece. Most of us are polite. Some of us could stand to improve. But we all seem to forget, at least temporarily, there is a human beneath the rock star exterior.

He looked tired. Physically spent. Maybe even exhausted. But he was never disconnected. He was gracious and obliging to every demand – every picture, every autograph, every request for a kiss. He would lean down to lend an ear for every fan with something that needed to be said above the pulsating music Steven was churning out behind us.

By the time he finally turned to me, I was nearly ready to make my escape. I realized I had my picture. I had his autograph. I even had a kiss. And I had told him everything I wanted to say, everything that needed to be said.

But there it was.

“Hello, darling.”

And I was not immune.

I managed to squeak out a “hi” and held out my phone to snap a picture. I gave him a hug. And then I walked away.

This time, the crowd parted for me like the Red Sea. Get out of here, fangirl. Your turn is over. It’s our turn now. You don’t belong here anymore.

As I left the building, the reality of who I was and Who I Am came rushing back. With every mile I drove home, the horizon of my ruins grew closer.

Get out of here, fangirl.

You don’t belong here anymore.

There was no place for her in these ruins. Here, she seemed like a silly apparition at best, an annoying reminder at worst. Suddenly, these victories I thought I had just seemed like petty attempts at happiness, little respites now and then from a wasteland. I had tried to return with some renewed sense of zeal for myself, but it was short-lived once the reality of my situation was staring me in the face.

This fangirl business. This was never what I wanted.

This was never who I thought I’d be.

I was going to be a mom. That was all I ever wanted. That’s who I wanted to be. Not the swooning but painfully shy girl in the front row at a concert.

If someone had told me, “A few years from now, you’re going to go ga-ga over some indie rock band. You’re going to follow them around the country. You’re going to annoy your friends with how much you talk about them. You’re going to meet the lead singer, and you’re going to make a fool out of yourself,” I wouldn’t believe it. I would have said, “You’re confusing me with someone else. I’ll be too busy raising kids to follow a band.”

Yet, here I was.

And I hated myself. I hated the person I had become. I hated what had happened to me, the consequences of what was beyond my control.

Get out of here, fangirl.

You don’t belong here anymore.

You never belonged here to begin with.

In the middle of a breakdown one night, I voiced these things to Hubby.

Tearfully, I told him my hatred of who I had become. “People just think I’m crazy,” I said. “They think all I care about is some stupid band. But that’s not who I am! It’s not what I want! I don’t CARE. I’m standing there in Chicago, waiting outside for two hours in 20 degrees, and I’m wondering what I’m doing there. Then someone behind me starts talking about their kids. They left them at home to see a SHOW. They LEFT them! THEY LEFT THEIR KIDS. TO SEE A BAND!”

I’m crying the words now, the person I am at heart wrenching herself out of the fangirl, as if I’m trying to scream myself awake.

“I DON’T CARE ABOUT A BAND!” I screamed at him. “I JUST WANT TO SEE MY KIDS! I WANT TO BE A MOM!”

I collapsed to the floor, an angry, sobbing, pathetic mess.

But I was still falling, having failed so severely it seemed there was no recovery. I was mortally wounded, bleeding internally from a broken heart of the worst kind. And it seemed that everyone was waiting for me to get up, to move on. People were holding their breath for me, and I was letting them down. They started to get impatient. The pressure was building. But no one was offering to help. In a moment, they would write me off. And in a moment, I would too. I was a failure, not just as a fangirl, but a human being. I was failing not just at living, but at life.

These ruins were anything but stunning. They were cold and desolate ash. I had hit the very bottom of whatever abyss I was falling into. There was no tree, no last-ditch rescue. There was only darkness now.

I felt Hubby’s helping hands reach down to pick me up gently, like a little bird.

“I know who you are,” he said softly. “I don’t think you’re crazy. I know what you want. I want it, too.”

He held me even as I continued to cry. “I know,” he repeated tenderly, “I know.”

“I can’t go on like this,” I told him. “I’m crazy.”

“You’re not crazy. Just be yourself,” he said.

“I don’t know who I am anymore. All I know is I don’t want to be this person.”

“I know. But I love you anyway, just the way you are.”

As I wiped my tears away, I realized something incredibly beautiful and profound, like a beam of light shining down into this abyss.

I wasn’t just Someone’s Fan.

This man holding me in his arms after witnessing failure after failure, and sharing in my stupid tiny victories – he was the fan all along. My fan.

He is the one who reminds me time and time again that I have value. That I am not a failure. That I am loved. That the show must go on, no matter how many times I screw up the song.

I will get it right eventually, no matter how long it takes. He will never become impatient with me. He never thinks something is wrong with me. He will never brand me a failure. He has always believed in me – always – all along.

Love is ardent fandom of the purest kind.

And even when I am ready to give up on something that, for whatever reason, gives me moments of joy unlike any I thought I would ever have – he reminds me that just because it’s not the life I wanted, it doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it. Embrace it. Celebrate it. Let it define me for a little while, at least for now, until I can be the person I want to be.

He has given the greatest gift of all – the freedom to be myself, whomever she may be.

And suddenly, I have a plan.

Suddenly these ruins don’t look so desolate anymore.

From these canyons and valleys echoes music, like a whisper. On the scarred mountainsides are lyrics, reflecting whatever light finds itself here, glowing and ethereal. If you follow them, they will tell you a story, both theirs and mine. They will lead you to the deeper parts of these ruins, a cave of words and ideas that sparkle like diamonds. They will take you to the edge of my civilization, where the unknown meets my reality, and there you will find an empty bottle in the sand. And they will show you the hinges where metal gates used to shut out the world and all the feelings in it, trapping all my feelings inside.

But somehow these songs found their way in, and somehow they grew here in this desolate wasteland in the form of a leafless, dying tree.

Something had grown here, which meant other things could, too. Not just grow, but thrive. There was potential here. This could be a place others could visit, and this could be a place I would not be afraid to show.

And though I was wounded, surely I wasn’t the only one. There were others, too. There was the bird in the tree that could still fly.

There was a reason that bird was still flying.

I wanted to be that bird. I wanted to be more than just the ashes. I wanted to be a phoenix, and I wanted to fly.

I never expected to be here.

I certainly never expected things to go this far.

I just had this broken heart, and they were just a band.

I am the girl in the front row emblazoned with the wounded bird on her face.

I am trembling from excitement that they are playing here – an outdoor amphitheater with an orchestra – here in these stunning ruins. There is a full moon tonight, and the stars are twinkling in a cloudless velvet sky. But I am standing next to you, staring wistfully at the wounded bird that hangs precariously above the stage, as I finish my sad story of the giddy fangirl of The Airborne Toxic Event.

But you know that’s not just who I am, nor is it all I ever wanted, or all I’ll ever be.

The lanterns begin to dim as the air grows quiet for a moment. Then we collectively realize what’s happening.

The show is about to start.

I take a breath. Here we go.

[Read Part 6 here…]

 


When she’s not front row at a TATE show with a bird emblazoned on her face, Colleen can be found blogging regularly at These Stunning Ruins, where this post originally appeared. She and her husband have also been known to occasionally lay down a wicked Airborne cover.

By Colleen

[Read Part 3 here…]

I remember it all as if it were yesterday.

I remember waking up the next morning – Saturday – the gray light filtering through heavy clouds and through the blinds. “This Too Shall Pass” by OK Go was playing softly in the background of my brain as I opened my eyes. This strange phenomenon of a dream-state playlist has frequently occurred since childhood. Even while asleep, the music never stops playing. Only the songs change, and sometimes they are a reflection of whatever it is I’m wrestling with.

That morning, it was another bitter disappointment. I had missed My Band by a minute. We were supposed to be in Portland on vacation, yet we were still at home. The What-Ifs began piling up, smothering me, the heaviest of which was I was supposed to be a mom.  It all seemed connected somehow, as if I were destined to fail at everything I tried to do.

Let it go.  This too shall pass.

I sat up and sighed heavily.

Sometimes, more often than not, the thought of facing another day of disappointments is too much to bear.  These days are a battleground, and before my feet even touch the floor, I’m already exhausted.

You can’t keep letting it get you down.

“Well,” Hubby said in defeat, “let’s go back to the festival and try to make the most of it.”

Make the most of it.  Yes.  Yes, this was our life now.  Making the most of heartbreaking, crushing disappointment after disappointment.  By now, we were pros at licking our wounds and pushing on.

And I was sick of it.

Maybe it was the music Hubby played that morning of all the up and coming bands were going to see that day.  Songs like “Radioactive” by the then-unknown Imagine Dragons were blasting through our house and getting into my bloodstream.  They were calling to me, beckoning me out of these ruins.  But their promises were transient, if not completely unrealistic.

There was only one thing that could set me free.

It was on the way to the music festival that I told Hubby I had to go.

“We paid two-hundred dollars to go to this festival,” he reminded me, “and you want to throw the money away and spend more money.”

“I don’t think I can not go.”

“You want to drive two hours to see a band when you can see twenty bands right here.”

“I don’t care about the other bands.”

“You’re crazy.”

“If I give up now, I might as well just give up on everything.  I might as well just not live anymore.”

“Over a band.“

I suddenly became indignant.  How did he not get it?  And he was probably thinking, When did my wife become so unreasonable, lacking all common sense?

“It’s more than just a band,” I told him.

He sighed and shook his head.  “You’re on your own this time.”

“You’re not mad at me?”

“No.  But I can’t do this anymore.  I can’t follow you down these crazy paths anymore.  It always ends in disaster.  And it’s just so much money to throw away, Colleen.  Seriously.  I can’t consciously do this.  But if you have to go, then you have to go.  And besides, I really want to see Death Cab for Cutie tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to go by myself.”

“Find someone to go with you.”

“You really won’t come with me?”

“Nope.”

I couldn’t be mad at him.  I couldn’t blame him.  This was something I had to do myself.  Suddenly I became self-righteous, suiting up for a battle of my worst fears that I was lining up myself.  I was Joan of Arc.  I was Radioactive.  I had gone a little insane, and there was only one cure versus a lifelong regret.  And no amount of money could stop me from getting something I wanted, no matter how insignificant a band seemed to be in the Great Scheme of Things.

I called my best friend, the one who had seen them yesterday at the festival and sent me the pictures.

“How much do you love me?” I asked when she answered the phone.

I called my brother, too, because I literally had no idea what to expect, and I thought it never hurts to bring a guy along.  Unless, of course, it is my brother.  For those of you who know him, you know what I mean.  Also: He knows what he did.

I invited another friend, too, who was going with us to the festival that day to see her own favorite band, Weezer.  She didn’t even know who The Airborne Toxic Event was.  Ironically, the only person who had seen them already was my best friend.  She knew them all by name, and she wasn’t even a diehard fan.  But I still think it was Steven Chen who got her to go, and not how much she loved me.  Whatever the case was, I didn’t care.  I was going.

I finally had hope.

I could enjoy the music festival.  I could smile and have a good time.  I could dance and sing along with Imagine Dragons in the rain.  I could rock out with Weezer that night from the second row.  I was free, albeit for the lingering fears that tomorrow I would be stuck in traffic, the car would break down, my printed-at-home tickets would somehow be invalid, or all three.  I was almost certain one or all of those things would happen, because catastrophe was always breathing down my neck.

But tomorrow, this time I was coming off the victor.

Hubby gave me the rundown of concert-going due to my general inexperience, despite a full day of a music festival.  Get there early, he told me.  Make friends with the people in line with you.  Stick with people you feel safe around.

“I’m going to try to meet them.  Do you think it’s possible?  How will I know?”

“Just hang around afterward.”  He chuckled, then added, “What are you going to say to him?  Your Guy?”

He meant Mikel Jollett.  My Band.  My Guy.

“I don’t know.  Hopefully not something weird.”

“You should tell him you’re a writer.”

“Yeah.  Maybe I should.”

“You should tell him about your book.”

“Yeah.  You know what?  Maybe I will.”

More fears were lining up.  I have trouble speaking to people on the phone.  I have trouble speaking up for myself.  Yet I was going to somehow tell this mythological figure of a rockstar and prolific writer that I was a writer too.  The idea was laughable, and scared me to death.  But I was desperate.  If I could do that, I could do anything.

“You know what?” I added.  “I’m going to get him to kiss me.”

“Really!” Hubby cried.  “Go for it.”

“You don’t think I can.”

“Oh, no, it’s not that.  Why wouldn’t he want to?  Look at you.  You’re beautiful.  He’d be crazy not to.  But now I’m kinda sorry I’m not going.”

“Why?  You still can!”

“No.  You should do this.  You can do this.  You don’t need me.  Go knock him dead.  I hope you get it all.  All you ever wanted.  Just . . . don’t forget about me.  And remember we’re getting on a plane early the next morning.  Hopefully.”

I was filled with love and adoration for this man who shares my heartbreaks and my joys.  It is his faith in me that makes me feel like I can do anything.  Even something as scary as leaving these ruins temporarily without him.  Even speaking to a rockstar, my hero and idol and musical crush these last several months.  I couldn’t let him down.  I had to prove to him that it was still possible, to have these dreams – crazy though they might be – and make them come true.

I could hardly sleep the night before.  The next day – Sunday – I was a trembling mess.  I picked up my group and drove them two hours north to a city I had rarely visited, terrified as every mile passed.  What if I get us lost?  What if we don’t get there in time?  What if this whole thing turns out to be a one huge, gigantic failure?  What if the band isn’t what I imagined at all?

As we listened to their music on the ride up, I had a sudden heart attack of terror:  What if they were just this big melancholy, depressing show?  The lyrics, after all, are so tragic – the very reason why I liked them so much.  What if the whole thing was like a funeral, leaving everyone depressed and wondering why I dragged them to such a dismal event?

I asked my best friend, “So . . . I mean, they put on a good show, right?”

“Yeah.  They do.  The guitarist, Steven – he’s pretty hot.”

“What about Mikel?”

“Uh . . . he looks . . . good . . . I guess.”  She said ’good’ as if the word was being slowly drawn out into the air with a syringe.

“Just good?”

“Well.  You know.  He’s old.”

“Hmm.”

“You’ll like them,” she reassured me, as if she knew I was beginning to doubt The Whole Thing.

Nevertheless, we arrived without a hitch.  We got in line behind less than twelve people, and I desperately tried to hide the fact I was trembling and shaking and wishing I was safe at home.  But the thought of seeing My Band, after all this time, and all this trouble, was stronger than any cowardice left remaining.  I bit the bullet and turned my introverted nature inside out, making small talk with the strangers standing around me.  A mother with her teenaged son and daughter who appeared more excited to see them than they were.  A couple with a young son, longtime fans who reassured me it was going to be a great show.

I started to get excited.  It was finally happening.  I was here.  And just on the other side of those walls, so were they.

After two painfully long hours, the doors opened and we filed inside.  I stood behind the couple with the little boy, across from the center of the stage.  My best friend stood behind me with the camera, ready to take pictures of the whole experience.

I tried to stand still and stop trembling.

But so much was riding on them, and me.  They were oblivious to my presence – this brokenhearted girl who defied logic and reason and common sense just to be there.  I was bleeding from the inside, desperate from painful disappointments and tragedy just a year ago.  Just a month ago.  But it was all happening today, and every day since.  In my mind, Wesley dies every day he does not live, and I somehow have to go on trying to stay alive.  But staying alive is not the same as living.

Tonight, I wanted to truly live.

I didn’t want to be a grieving, bereaved mother.  I didn’t want to be on the other end of sad, pitying eyes.  All I wanted was to be a fan.  And I wanted to be happy, just like everyone else in this room.

To onlookers, that was how I probably appeared.

But when the doors closed outside, they closed on my sadness.  There was no yesterday.  There was no tomorrow.  There were no stunning ruins.  There was only now.

Me and The Airborne Toxic Event.

This couple I had been standing behind had no idea that when they let me stand next to them, in the front row by the barrier, they were ensuring I was going to have the best night of my life so far, the best night I could ever hope to have, the very remedy for a heart stricken with never ending grief from the worst tragedy that could ever happen to a person.  I will never forget their kindness.

And when his microphone was placed in its place onstage directly adjacent from me, I couldn’t believe what was happening.  It was all happening, all at once.  Everything I ever hoped for.  All I ever wanted.  This was it.  The rest was up to them.

The lights dimmed.  The crowd began to cheer.  And from the darkness, and from my imagination, they all appeared, one by one.  Daren, Noah, Steven, Anna . . . and finally Mikel.

He picked up his Silver Falcon.  He stared into a waiting, hopeful crowd as Steven began to play.  And when he opened his mouth to sing “All At Once,” I suddenly knew this was always where I was supposed to be.  Right here, front and center.  Right here, right in front of this stranger I didn’t even know, but whose songs I knew by heart.  These songs that lived and breathed in my ruins, that lit up the skies with their lyrics, that offered comfort in a way only the power of music can.  It was all here, and it was all happening right in front of me.

And then it hit me like a gust of air on which to glide:  These were not sad songs, and this was not a melancholy funeral for the deaths of someone else’s dreams along with my own.

This was a party.  A celebration of being alive.  And The Airborne Toxic Event was our host, providing the music for which to sing along, and of which we all knew the words whether longtime fan or not.  We were all dying and hurting for one reason or another, but we were all here for one reason and one reason only.

“Isn’t it a great night to be alive?” Mikel Jollett cried in the middle of the song.

Yes.  Not just to be alive, but to live.

One by one, they went through hitting the highlights of their two-album catalog of songs.  “Gasoline” burned down the room.  “Numb” had us shaking from being anything but.  Even “The Graveyard Near the House” was given due respect with Mikel on an acoustic guitar and Anna with her shining viola, two single spotlights on one gorgeous song.  I wept shamelessly, but not for the reasons you’d think.  I was just so happy to be there, to see these songs that somehow were mine be made real and beautiful for what they truly were.  Though I had listened to them in the depths of despair, and they echoed in my ruins during the darkest of days, they made me so happy on this night, I was shouting them at the top of my lungs, screaming and smiling and feeling as if I had finally found a way outside of myself and could fly in an open space, carried only by a melody.

“Sometime Around Midnight.”

Sometime Around Midnight: The Airborne Toxic Event

Can one concert change your life?

There was just one problem.

It was a small one.  Even a stupid one.  One I had no control over, and would therefore have to overlook.

He did not seem to notice I was even there.

I was standing right in front of him, and he never looked at me.  Not even once.

Noah and Steven made eye contact with me a few times.  We smiled at each other, as I danced around like an idiot to the music they were playing on their guitars just a few feet away from me.  Suddenly they were not members of a band, but guys at a party we had all been invited to.  I was enchanted with this way of things – how different it was from every concert I had ever been to!  What raw talent they possessed!  What charm!

But Mikel was the aloof leader, determined and precise, though smiling and absolutely proving every inclination I had to be correct, and proving my best friend wrong.  Sure, Steven was hot.  But Mikel had charisma.

I was so drunk on enchantment and high on happiness, the disappointment from his lack of any kind of small acknowledgement paled in comparison to the fact they were everything I ever hoped for, and then some.  Not only were they talented musicians, they were performers who played to their audience.  The observation has since been made that they appear to be having just as much fun as their audience, and I could not agree more.  They love what they get to do, and it’s impossible not to love what they are doing in return.

When they came back for the encore, we all were the drones of “Missy,” shouting the lyrics with smiling faces – to the band, to each other, to the world.  There are no strangers at an Airborne concert.  We are all friends for one night, the audience members together with the band.  Such chemistry is a rare and beautiful thing.

Then it was over so fast.  The lights came on, and we all awoke collectively from a single dream.

Still, a few of us waited by the stage, hoping the band would return for pictures and autographs.  I had my Sharpie ready.  My brother graciously bought me a shirt to have them sign should they appear.  My heart was heavy with hope.  Could I really do everything I said I would?  Could I really swallow my shyness and be the kind of person I always admired – brave?

Suddenly, Steven appeared.  My best friend squealed with delight.

We took pictures and collected signatures.  He was gracious and friendly.  I, however, was trembling from a sudden rush of shyness.  I could barely speak to him except to snap a quick picture.  He signed my shirt.  Then I sunk into the background as others took their turns.

I bit my lip.  Mikel was nowhere to be seen.

Still, I told myself, he was everything I thought he would be.  Everything a talented musician should be.  It was more than I could ever hope for, just to be here tonight.  Just to stand in the front row to see my favorite band.  After everything I had been through to see them, I couldn’t complain.  Perhaps it was just as well, even.  Maybe he would have been a pompous jerk, as rockstars can be known to be.  And that would have been worse than not meeting him at all.

I was still wearing a smiling face when I left the building, absolutely giggling with glee with my best friend, who got to meet her rockstar crush.  There was so much to be happy for.  I was ready to get on a plane in just a few hours, even though I felt like I could fly there myself.

My best friend offered to drive home.  I sat in the passenger seat as we drove around the building, staring off into the memory of the evening.

“Oh my god!” she cried.  “That’s him!”

We passed a small group of people outside the venue.  I turned to look, but she had already passed them, heading up the road and away from the building.

I screamed for her to turn around.

Further down the road, she did a quick U-turn and stopped several yards away from where he was standing.

I jumped out of the car, but I wasn’t excited.

I was terrified.  Absolutely scared out of my mind.  All the What-Ifs were smothering me again.  All the fears were lined up in the space between he and I, and I gathered whatever courage I could muster to slay them all.

I had no idea what I was going to say.  My mind was blank as I took slow, deliberate steps towards him.  Each step was an act of defiance against my will.  Every inch I crossed was a victory.

There he was just, just a few feet away.  Yet there were miles and miles between us.

As I was still walking toward him, he casually glanced at me.

Then he immediately looked again, the way a person does when they recognize you from somewhere.  As if we already knew each other, and he just happened to forgot where or how.

At that moment, I couldn’t believe my eyes.  I couldn’t believe what had happened, what was about to happen.

“Hey!” he cried, leaving the group he had been talking to, and walking straight over to me.  Miles became inches.  And then suddenly he was standing in front me, smiling.  Suddenly I didn’t have a brain.  Or legs.  Or the ground beneath my feet.

“You were in the front row, weren’t you!” he declared.

But thank god, I still had a voice.

“Yes,” I said.

“You were my favorite tonight.  You knew all the words to the songs.  You were just dancing around having a great time.  You were fun to watch.”

Wait.  Wait a second.  But you didn’t even look at me!  You NEVER made eye contact with me!  You didn’t know I was there!  Yet here you are, talking to me like we’re old friends, like we’ve known each other for years, like you knew I was there . . . all along. . .

I must have blushed a deep and unattractive purple.  In half a second I thought back to my “dancing around” and wanted to go curl up and die somewhere, feeling as if he had caught me in an intimate moment.  I probably looked like I was having a seizure for two hours, yet somehow that was “fun to watch”?

I’m not sure what happened to me.  Maybe my subconscious felt he was taking cheap shots at my dignity, because I didn’t believe him.  “Listen,” I told him in stone-cold seriousness.  “You have no idea what it took for me to get here tonight.”

“Really!” he cried.  “Tell me.”

I blinked, feeling as if he turned the spotlight around on me.  This was it.  There was no turning back.  I had his attention, for whatever reason, and I was not going to squander it.

So I told him about the airport, about the music festival, about just missing the show.  He said he was sorry.  He apologized.  To ME.  Who am I???

We talked about Portland when I told him I was going there tomorrow.  And with each moment that passed, I felt myself getting bolder.

“You’re a really inspiring writer to me.  I’m a writer, too.  Sort of.”

“What do you write?”

Wait.  You’re supposed to have said ‘thank you’ and I was supposed to feel embarrassed.  Now I only feel embarrassed, but for no logical reason.

“Um . . . er . . . I wrote a book, I guess.”

“What’s it about?”

No!  YOU CAN’T ASK ME THAT!  You are ignoring your lines!  You are supposed to say something benign, like “Oh, that’s cool” or “Good for you.”  NOT WHAT’S IT ABOUT.

“Uh . . . it’s just this stupid story I wrote.  About music, or something.”  Please don’t ask me to elaborate, because I think I will have a heart attack and die right in front of you, and then die from embarrassment of having died in front of you.

“Are you going to get it published?”

“Er . . . I don’t know.  Maybe.  Probably not.”

“Why?”

“Um . . . I dunno.”  I looked at my feet as I shuffled them.  To him, I probably looked every bit of the 8-year-old girl I felt like, simultaneously regretting this conversation as much as I was basking in it and wishing it would never end.

And for whatever reason, the honesty just came out of nowhere and out of my mouth: “I just don’t have confidence in myself.”

“You should get it published.  Just publish it.  Just do it.”  He continued on in this momentary rant of how I needed to publish my book, this stupid story he had no idea I had written about a band like his, of music like the kind he had written, and how I used to listen to the very songs he played tonight to inspire me.  How it was these very songs that got me back to writing in the first place, when I thought that part of me was swept away and lost forever in the death of my son and myself.

I was overcome with that Twilight Zone feeling, of everything coming together and happening in plot twist after plot twist, as if we were just acting out what had already been written down.  But it was all happening now, everything I hoped for.  Dreamed of.  There was just one thing left to do.

He ended his rant with “You don’t want to be ninety years old one day going, ‘I should have published my book!’”

He said this in an old-lady voice, which was so freaking adorable and funny, I couldn’t help but laugh.  “Okay,” I said.  “I’ll do it.  You’ve convinced me.  I’ll do it.  Someday.”  All the while I thought, But you have no idea that it’s a giant pile of crap, and published or not, you’ll never know.  You don’t even know who I am.  You think I’m just some silly fangirl, and tonight I am.  And I think you’re just some hotshot musician.  But we’re both wrong.

Still.  I was keeping up the ruse.  He could think I was some silly fangirl, because the fear of being myself was too great a fear to slay at this time, with everything that came with just being me.

The fear of asking for a kiss?  That was nothing.

“Thank you so much.  Tonight was without a doubt the best night of my life.”  It was now or never.  “Can I give you a kiss?”

This felt like some sort of game I was playing, and for all intents and purposes, it was.  Arm your fears like soldiers and slay them.  And to my surprise – and relief – he was playing along.

He leaned forward and I kissed his cheek.  And then he kissed mine.

He signed the shirt my brother had bought for me.  He took a picture with me.  He thanked me for coming, and we said our goodbyes.

But he would never know what that night meant for me.  He will go on to play a hundred more shows and meet a thousand other people, even silly fangirls just like me.  But he will never truly know the personal victories of shy girl so broken, of the bright spots of happiness of a grief-stricken mom without a son, of the wounded and dying bird who just wanted to fly.

Or does he?

That night I came home with my stories and spoils.  Hubby didn’t believe me at first until I showed him the evidence of the pictures and video my best friend had taken.  She had recorded “Sometime Around Midnight” in its entirety, even capturing my sudden turning around to smile at the camera.  And I wondered how a person could look so happy when they were so sad inside.  It was a beautiful illusion.  It was a living dream.  We were just actors in a play on some cosmic stage, and at the end of the show we go back to our regularly scheduled lives of heartbreaks and tragedies, with the memories as relics of a Good Show.

Except this time, the relics were a signed T-shirt, a guitar pick, and the lingering kiss on the cheek from a rockstar.

Now what?

What does this mean?

What do I do now?

I refused to believe this was somehow The End of the story.  There was so much I wanted to write.  So much I wanted to do.  So much life I wanted to now live.

I tossed and turned that night, replaying the events of the evening in my mind as I wondered what lie in store now that I had finally succeeded.  That maybe I wasn’t a failure after all.  Maybe there was hope for me.  For us.

We finally made it to Portland, and we had a fantastic time.  Another victory.

What else could I conquer?

I started training for The Color Run 5K.  I was always the fat kid in school who ran one-fourth of The Mile and walked the rest of the way, huffing and puffing.  Now I was going to run over three miles consecutively, and not just run it, but have fun doing it.  I listened to “Welcome to Your Wedding Day,” running in time with the song to wake up stubborn legs, the way it used to wake us up in the morning all those months ago.  I listened to “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” as I ran with a smile, thinking back to Mikel’s antics during the show – jumping out into the audience and inviting brave souls to sing along.  And I listened to “Sometime Around Midnight” as I thought of myself running to the music festival to see them.  Faster.  Faster!  If you hurry, you just might make it.

I spent the next several weeks following the concert in a haze.  It changed my disposition.  Likely, I confused the people around me – if I didn’t annoy them first – with how happy I suddenly was.  Of course, it was happiness underneath an ever-present Dark Cloud.  But it was happiness nonetheless.  I was so grateful to a band who didn’t even know who I was.  The entire thing could easily be dismissed as preposterous nonsense.  But I couldn’t ignore the facts.  That concert had changed me.

Then it occurred to me I could do something about it.

Someone had posted on the band’s website forum that they had written them a letter, and Mikel actually wrote them back.

This had to have been a fluke, I reasoned.  A lucky shot in the dark he just happened to see and respond.  But the fact was, he saw it.  And that was all someone like me could hope for.

So late one night, after a couple of drinks, I wrote them a letter, too.

I put it in a bottle and stood at the edge of my ruins.  Then, without a second thought, I tossed it into the unknown, an ocean of uncertainty that separates me from all other people, rockstars or not.

I didn’t tell anyone what I had done.  Not even Hubby.  This was between me and them.  Whether or not they responded didn’t matter.  They just had to know.  And I hoped that somewhere – in some distant, faraway, magical place – someone would read it and finally know who I was.

I told them about Wesley.  I told them what had happened when I heard “Sometime Around Midnight” for the first time.  I told them the story I have been telling you, but truthfully, it was the first time I had told anyone anything.  It was the first time I had opened up to anyone about what happened.  Somehow this proverbial message in a bottle was a connection to some world outside of myself, outside of these ruins, and in just the simple act of sending it out there into the unknown,  I had found a kind of courage I never knew I possessed.  It truly didn’t matter if I never received a reply, or if they never even saw it.  I had freed myself somehow, and in that freedom I found myself unburdened from so much pain.

In this liberation, I was surprised a week later when I was once again standing at the edge of these ruins, and a bottle washed up on the beach, addressed to me from The Airborne Toxic Event.

I returned with a new outlook on these ruins.  No more were they going to contain me.  No longer would I feel trapped here, burdened by grief.  Never again would I let the fear of disappointment lock me in from getting what I wanted, from truly living.

What had happened to be me was terrible and ugly, but it didn’t mean I was.

So many things had failed, but it didn’t mean I was a failure.

And though my world had burned to the ground, I was more the phoenix than the ashes.

And if I was a phoenix, then that meant I could fly.

But where?  And most importantly, how?

Only I could answer those questions.  But for the first time, anything and anywhere felt possible.

And though my situation is as isolating as it is formidable, for the first time I realized it was possible that I wasn’t alone.

[Read Part 5 here]


When she’s not front row at a TATE show with a bird emblazoned on her face, Colleen can be found blogging regularly at These Stunning Ruins, where this post originally appeared. She and her husband have also been known to occasionally lay down a wicked Airborne cover.

By Colleen

[Read Part 2 here…]

Numb.

That’s how I felt, sitting there in that derelict tree, staring at a wasteland that was now underwater.

I wondered if there was anything left of me.

I wondered if the water would ever recede.

I wondered what I would find if it ever did.

It wasn’t long, however, before I saw a raft coming around the bend.  It was Hubby in a life jacket, rowing his way through the muck and debris.

Miscarriage is such a personal thing.  For some women, it is a blip.  A hiccup.  “They happen,” some might say.  For others, it is mind over matter.  “There was something wrong with the baby,” they reason.  And yet for women like me, it is a veritable disaster.  It is death, for sure, but with it dies hope of the most fragile kind.

For men, it is this death of hope that is the most severe.  There are some men who don’t understand.  But for a sensitive man like mine, it is watching his beloved friend experience something heartwrenchingly painful, tragic, and bloody.  And the emotional aftermath has its own cocktail of grief that affects both parties.  While it is something entirely different from losing a child, in its quiet, destructive process it is just as powerful for a couple of kids who “feel” so deeply.

“You have to come down,” he called from the raft.

“No.”

“Please.”

“Just leave me here to die.”

“Not going to happen.”

“I’m not coming down.”

“What if I need you?”

I looked at him.  I knew the pressures he faced, the loneliness he felt, the chaos and turmoil going on in his own corner of these ruins.  Our lives had been overturned in so many ways.  More than losing Wesley, more than the miscarriage, more than we could handle outside of ourselves.  Yet, for some reason, catastrophe had a way of coming after us no matter how fast we ran.  Hubby was no exception.

I climbed down and into his raft, and we started planning our escape.

In two months, we could leave for Portland, Oregon, though neither of us cared if we lived to see the next day.  Still, it was a goal.  Perhaps if we could make it there, we could keep going.  We could go on.

The weeks passed quickly as the water slowly receded.  We kept to ourselves, working quietly but together.  Only a few people knew what had happened, and we wanted it that way.  If we heard “Sorry” one more time, there was a mutual understanding that one or both of us would go insane.

But it was during these quiet weeks that the water receded enough for me to return to my little writing cave.  It hadn’t been swept away with the rest.  If anything, the water created deeper caverns, uncovering more creative gems.  Suddenly this tiny nook, hidden from the rest of the world, became a vast and inviting place.  The perfect place to get away from it all, without going anywhere at all.

In two months, I wrote 300 pages of a second novel, as the water evaporated along with my tears.

In those two months, and all summer long, Hubby had been going to school on the weekends for additional certification.  It was the first time I had ever been alone since we were married, and it was the worst possible timing.  But there was no use crying over things we couldn’t change.  He had to go, and I had to stay here.

I threw myself into writing and music.  At night, when these ruins become such a scary, formidable place, I blasted the music from every corner and crevasse.  And when I was especially lonely, I would climb that dead tree and allow myself to wonder what it would be like to fly away from here.  If the wounded bird could do it, why not me?

I would fall asleep listening to The Airborne Toxic Event, dreaming of a band I had never seen, of people I had never met, of fictional characters and places I had created.  In this way, I survived the worst of it.

Now it was July, and it was time to go.  I squinted in the harsh gray light filtering through the clouds above when I finally emerged from whatever imaginary place I had been.  The anniversary of Wesley’s birth and death had passed with me hiding from the sights and sounds of the July 4th Holiday, virtually ignoring the passing of time altogether.  Hubby had arranged for the necessary time off from work and school to take us Out West, to that promised land of beer and donuts that is Portland, Oregon.

Our flight was scheduled to leave late on a Friday afternoon.  We were packed and ready to go.

Before we left for the airport, I received a text message from my best friend.

Hey, we’re here at the music festival.  Going to see your band.

I sighed.  My heart was being pulled in two directions – West and North.  But I told her to have fun and take lots of pictures.  You can catch them another time, I told myself.  You’re going on vacation.

We checked in at the airport and made ourselves comfortable as we waited for our plane to board.

Except… there was no plane.

Our flight was delayed.  Indefinitely.

There was no one even at the gate to tell us what was going on.

We were just two of many passengers in a long, confused, and angry line of people wondering what we were supposed to do now.

Time was ticking away.  We only had a small window before we had to catch our next flight in Chicago.  Now it looked certain that plane was going to Portland without us.

In the middle of this chaos, I received another text message from my best friend.

It was a picture of another friend of ours at the music festival, smiling and chatting with none other than Mikel Jollett himself.

I gasped and cried to Hubby.  “Look what we’re missing!” I said.  “And now we can’t even leave!  Why, oh WHY didn’t we change our flight months ago?!”

Hubby was crushed.  “I’m so sorry,” he kept repeating.  “I’m so sorry.”

Looking back, I am rather embarrassed how childish I was at the airport.  Pacing about pouting, cursing at my phone, my friends, my band, myself.  Wondering why I ever thought I could escape disaster, or just escape this desolate heartbreaking existence that is my life.  Wiping away angry, bitter tears at my present situation – stuck at an airport while My Band was taking the stage just a few short miles away.

Then it hit me.

Look what we’re missing.  Why aren’t we there?

We could be.

When it became blatantly obvious we would miss our next flight, I proposed my idea to Hubby.  Let’s make a run for it, I said.  Let’s go to the music festival.  Even if we just make it for the last song.  Let’s go.

We were both desperate enough that we believed we had a chance.

When someone finally appeared at the desk to help us reschedule our flight, we quickly went through a short list of options.  Subsequent flights were overbooked, and layovers were brutal.  We finally settled on a direct flight early Monday morning.  We would have to cut our trip short by a few days, but at least we didn’t have to wait around at any airports.  And we could enjoy the weekend-long music festival in our hometown, starting with The Airborne Toxic Event.

We ran.  We literally sprinted through that airport.

We ran from the car to the festival.  In all likelihood, it was less than a half a mile, but it felt like twenty.

Our hearts were so hopeful.  Desperately hopeful, like always.  Stupidly hopeful.

We entered the gates just as they were leaving the stage.

We didn’t even see them.

Suddenly, we were gasping for air in a sea people, except now I felt as if I couldn’t breathe.  I was a complete and total mess of a human being, and I didn’t care what I looked like.  Let them stare.  My world was falling in around me.

We had just missed them.  And we had missed everything.

And now we couldn’t even leave.

And I had brought myself and Hubby into this chaotic mess, blindly pushing him because I thought we just might have a shot.

Because I just had to see them.

I just had to see them.

I just had to see them.

I just had to see them.

I just had to see them.

I knew that they’d break me in two.

And that’s precisely what happened.

We wandered through the festival as I bit back tears, cursing myself for caring so much.  Wasn’t I numb just hours ago?  How could I let myself care so much about some stupid band?

We tried to enjoy the headlining band, the last one of the night.  But I felt like I was being crushed to death, knowing they were here.  Somewhere.  Didn’t they know I was, too?

How could this happen?!

Hubby followed me to the river, where I sat on the concrete steps.  Jane’s Addiction was playing in the distance, and the crowd was in a fervor.  But here in this quiet, isolated place, I realized I was trapped.  There was no escaping these ruins.  It was as if someone had put gates and bars on my sadness, trapping me inside my own head and heart and the heartbreaking tragedies that followed us everywhere.  I began to scold myself.  How foolish it was to think I could escape.  How foolish to convince Hubby, too, with his unfailing support and lifelong goal just to make me happy.  I had brought him here to this catastrophic disappointment.  I was responsible.  This was all my fault.

If you think perhaps our reaction to missing The Airborne Toxic Event was over-the-top excessive, perhaps you need to take a closer look at the couple sitting on those concrete steps by the river.

A year ago, we lost our son.  Two months ago, I had a miscarriage.  Two hours ago, we thought we were going on a much-needed vacation.  Two minutes ago, we thought we had a shot of seeing our favorite band perform.

Now, there was no band.  There was no escape.  It would have to wait for another two days.  Everything was put on hold, and our hopes and dreams and happiness was put on hold indefinitely.

Why hope for anything at all?  We would never get anything we ever wanted.  Never.

But something tripped my memory.  Some little light bulb in the back of my mind turned on, flooding a darkened world with a faint realization.

I checked my phone for confirmation of what I thought to be true.

They were scheduled to perform Sunday night two hours away from here.

These days of taking disappointment lying down were over.  This feeling of being trapped, of feeling helpless and hopeless and at the mercy of Life and Death – I was through with it all.  I was taking my life back.  I was taking control.  I was going to get what I wanted.  Nothing could stop me now.

I was going to see My Band.

[Read Part 4 here…]

 


When she’s not front row at a TATE show with a bird emblazoned on her face, Colleen can be found blogging regularly at These Stunning Ruins, where this post originally appeared. She and her husband have also been known to occasionally lay down a wicked Airborne cover.

By Colleen

[Read Part 1 here…]

At the start of 2012 in this desolate place, the landscape was beginning to change.  There was a rhythm to the cleanup process, and the pace increased as progress became clear.  And though we knew we could never restore this empire to its former glory on our own, we began to accept that this desolate, broken place was our home, our “new normal.”  The question “How do we cope?” had an answer: We take one day at a time.  We focus on each other.  And we distract ourselves from the pain as much as possible.

My distraction was writing.

Now that my book was finished, I flirted with other ideas for other books.  But in the back of my mind, I was still obsessed with the one already written.  I missed the characters.  I missed the places they took me, the people we met together, their internal struggles, and their drama.  But more than anything, I missed the music.

The Airborne Toxic Event served a dual purpose for me.  Its inspired lyrics, melody, and emotional songs brought to mind this story I created.  I could revisit these fictional characters and fictional places anytime I listened to the music.  For this reason, All At Once was the only CD in my car for months.  I listened to other music at home, but there was always an Airborne song close by stealing my attention from other bands.

In addition, my heart was becoming attached to these songs.  They became mine, starting with “The Graveyard Near the House” and quickly bleeding into the rest.  I began to hear them in a different light with relationship to myself, not just some imaginary work of fiction.  These songs made me feel something, a tall order for any song, let alone an entire album or a band.

Out of self-preservation, I had closed myself off.  Nothing that inspired emotion directly related to myself was allowed here.  I built thick walls around these ruins as a defense, unable to deal with anything in addition to or outside of my own pain.  I couldn’t talk about the loss.  I was afraid of being around people, afraid they would ask me to talk about it.  I had a list of fears that were much longer than they are now, and even included being around a group of women, as women are wont to talk about families, feelings, and Who Is Having a Baby.  I had isolated myself from people, from friends, from feelings, and from my own grief, just to survive.

“Midnight” and “Graveyard” found a crack in my perimeter.

But where did they come from?

Who wrote them?

As curious as I was, I was afraid to know the answer.  Because what if they didn’t live up to my expectations?  What if they destroyed this idea I had in my head of this perfect band, this band of my dreams?  What about being disappointed?  Then what?

There was too much at stake.  I didn’t want to lose what little spark of so-called “happiness” I had found, for fear it would destroy everything, from the writing to whatever else was taking place inside me, this internal change, this way of dealing.

Apart from reading a few articles online, I didn’t know much about the people in this band.  I didn’t even know their names.  All I knew was that I read somewhere (Wikipedia?) that the lead singer was the songwriter and had his own personal tragedies.  That was enough for me.  That made sense.  That was all I needed to know.

Then one rainy night in March 2012, we met up with some friends at Applebee’s again for half-price appetizers and Karaoke Nite, the latter of which didn’t interest us.  It must not have interested anyone else either, because there was very little karaoke-ing actually taking place.  Instead, they played music videos on the TVs around the restaurant, the volume turned up so loud we had to shout to the person sitting next to us.

I wasn’t particularly keen on being there, but I went to support Hubby, and brought my best friend to support me.

“They’re taking requests for music,” Hubby shouted across the table to me.  “Want me to ask if they’ll play Your Band?”

In the last several months, The Airborne Toxic Event had been reduced to “My Band” or “Your Band.”  They weren’t Hubby’s band any longer, though he still enjoyed the music.  He had just moved on to other bands, like most normal people.  But they attached themselves to me, and thus they became “mine.”

“Sure,” I told him, and he disappeared to find the guy in charge of the music.

He returned with an irritated look on his face.  “You won’t believe this,” he shouted.  “He didn’t know who they were.  He asked me if they were ‘underground.’”

“What?  Really?”

“Yeah.  He was a jerk about it, too.  I’m sorry, honey.  I tried.”

I scratched my head in wonder.  Underground?  How could he not know about The Airborne Toxic Event?  Am I not The Last Person On Earth To Find Out About Everything?  Surely they’ve been around long enough that they’ve been on the radio.  Right?  But how could I know?  I don’t even listen to the radio.

Oh well.  Maybe they weren’t as popular as I thought.  As they should have been.

Then suddenly, I heard the opening of a familiar song.  An organ, a guitar.  A sudden descent into “Numb.”

Hubby and I looked at each other in shock, then we looked at the nearest TV.

And there they were, The Airborne Toxic Event.

And there he was.  This voice I heard for months and the better part of a year.  It belonged to a face, and it was nothing like I ever imagined.

It was better.

They all were.  They were beautiful.  They were perfect.

There they were.  My Band.

My best friend, who was sitting next to me, said my name.

“Colleen?”

I didn’t answer.

“Colleen.”

I still didn’t answer.

She waved her hand in front of my face.  “Hey!” she cried.  “Are you in there?”

I finally picked my jaw off the floor and looked at her.  “Oh my god,” I blurted out.  “Look.”

She turned to the TV.

And I didn’t even know their names.  Because I refused to find out.  Because I didn’t want to know.

But I did now.  Did I ever.

When I got home, I had a very intense Google Search.  I typed in “The Airborne Toxic Event” and searched for a list of their names.  But I wasn’t as interested in the rest of them as much as I was his.  And there it was.

Mikel Jollett.

I searched music videos.  “Sometime Around Midnight” was first.  I searched live videos, and watched them perform it on David Letterman.  And I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that my days of 1.6 concerts were over.  This was the band I wanted to see live.  There was no other band but them.  They were it.  And they were mine.

In a moment, I had suddenly changed.  I was no longer content to passively watch the days go by, not caring if I lived to see the next.  Suddenly, I cared again.  I cared about seeing this band.  It was all I ever wanted.  It was the only thing I wanted.  Now I just had to find a way to get there.

I checked the tour list on their website.

Not one show.  Nothing.

Well, fine.  I would just have to wait.  I was used to waiting.

In the meantime, we started planning our trip to Portland, Oregon that summer.  We booked our flights and made arrangements to stay with friends out there.  We specifically scheduled the trip shortly after the one-year anniversary of Wesley’s birth and death, so that we could appropriately commemorate the days, and then get the heck out of town.

A week after we made our plans, I checked Airborne’s website again.

They were coming to a nearby city for a 3-day summer music festival!

Then I checked which day they were scheduled to appear, and my heart sank.

It was the first day of the festival, the same day we had booked our flight to go to Portland.

No.

I begged Hubby to reschedule our flight for the next day.  I had to see them.  It didn’t feel like an option anymore, because it the only thing I wanted.  I didn’t want to live anymore, but I wanted to see this band.  How did that happen?

When he told me how much it cost to change the flight, I think I may have cried.

But you are not a child, I told myself.  You can handle disappointment.  They are just a band.  You can go see them next year.  Stop acting like this is the worst thing in the world, because it’s not.  You already know what that feels like, and this isn’t even close.  Now grow up.

So I threw myself into getting excited about Portland.  I had plenty to be excited about, too.  Over a week in a beautiful, enchanting city with a close friend I hadn’t seen in almost two years.  The beer capital of the world!  What better place to escape after the days we were dreading in the coming future?

It seemed like the perfect vacation, a temporary respite from these ruins.

Then at the end of April, I found out I was pregnant.

We were overjoyed.  Literally beside ourselves with excitement.  Finally, we could stop being parents without children, and just start being parents.  Nothing and no one could replace Wesley, of course.  We would always miss him, and we would always feel a part of us was missing.  But now we could put all our efforts into caring for this unborn baby, and by the end of the year or the beginning of next, we could finally feel a little like a family again.

Our hearts were overfilled with hope.

“You can be the designated driver,” Hubby told me about our upcoming Portland trip.  And I was glad.  I never cared about drinking beer, anyway.  I didn’t care if we even went.  I didn’t care about the music festival, and I didn’t care about the band.  I didn’t care about anything.  I was back to caring only about this baby.  I would be extra careful now.  The doctors would keep a close eye on me.  Nothing would be missed.  This was it.

Just two weeks after I found out, however, I started to bleed.

I told myself this was okay, though.  Lots of people bleed a little.  Still, I put in a call to my doctor.  They brought me in for a blood test to check hormone levels, and I waited for a phone call with the results.

The hormone levels weren’t as high as they should have been, or needed to be.  An ultrasound was ordered.

But I knew.

I could see it coming.

Like a tidal wave on the horizon, heading straight for this sad, dilapidated wasteland.

All my hard work.  All the progress we had made.  All the rebuilding, the regrowth, the healing.  It was about to be destroyed again.

I was about to be destroyed.

In the distance, I could hear the roaring begin.

I started driving to the doctor’s office in a panicked but heady haze.  It is a long drive, anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour, depending on traffic, and I was on the verge of a mental, physical, and emotional breakdown.

I was powerless to stop this, and I knew I would be swept away.

There was just the one CD in my car.  It was the one I played that day, and I could only listen to the first track.

All At Once.

“And all those evenings swearing at the sky, wishing for more time . . .”

Repeat.

“All the promises we broke when we tried, just wasting all our time . . .”

Repeat.

“We grow old all at once, and it comes like a punch, in the gut, in the back, in the face . . .”

Repeat.

I had officially lost my mind.

Wouldn’t you?

And when I finally arrived and had the ultrasound, and when they found nothing there, I saw with my own eyes that I had lost so much more than that.

Not only had I lost a second baby, I was about to lose myself.

The tidal wave came.  It was coming for me.

And I thought, perhaps I should just let it.  Perhaps I should just stop fighting.  How futile this was, trying to rebuild myself, when all it took was another disappointment – another death – to sweep it all away.  All at once.

But if these ruins are a wilderness, then perhaps a wilderness has trees.  Survival instincts took over, and I raced to find something to climb, leaving behind my cavern of stories, leaving behind all my hard work, leaving behind the progress I had made.  I couldn’t take it with me.  These two hands had to be free for climbing.

Nevertheless, there was one thing that didn’t require use of my hands.  All it required was my ears.

With the water reaching for my heels, I raced for the tallest tree – a bare, twisted, haunted-looking thing.  But its spidery hands looked like they might touch the sky.  And on the tallest branch, a bird was perched, leading a melancholy call.  This was my only hope, the only way I knew to survive.

I started climbing, the music rushing in my ears as the water began rushing over me.  Still, I pressed on, though I could feel my fingers slip.  Just a little further.  Just a little higher.  Don’t look down.  Don’t give up.

“And I feel the water rising around us, and maybe that’s okay . . .”

When I reached the top, the bird flew away, leaving me to wonder how, for we were both wounded.

I sat in the crook of this strange tree and surveyed the damage.

My ruins, underwater.

My life, once again a pitiable mess.

My heart, broken again, with pieces scattered I could never recover.  They had been swept away.

But I was still here.

So I watched the sun set on my underwater ruins, my arms around a dead tree that seemed too far gone to bloom, and too steadfast to let go of life just yet.

No wonder it had found a place to grow here in these stunning ruins.

[Read Part 3 here…]


When she’s not front row at a TATE show with a bird emblazoned on her face, Colleen can be found blogging regularly at These Stunning Ruins, where this post originally appeared. She and her husband have also been known to occasionally lay down a wicked Airborne cover.

By Colleen

[Read the prelude here…]

In the spring of 2011, an indie rock band out of Los Angeles had just released their sophomore album.  The reviews were pouring in.  Expectations were high for the band with the sensational albeit unconventional breakout hit “Sometime Around Midnight.”

And I was oblivious.

In the spring of 2011, I was pregnant with my first child.  For me, the responsibilities were pouring in.  Expectations of my own were higher than ever before.  Caring for this unborn child was top priority.  No distractions allowed.  Not music.  Not even writing.  The novel I had been working on for almost two years was shelved indefinitely.  In fact, I gave up on the hope I would ever finish it at all.  More exciting things were about to happen.  There would be no time for writing, and I wasn’t sure I cared.  I was going to be a Mom.

Yet it was during this time – that spring – that like it or not, I was being introduced to a band.

Hubby had found them on Pandora, and he liked what he heard.  Their name was casually mentioned in conversations we had, but Hubby likes a lot of bands, and I thought he was going through a rotation with them.  I was never that interested.  I had a baby inside me, and there was no need for music.  I didn’t fault him for having outside interests – I just didn’t care to have any myself.  Nothing would distract from this single-minded goal of mine – to take care of myself, to have a healthy child, to be a good mom.  A band was not going to help me with any of those things.  Especially a band whose name I could not for the life of me remember anyway.

However, this was the band that was waking me up in the morning on Hubby’s cell phone.  I dreaded one particular song he used as an alarm of which I didn’t even know the name.  Its opening tones gently jostled me from sleep, but I knew I had seconds before the song blew up into a loud nightmare at 6:30am.  I tried shaking the bed.  I tried nudging his shoulder.  I even tried kicking his shins.  Fortunately, he usually woke up enough to hit the snooze button.  But there were times he slept right through it all.  And then it erupted with its loud guitar riffs and angry singer, until I yelled “Turn it offffffffff!”

The song was “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.”

And one day I finally told Hubby to pick a different song or sleep somewhere else.

This was also the band Hubby elected to listen to while we did chores around the house.  One particular time, I remember we were irritated each other (probably because we had to do chores around the house) and we may have launched a few accusations and exchanged a few short words.  Then Hubby disappeared and put on a song with a playful beginning but whose lyrics felt like they were being directed at me.  “All these things that you say, like I’ll forget about the mind-numbing games that you play . . . I am a gentleman . . . didn’t I pay for every laugh, every dime, every bit every time, and then you feed me some line . . . I won’t hear one more word about Changing . . .”

Wait . . . I don’t play mind-numbing games, do I?  Does he think I’m playing mind-numbing games?  Does he think I don’t appreciate him?  Does he think I’m asking him to change?  Is that why he’s playing this?  Oh my god, is he that mad at me that he is expressing his anger through music?  I feel like this song is attacking me.  I don’t like it.

It wasn’t, though.  And he wasn’t.  But the memory of that moment is forever attached to that song, like a disclaimer.  This song is about me, but it isn’t.  Or wasn’t.  But maybe it was.

Then one night we were driving home from his parents’ house.  The conversation we had in the car took on a serious tone.  Perhaps we were having another “discussion.”  The red and yellow lights of the highway raced past the windows.  The sky above was cloudy.  Nothing but darkness on this late night with the iPod on shuffle and the volume down low.  The conversation suddenly stopped, or perhaps it gradually eased into silence.  The next thing I remember was the song that came on, and Hubby turned the volume up.  The pretty melody of the guitar filled the air.  The melancholy feeling it gave me was uncanny.  It had an early 80s rock ballad feel, and the harmonies were hauntingly beautiful.  I was transfixed for almost four minutes, just feeling the emotion in this random song.  Though when it was over, I never thought to ask what it was.  But I never forgot that song, and I would go searching for it ever since.  It was several months and a lifetime later before I figured out it was “All For A Woman.”

Not but a few weeks before our son was born, in the early summer of 2011, I was sitting in a booth at Applebee’s with Hubby, his friend who was visiting from out of town, and a few other friends of ours. I remember the shirt I was wearing – a hand-me-down maternity piece from my sister-in-law – slightly sweaty from the walk Hubby and I had just taken at a park nearby. I remember my round belly resting against the table, and I remember laughing with my best friend, who was sitting on the other side of me.

“You know that brand of cheese, Laughing Cow?” she said. “I always get the name wrong. I always call it Silly Moo Cheese.”

I giggled, then added, “Oh, that’s like me with this band Hubby is always listening to. I call them ‘The Atomic Fireballs’ but I know that’s wrong.” I leaned over to him. “What’s that band you like now? The Atomic Fireballs?”

Hubby took a breath and narrowed his eyes. Then he sighed out his exasperation. “You mean The Airborne Toxic Event?” he said slowly, like I was a child.

“Yes! That’s the one! Geez, what a long name for a band. How is anyone supposed to remember that?!”

These small, insignificant memories are like faded photographs – snapshots of my Old Life. Because it was just a few weeks later that our son, Wesley, was born. And then, he was gone, and life as we knew it and everything in it was blown to bits, unrecognizable rubble in a wasteland of ruins.

A month or two later, we were still just going through the motions, either crippled from grief or desperately numb. One evening, we decided to clean the house. Silently, we began to work, until like he always had before, Hubby chose the music.

It was my job to tackle the bathroom, and mid-toilet cleaning (where all life-changing moments happen), the sound of mournful violins filled the expanse of our house. They echoed in these ruins in the spaces between the rubble, and the valleys and caverns that had been left from an earthshaking, life changing event.

And I hated it.

It was the sound of mental anguish in a mind and in a place where there had been enough.

I marched into the living room, toilet brush in hand, as he was picking things up around the living room.

“Turn this off,” I ordered.

“Why?”

“Because it’s depressing. Listen to him. He misses her. He misses her. Turn it off!”

Likely, Hubby thought I had lost my mind. He was right, of course, which is why I can’t blame him for saying no. “I like it,” he declared.

An earthshattering, lifechanging event will teach a person which battles are worth fighting, and which songs are worth letting alone. Also, I was dripping toilet water on the carpet. I let him have his way and his depressing song and went back to cleaning the toilet.

There were bigger things at work here, however. Only later did I realize what this song actually did, and why it bothered me so much. I was in the middle of grieving, but just trying to stay numb, shutting out all emotion for fear it would open the floodgates and I wouldn’t be able to stop feeling every horrible, grief-stricken emotion that threatened to fill the canyons of my wasteland. And then this song comes on, cornering me, forcing me to feel the horrible emotions of someone else – a different kind of desperation, but a desperation nonetheless. This was not fiction, this was real. These events had truly happened to him. How else could he so accurately, so acutely, make me feel as though it had happened to me?

But then I suddenly felt as if it had.

This song reminded me of something. A memory. A fictional place long buried by time and the destruction of an empire.

In those few minutes of that song, a part of me resurfaced that I thought I’d never find again.

It’s hard to explain what losing a child is like, because it’s so many things all at once. But one of the results is a kind of amnesia, an inability to recall events before the loss occurred. And not just events, but it reaches its cold hands even further back and erases entire memories as well, so that a person is left with nothing but a shell and a sense of “How did I end up here?” It is confusing and scary both to the person experiencing it and the people who are helpless to watch it happen.

But this song reminded me that I was a writer. That I had started my own story about unrequited love. That it was about a song, about a musician, about life and loss and disappointment and that desperate feeling “You just had to see her, you know that she’ll break you in two.”

It happened so suddenly, a bolt of lightning from the swell of a song. I was struck with inspiration. Driven to finish. Did he ever tell her? I wondered. Does she know this song exists?

I raced back to the living room as the song finished. “Play it again,” I ordered.

This time, I remembered to ask him the name.

“Sometime Around Midnight.”

What a title for this short story, I thought. What a scene it creates in the listener’s mind, from the bar lights to the band, to her melancholy smile and white dress, to her “tonic like a cross.” This song was brilliant. Brilliant! A breathtaking combination of literature and music. It literally transcended the emptiness I felt, the unwillingness I had to feel something so tragic, and the desolation of my own creativity. It filled me with wonder, forced me to feel and deal, and sparked my interest in finishing that stupid book.

Now I was consumed with the desire to write. In just over a month, I blew away the proverbial dust on things I considered “outside interests” earlier that year and made them worth working for. I blazed through a 400-page Word Document, rewriting as necessary, and finished my first novel. I started listening to music again, too, swapping bands with friends like trading cards. But nothing inspired me more than this Airborne Toxic Event.

I listened to All At Once on repeat during writing sessions that would last until dawn. It wasn’t so much the lyrics I was listening to at the time, either, but simply the music. I was enchanted with the idea of a rock band with a violinist, like this was something groundbreaking, and I had always planned to use this idea for my story about the musician. Now there was a band just like the one I imagined. In the deranged mind of a writer, this was akin to the stars and planets aligning. This was where the lines of fiction and reality were blurred, like something from my imagination escaped into the real world.

And in a world that was now a wasteland, this was like finding a cave in the side of a mountain full of glittering, glowing gems, made brilliant by the pressure and refined by all the ecological changes that had occurred from something that could destroy the empire under which it lay.

These were the days when The Airborne Toxic Event was simply the background noise that echoed in these ruins.

Then one day, a month or two after I finished my book, I was waist-deep in the process of editing when I listened to “The Graveyard Near the House.”

A line struck me out of nowhere: “And so I pictured us like corpses, lying side by side in pieces.”

I remember sitting on the bed with my laptop when my heart stopped for a moment. What had I been listening to?

I Googled the lyrics, started the song over, and finally heard it for the first time the way it was meant to be heard.

Mid-song, I was bawling my eyes out.

It was a mirror – I heard myself in the words. It was also like a window – I heard my husband. I heard a conversation we were having constantly in the weeks and months since Wesley died. I saw us there each night, when we would “talk and read and laugh and sleep at night in bed together.” I saw myself “wake in tears sometimes” wondering if he would “be a good man and stay behind if I got old.” I realized I shared the same belief, that “it’s better to love whether you win or lose or die.” And there I was with the memory of my son, carving his name out of the sky, and trying desperately to “write it all down” at the same time I was absolutely terrified of losing my best friend, my husband.

It was uncanny, hearing someone else lay bear everything going through your mind and every emotion bleeding from your broken heart and every fear that keeps you up at night.

I raced into the living room where Hubby was watching TV.

“Oh my God,” I said, tears still streaming down my face.

“What?” He turned off the TV in a panic. “What’s wrong?”

“Oh my God. Have you heard ‘The Graveyard Near the House’?”

“What?”

“The Graveyard Near the House! Have you heard it?”

“What are you talking about?”

“The Airborne Toxic Event!”

“Oh. OH. Yeah. Yes. I think so.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“About that song!”

“What about it?”

“It’s SAD!”

“Oh. Yeah. It is, I guess. Sorry.”

“It sounds like it’s about us.“

“Hmm.”

“Look up the lyrics. You’ll see. It’s about us.“

Hubby went back to the TV, and I went back to the bedroom, still confused and a little shaken. I knew I had probably scared him to death. Perhaps he even felt guilty he hadn’t warned me, as we try to prepare each other for anything that might even smack of something sad. And “Graveyard” was a full-blown descent into the reality of life, love, and loss.

These ruins are very isolated. So few people understand the weight of the loss, and how deep these ruins truly run. They confuse people. They scare people into silence. They provoke the most thoughtless conclusions from others who are quick to cast judgment. We were alone in this vast canyon of sadness, ignored by some, and misunderstood by most, if not all.

To hear a song that perfectly matched the way I felt, down to the very core of my being, was as shocking as a voice out of the sky. Where did it come from? Whose was it?

Who wrote this?

[Read Part 2 here…]


When she’s not front row at a TATE show with a bird emblazoned on her face, Colleen can be found blogging regularly at These Stunning Ruins, where this post originally appeared. She and her husband have also been known to occasionally lay down a wicked Airborne cover.