Like many parents with college-age kids, I’ve been missing the hugs, family dinners, concert dates and lunch conversations that I took for granted before the pandemic hit in March.
I’m fortunate that my 22-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter both live just a few miles away from me in Salt Lake City, where they grew up. But now that our contact has been drastically cut due to a high coronavirus positivity rate in Utah, they might as well be living in another state.
Out of concern for one another’s safety, our get-togethers are now rare and fleeting, always at a distance, always with masks, no hair rumpling allowed. We didn’t get together for Thanksgiving, and we’ve scrapped plans for an extended family Christmas party.
It hurts that we can’t be as close as we once were. We weren’t even able to properly comfort each other when our beloved family matriarch died in October. My children weren’t allowed inside their grandmother’s care center and didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.
I was feeling especially sad about this during one of my daily outings for fresh air this month. Then something unexpected and wonderful happened that brought me to happy tears.
When I drove to a local park and climbed out of the car, I realized I had left my iPod with all of my favorite songs at home. Music has always provided comfort and hope for me during my walks, and I didn’t want to head out on my route without it. What to do?
I suddenly remembered that my iPhone had a radio. I’d never bothered to use it before because I didn’t want to carry a phone while exercising. But on this day, Dec. 4, I hit the music app for the first time and found a delightful surprise: My son’s playlists.
Every song that he’d downloaded on iTunes since moving out on his own 3 1/2 years ago was there, from “On the Border” by Al Stewart to “Break Down and Let It All Out” by Nina Simone and “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. I found rap songs, love songs, movie soundtracks, rock classics from the ’60s and folk songs by Joan Baez that were his grandmother’s favorites.
There were 118 songs revealing what my son has found beautiful, heartbreaking or meaningful since leaving home as a freshman chemistry student to begin his own life.
Our iTunes accounts are linked, which explained how his downloads ended up on my phone. But I had no idea that I’d been carrying around some of his most personal choices in my handbag.
My son has a big heart and a natural curiosity, but he has always been intensely private. For a moment at the park that afternoon, I hesitated whether to push “play.” It almost felt like I was sneaking a peek at his diary.
Of course, curiosity ultimately won (I know now where he gets it). I put in my ear buds, hit “shuffle” and started to walk. And on the fourth song in, after listening to Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Simon & Garfunkel and Modest Mouse, my eyes filled with tears.
“Society, you’re a crazy breed,
I hope you’re not lonely without me.
Society, crazy and deep,
I hope you’re not lonely without me.”
Written and performed by Eddie Vedder, the song is from the movie “Into the Wild,” which tells the story of Christopher McCandless, a hiker who dropped out of society in 1990 to live in the Alaskan wilderness. His body was found in 1992 after he starved to death in an abandoned bus.
I had heard my son talk about his own concern for the environment and his dismay for a world where people were caught up in self-importance and greed. But had I really listened? Did his song choices reveal a loneliness or longing that I hadn’t noticed?
I was relieved that the next song up, by Bob Dylan, was more hopeful:
” ‘Twas in another lifetime – one of toil and blood,
When blackness was a virtue, the road was full of mud;
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form,
‘Come in,’ she said, ‘I’ll give you shelter from the storm.’ “
All of those family road trips when he’d been forced to listen to his dad’s favorite tunes had paid off. Bob Dylan! My son had downloaded 22 of his songs – more than any other artist on his song list, with Leonard Cohen coming in second.
My son was more poetic and insightful than I knew. I loved the idea of him listening to Cohen’s “Hallelujah” while cramming for finals. I was also delighted to discover that he appreciated some of my own favorite performers: Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones, Paul Simon and Cat Stevens.
“I’m looking for a hard-headed woman,
One who will take me for myself;
And if I find my hard-headed woman,
I won’t need nobody else, no, no no . . .”
The lyrics by Cat Stevens made me smile. Had my son downloaded “Hard Headed Woman” around the same time that he made the decision to move in with his girlfriend?
I probably won’t know the answer for a while. I’m hoping to keep my discovery of his treasure trove a secret – at least until the pandemic is over. Then I might mess up his hair, wrap him in a hug and confess that I’ve been “eavesdropping.”
“Love, Love, Love” by Akron/Family is the last song I listened to on a walk after a fresh snowfall.
“Every precious human being’s been a precious parent to you,
What can be done, what can we do;
What can be done, what can we do,
Go out and love, love, love everyone.”
It was after listening that I knew we had more in common than I ever imagined.