I’m going to write about death now.
Did you know the 1996 hit song “How Bizarre” has an accordion in it? At least I think it does. I’m positive I heard it in there on my way to buy Bubly water instead of beer. I am about to embark on the annual family vacation to Duluth, MN. My first completely dry excursion there. No breweries, no can beer out of a cooler after a long hike, no flights of beer at Grandma’s Saloon while the kids down Mac & Cheese. Bone. Dry. Sober as a judge.
I am positive that was a damn accordion. But who really listens to the song “How Bizarre”? It’s pretty much designed to be unobtrusive, moderately funky elevator music. However, if you think about it long and hard for some odd reason, like I was about to do…”How Bizarre” is a brilliantly crafted piece of bubblegum pop trash. The annoying vocal inflection of OMC’s lead singer is just slightly off kilter…not too much…but just enough to make you listen about 10% closer. It’s odd without being too weird. The disgustingly catchy hook and idiotic storytelling are just icing on the cake and somehow keep you from nodding off completely. If this song was a smile it would be a wry smirk from on overconfident nerd you think you recognize, but cannot place. Fuck it. I gotta google if this has an accordion in it. This is very important to me at this moment. I don’t know why. I need the answer. I find none. I do find out that the lead singer’s name was Pauly (that’s perfect) and that he died in 2010, just eight days before his 41st birthday. How bizarre.
I received an alarming phone call from my father while I was vacationing in Duluth. His tone of voice took on an inflection that I have never heard it take before. I didn’t just listen to him 10% closer, I listened 600% closer. This was something new. This was something really, really bad. Now five days later I am driving south for Winona, MN. My funeral suit hangs frumpily in the back seat of my 2012 Jeep Liberty. It had just been worn a few weeks earlier. It hadn’t even been dry cleaned.
My funeral suit is a dull, unobtrusive grey number that I wear with a simple black dress shirt. No tie. Fuck ties. When you are a boring dad in your 40s you are allowed to become Sonny Crockett from Miami Vice if you like. Nobody gives a fuck. You might as well be invisible. This is my “groutfit”… there are many like it, but this one is mine.
This is the 3rd time I have worn the groutfit in the last year and a half. The first of these 3 times inspired my very first post on this here sober blog. When I was in the foggy mist of the first 30 days sober, the big D word seemed like an important monumental thing to write about. After that, I felt like I had written all I had to say on the subject. I felt like I had sufficiently depressed myself, and now it was ok to soberly move on. Clearly though, when an 88-year-old grandma dies…no matter how poetic you make the details sound…this is the “quaint” version of death. I know this now.
I also know that there will be much darker times ahead. Even more terrible then the other 2 times I wore my groutfit this year. Like when someone extremely close to me dies. I know that just around the corner lies the kind of uncompromising sadness that makes you question your very existence, and I know it’s coming for us all. I also know that Bob Dylan said: “death is not the end” and that it may or may not be true. This is okay though, as long as the living are still there to comfort you.
I bought my first funeral suit in 2009 when my Grandpa Lowell died. Actually, it was the first suit I ever bought that had 2 matching pieces. I was 33 years old. My brother was with me and he got one too. A guy at Men’s Warehouse in Maple Grove, MN sold them to us. This guy must have really had a good laugh when we walked out. My first funeral suit was navy blue with white pinstripes. He set me up with a yellow shirt and a yellow paisley tie as well. Quintessential mourning wear.
My brother had the good sense to go with an all-black with white pinstripe ensemble. It looked like a Harlem zoot suit designed by Johnny Cash. When we got to the church to meet our younger brothers, both of them looked like they had robbed Goodwill of mismatched suits 3 sizes too big for them, then paired it with whatever black accessory they could find at Ragstock. My littlest brother still looks cooler than me in the picture though. There are two reasons for this… the first being that he actually IS cooler than me (he played in a band silly), and two he found a skinny tie that looked like Mr. Pink’s in the movie Reservoir Dogs. I looked like freakin’ Nic Cage in The Family Man when his wife buys him the green Armani suit that is on clearance because it’s 10 years old.
As I drive out of the Twin Cities with my funeral suit, I listen to Spotify. I have found what I think is the unofficial soundtrack lineup for Joaquin Phoenix’s upcoming movie ‘Joker‘…lots of depressing heavy music on there. Good. Do your worst. The song “Sweetness Follows” by REM comes on and I drift into hazy highway daydream driving. “Sweetness Follows” is the most epic funeral song ever written. When I drove back and forth from the Twin Cities to Rochester, MN as my Grandpa Joe was dying I played REM’s Automatic for the People repeatedly (yeah the one with ‘Everybody Hurts’…eh…I was a rookie whadya gonna do?). I never cried once in the 3 times I drove down there (my Grandpa Joe practically raised me when my parents got divorced). However, the floodgates finally opened the last time I drove back home. He died that very evening. I wasn’t there. I felt something snap on that ride back. I just knew it was over.
“Sweetness Follows” is one of the most depressing and also one of the most surprisingly uplifting songs I have ever heard in my life. Randomly hearing it at this exact moment in time is like a warm fuzzy blanket. I am deep in thought. I miss my exit. When I come to my senses, Bowie’s “Life on Mars” is playing. Where the hell am I? Hastings, MN? During the last 4 minutes and 22 seconds, I could have been beamed up and prodded by alien life forms or the puppeteer of ALF for that matter. I could have kept driving down the same road for 18 more hours if that song had kept looping. I could have been crushed by an oncoming vehicle like Elliot, my 16-year-old cousin. He too was listening to Spotify.
I had originally wanted to write a blog post about a man named Aaron Klein. Aaron was a fantastic human. He had an earnestness for life that I’ve never seen in anyone else before or since. He was so earnest it actually became downright annoying at times. Aaron worked with me at the network as a director and producer for 14 years, including the last few years in which I was his manager. I still remember the exact moment he told me he had some weird back pain. I told him to go to a chiropractor. A year later I was surprising him with a cake for his “retirement” to stay home with his kids. A year after that I was hugging him and telling him I loved him as he lay on his death bed. 36 years old, with a wife and 3 young children. It was hard to put on the funeral suit a week later. The hardest.
That tragedy coming full circle completely gut-punched us for the last month at work. I just couldn’t write about it. Didn’t have it in me. It was hands down the most devastating thing I had witnessed in 43 years on this planet. Until I got that call in Duluth from my dad. My uncle’s youngest son…my 88-year-old grandmother’s youngest grandchild…one of the two teenagers who pall-beared her casket with me on that frigid North Dakota morning in 2018…was now suddenly and shockingly erased from this earth. That was literally the last time I saw him too. When 4 of us (we didn’t have enough people for the usual 6 man crew) hilariously near-fumbled a casket down a flight of stairs in Carrington, ND (see blog post: “Formaldehyde”). Unbelievable. He’s gone? Just like that? What the fuck???
I am at Elliot’s service. I go through the receiving line (a line which would snake forever I’m told and last more than 2 hours). I am barely able to form words when I see my uncle, his oldest son Ian, and Elliot’s mother. I sit mouth agape for the entire service. Probably looking something like the hordes of teenagers that file through the funeral home, jaws on the floor at the sight of all those flowers and the thought of the supreme finality of death.
I can’t cry. Even though I sit directly behind the bereaved and feel a pit in my stomach the size of a beach ball everytime they start crying. I just can’t possibly comprehend the loss they are feeling, it’s unattainable to my mind’s eye. There are words read from my uncle’s hand about “not enough time” and a speech from the poor vacationer who drove the other vehicle. Beautiful words and profound closure of what happened at the accident scene. It is a vortex of pain. It is a wake-up call that is burned like a brand into everyone who walked through the door that day. Death is not the eternal sleep. Life is the slumber and death is the vicious alarm for which there is no snooze button.
I leave immediately after the ceremony. I feel an unstoppable need to drive two and a half hours home through darkness and the world’s biggest river bugs splattering my windshield in order to hug my kids before they go to bed. Like Nic Cage in Brett Ratner’s cheesy 2000 movie The Family Man, this is my “glimpse”. This is the good Lord sitting me down for some cocoa and saying “you think you have it bad because the network laid off 20% of it’s staff 2 months ago….well…get a load of this raw shit you groutfit-wearing fuckhead.”
I better get busy living I guess…life begins at 43?
I read a David Lynch quote recently which bluntly and succinctly sums up the last month for me:
“I don’t think that people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable. It seems like religion and myth were invented against that, trying to make sense of it.”
We are all one-hit wonders. We all have hidden accordions in us. We grab onto every distraction we can to remind ourselves that we aren’t animals that decay or die suddenly. Every person on this earth is a one-hit-wonder named Pauly or Sugar Ray or Tommy Tutone trying to milk a decades-long career from one flash-in-the-pan melody. In the end, we all end up playing State Fairs and go to a potluck in a church basement after a funeral. I no longer fear this. It is inevitable.
When I get back home my kids are already asleep, all worn out from their 2nd day of the new school year. I find a card in my pocket. Elliot’s family has given out memory cards to everyone at the service. You’re supposed to write down a memory of him and keep it with you always. I couldn’t think of anything to write at first, but then I remember the North Dakota trip and jot down “4 Man Crew.” I take a picture of it, text it to my uncle, fold it up gingerly and stick it in my wallet.
Another thought floats through my head, fleeting but relevant…something from the service about remembering Elliot’s family on what would have been his 17th birthday on Oct. 1st. I briefly consider putting a note in my phone to remember to call my uncle that day. How the fuck am I not going to forget to do this? Wait…Oct 1st? I check the funeral home leaflet with Elliot’s obituary on it. Then I remember something…
On October 1st I will be exactly 1 year sober.