Loose Strife

An MP3 blog

Monday, May 08, 2006

#26 - A death in the family

Patti Smith – “birdland” (live in London, 6/25/05)

His father died.

Those are the first three words to “birdland,” my favorite Patti Smith song. The lowercase is intentional.

From Patti Smith Complete: Lyrics, Notes and Reflections (Anchor, 1999):

The birdland here was inspired by a passage from Peter Reich’s “Book of Dreams” His father Wilhelm Reich had died, and during a family gathering he thought he saw the lights of a spaceship while the song “Party Doll” was blaring. He believed his father to be at the helm. But despite his desperate cries, the light vanished into the night sky as Peter lay on the grass, weeping beneath the stars.

The lyrics were apparently improvised live in the studio. Smith describes herself as a “human saxophone.” She talks about revering her “two Johnnys,” John Coltrane and Johnny Carson, as examples of men who could think on their feet.

The shrinking of my father’s physical frame that I’d written about earlier, that stumped so many medical practitioners, had stopped by March; it ultimately reduced him from 6’5” to 4’2”. By this point he was almost completely immobile.

It was not a huge change. For years he did little besides sit at the kitchen table, looking out the window, through the slats of the white aluminum blinds and the mesh of the blackened screen, at the patch of grass in our backyard, the scrubby hedge, the overgrown blue spruce, and the slate roof and crumbling wall of the brick garage, which was half covered with English ivy. He’d have his bowl of cereal and banana, drink his cup of Lipton tea, and then stare until lunch, when he’d rise, heat up a can of soup, half spoon/half pour it out of the pot and into a bowl, sit back down, eat it, and stare. Eventually my mother would come home, make him dinner, and serve it to him in the same chair. The sun would set, and maybe he’d move into the living room to watch some TV.

He’d usually fall asleep there on the couch. Sometimes I’d wake him, touching his bony shoulder or---once the shrinking began and he was suddenly, shockingly, smaller than me, for the first time in my life---stroking the wisps of hair on his head, like I do when I have to wake up a kid at the day care center where I work. My father would then wake with a small start, chuckle a bit, mumble something, and get up, either by himself or, later, with help from me, and he would trudge upstairs to bed. In the morning, he would trudge downstairs, and begin again.

Sometimes I would let him sleep on the couch, to save the trip upstairs.

His death came pretty quickly once he decided not to get out of bed; about three weeks, I guess.

The picture posted above was the view from his bed---a framed portrait of his mother and himself from the 1920s. He stared at it for many of his final waking hours, trading the empty backyard for a view into the past. I suppose it was the last thing he saw: one frame from the life that is supposed to flash before your eyes as you go, stilled in amber.

I suppose there is a point in most people’s lives where you stop looking forward and start looking backwards. The idea terrifies me.


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