This post is in the theme “My Aquatic Childhood and my Father the Pirate”. Read the first.
June 29, New York: I haven’t listened to Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele since 1996. It was probably September 4th when I played it for the last time. My father died on August 31st.
I did not consciously choose Boys for Pele to be the soundtrack to the early mourning period following my father’s death. It happened to be the album I had on repeat at the time. As a teenager, I listened to albums in constant loop; I would let a phase in time imprint itself upon an album and then I would lock it up and move on to the next. Boys for Pele received this treatment for the most extreme of phases. A titanic outpouring of emotion locked up in 18 songs.
August 31st was a Saturday and we were planning to go sailing in the afternoon. My Dad had been working on disassembling and reassembling a watch at the kitchen table. At some point, he went upstairs to lie down and then shortly thereafter we heard a loud thump. You don’t know a dying body when you see one for the first time. The wheezing, rattled breath. We called 911 and the ambulance raced over and my mom and I got ready to go to the hospital. We were frightened but not worried. We were sure he’d just taken a spill, knocked himself out. Here was a man of 43, a healthy husband and father, a stingy son of a bitch who was going to be so pissed when he woke up in the hospital owing money for the ambulance. My mom and I shared a nervous laugh about that in the car.
There is a room in hospitals called “The Quiet Room”. It’s a calming measure for extreme circumstances with a one-time use per occupant. It was my first time so I didn’t know what was coming. The doctor, near to my father’s age, was shocked herself. Kept asking questions about his smoking and rushing through the actual what of it all; it didn’t really sink in for us for a long time. He was dead. Felled by a heart attack. Dead and gone from our lives forever on a sunny Saturday before Memorial Day.
We went home and I went into my bedroom and I turned on Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele for the next five days and imprinted all of the emotions of that weekend into those songs. We talk about music as a powerful recall. This is one album I live in fear of. I have left coffeeshops when I heard the first strains of “Caught a Lite Sneeze”.
So today, a summer Sunday, I am listening to it again.
Deep breath. Here we go.
I thought for certain I was going to sob my way through this album, but it was hardly that climactic. I had a lump in my throat from the moment “Horses” began, a wariness like a darkness had descended upon a woodland walking path. But I only teared up a few times: “Marianne”, “Not the Red Baron”. This is not a mournful album. I remembered it poorly and expected a series of dirges, but there are hard drum beats and lighter ditties. There is though much darkness stitched through it (I discovered this album in a period that was the closest I ever came to a goth phase). Listening as an adult, I spent a lot of time appreciating Amos’ talent. And I spent most of this time feeling terrible for blaring this record on repeat for four straight days in a house of mourning. Hell, I just didn’t know what else to do. This was, at the time, how I experienced emotion. A few days in, my friend Darwin came and brought me to get ice cream. Darwin was the only one who knew what to do, Darwin who came from a large extended family, he’d seen death come knocking many times. Mourning was a routine. I’ve now written a few more eulogies in the time since, but that one, that first one I wrote listening to this album on repeat, it was brutal.
Dan Fitzgerald was a great dad. I was damned lucky to have him while I did. The formative years that came after he passed, formative for age and the incident itself, they tore through me. I like to think I came through those years stronger. And I don’t believe in regret or second-guessing the past. But I would give anything for one more warm Sunday afternoon with Dan Fitzgerald. Just to catch up and talk, preferably on a sailboat, a light breeze pushing us through the waters of the Gulf.
This post concludes the “My Aquatic Childhood and My Father the Pirate” theme. Next up is “A Long Waltz Through Nerddom.”