Losing My Oldest Friend, and Healing with Music

by Catherine Newman
Originally Published: 

The piece I pitched, and planned to write, was about the ukulele: an ode to it; an essay in praise of that small, cheap, and cheerful instrument. Anybody can learn to play a ukulele, and to have one hanging about the house, enticingly strummable, has turned into one of my life’s great pleasures.

Our son brings it in the car and plays along to Stromae on the radio or, even, to my Joni Mitchell playlist. My husband picks it up to plink out an impromptu song about the living room, and how cluttered our coffee table is. At a dinner party, someone will inevitably strum it to that irresistible Israel Kamakawiwo’ole uke version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” and I will swell with gladness. You should get a ukulele was going to be my point. And it still is, because you should—you should get a ukulele.

But then my oldest, dearest friend—my heart’s companion of 43 years—died, and now I need to say something else, something a little different. It’s that, in the absence of religion, music is my religion.

After she died, after I had written and delivered her eulogy and returned home from New York, people came over. The people whom I refer to as “The People.” The People came with food and to be fed, and to love us up in our place of loss. We drank the right amount of wine and too much of a Polish honey liqueur that smelled like cat pee, and I laughed and cried and got snot on everyone and told the story of my friend’s last days. We played a little Boggle.

Before long, though, the thing happened that happens, which is that my son sat down at the piano, and people picked up various instruments, and everyone began to sing. To be clear: There is some crazy amount of talent in this group, but also some of us who play no instruments and simply like to express ourselves through raggedy uplifted voice—to join that voice to others, in joy and sorrow. The point is melody, I think. The point is harmony.

We sang Joni Mitchell’s “River” and The Beatles’ “Let It Be.” We sang “Songbird” by Fleetwood Mac and “Forever Young” (that’s Alphaville, on the off chance you weren’t a teenager in the ’80s), and all 10 million beautiful, crushing verses of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” We already had some of the lyrics printed out for different songs, and the teenagers were looking up others on their phones, the way they do. It was heaven on earth.

We sing together a lot. Typically, we come together for joy rather than solace, and sometimes we plan in advance. That’s the case with a series of hootenannies, where instrument players bring their instruments—guitars, banjos, mandolins, drums, recorders, shaker eggs, the glockenspiel that we periodically check out from our town’s groovy library, and, yes, ukuleles—and, in a big, noisy group, we play the songs that we’ve been returning to, and that I recommend:

“I’ll Fly Away,” Alison Krauss

“Kick Drum Heart,” Avett Brothers

“When My Time Comes,” Dawes

“Pecan Pie,” Wilco

“Kids,” MGMT

“Goddamn Lonely Love,” Drive-By Truckers

“Ho Hey” and also “Hey Ya,” The Lumineers and OutKast, respectively

“Shady Grove,” traditional

“Home,” Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

“Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” the Guns N’ Roses version

(Not your cuppa, this list? Feel free to go in a different direction than an eclectic collection of 40-somethings’ beloved alt-country-folk-bluegrass!)

Sometimes each family sends around a single song a couple weeks before the get-together so that instrument players can learn their parts and harmonizers can learn theirs, and people like me, with no notable talent, can simply enjoy the songs. The Beatles’ “I Will,” say, or Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” Sometimes one of the teenagers plays a trumpet, another the cello. Always, it’s just what I needed. It’s what you need too, I swear. So do it, okay? Get together with your friends and their kids, print out some song lyrics, and make music together. If people play instruments—even just an enthusiastic tambourine or a middle-school oboe—great. And it they don’t? It doesn’t matter. Raise your voices together in song.

During my friend’s last days in hospice, death was less like the lily I’d imagined, clasped in placid hands, and more like a malevolent octopus she was wrestling. It was a monster. But the lovely young music therapist came with her guitar. She played The Beatles’ “Across the Universe,” Iron and Wine’s version of “Such Great Heights,” and the Avett Brothers’ “I and Love and You,” about Brooklyn (we were in Coney Island, after all). And we were soothed, my friend calm and smiling. Days later, at the service, the cantor sang “You Must Believe in Spring,” so clear and true that you almost did.

It’s true that music doesn’t offer some of the creature comforts of organized religion, like heaven or an afterlife or a tidy and sensible organizing principle. You can’t exactly say that music has a plan for you. But if you want to know the meaning of life, it’s this, right here, in song. It’s communion and exaltation. It is holiness itself. As Leonard Cohen sings it: “And even though it all went wrong / I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.” Hallelujah.

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