The song we know too well comes on the car radio.
“Make it stop,” my 9-year-old begs. “I don’t like this song.”
“Caroline,” I cry. “It’s your song!” and I sing the Neil Diamond classic refrain:
“Sweet Caroline, good times never seemed so good.”
She is adamant, shaking her head in the backseat, belted in at 35 miles per hour with no hope of escaping. I refuse to change stations.
It was over a decade ago, shortly after 9/11, when my parents, husband and I went to a Neil Diamond concert. We were craving the safe familiarity a Neil Diamond concert brings. There were the ’70s songs from when I was only a girl forever in blue jeans, and the ’80s anthem “America” (“Home, don’t it seem so far away? We’re traveling light today, in the eye of the storm”). “Kristi!” my dad exclaimed and high-fived me as Diamond sang “Sweet Caroline.” I looked at the 20,000 people clapping, singing and swaying, and I felt happiness—pure, unadulterated bliss.
Two weeks later, my hero, my 58-year-old dad, was diagnosed with brain tumors stemming from melanoma. The sadness enveloped us. The only thing I could do to give him hope was beg a former colleague in the government to get my dad a signed letter from the man whom he felt was a genuine leader, President Bush. An overnight letter arrived at surgery time. George and Laura Bush—as if they had known him, as if he were a big contributor–kindly wished my dad, a sales manager from Ohio, luck in his fight.
“He’s a good man, isn’t he, Kristi?” my dad smiled after I read him the letter.
You are the good man, Dad, I thought. This is wrong. Make it stop.
Dad died six months later in a cold, stark hospital room.
After I originally wrote off fatigue to grief, I found out I was actually grief-stricken and pregnant, and had been pregnant the entire time I had sat at my dad’s bedside. I dug out the infant car seat again and Goodnight Moon from one of my son’s rooms. The pregnancy gave me pause and allowed me to rest my eyes from the vicious torrent of tears. I was unsure how a baby could fit into my crying jags.
Nausea interrupted my musical chairs of memories: the one of Dad taking me to my first Broadway show, telling me the sprayed saliva from the actor singing “Old Man River” was a badge of honor, and the Christmas Eve where he turned up “Midnight Train to Georgia” in the Chevrolet so loud that the car shook. He needed to be here with me, enthusiastically enjoying his loves—family, friends, music and Cleveland sports.
When the baby arrived a month early, we hadn’t settled on a name yet. She lay unnamed as they ran tests. We wanted to name her something to do with my dad, but Gordon, of course, wouldn’t fit, and I couldn’t call her Cleveland-Teams-Who-Haven’t Won-Any-Championships-Since-I’ve-Been-Alive.
Soon I cradled my five-pounder. And when I hurt, hurtin’ runs off my shoulder, how can I hurt when I’m holding you? echoed in my mind in another cold, stark hospital room, but in this one, I noticed the bright flowers beside me. I felt my dad’s high-five at that moment. The name was “Caroline,” the last happy memory shared with Dad.
As a preschooler, she would sing along. If she heard the song in a store, she’d exclaim, “I came down from heaven as Papa was going up!” But somewhere along the line—maybe when I wrote Neil Diamond and he put my letter in his stalker file but also sent an 8 x 10 picture, causing her to be the only 3-year-old with a signed Neil Diamond glossy next to Elmo in her room–she didn’t want to hear the song anymore.
It is at this developmental juncture between a tween and a song on the car radio that one can recognize an existential crisis coming on. Here is what I want to say to my daughter in this moment:
Apparently, after that concert, some applicants to Neil Diamond’s fan club were told it was too full. Whatever. I didn’t need to join anyways. I mean, theoretically, not that it was me who actually got rejected or anything.
You will hear this song at a bar someday. The echoing “SO GOOD, SO GOOD,” will strike a bizarre camaraderie with other patrons, just like the words “SALT” and “PEPPER” in a Jimmy Buffett tune.
I can’t believe you tried to sell Neil Diamond’s Classic Hits at our garage sale.
I wish you would’ve known Papa, sweetie. You have his love of music, his happy spirit.
But here we are, her hands covering her ears as the song fills the car, so I don’t tell her any of my thoughts. Instead, I look at her in the rear view mirror and recognize her need to turn away from me too, little by little. I smile at my little girl, who’s now searching for Selena Gomez on her iPod, and I form the words to myself:
Was in the spring, and spring became a summer, who’d have believed you’d come along?