Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Soundtrack stuck in time

One of our cars has satellite radio, which means that I've been listening to the '90s on 9 station a lot recently. As a result, I've been hearing a lot of music that I hadn't thought of in a long time--like C+C Music Factory and Deee-Lite. And Ace of Base and TLC and White Town. But it's those first two, and that similar vein of early 90s dance pop, that really get to me.

I love that music, and not just because nobody can resist dancing to "Gonna Make You Sweat." Mostly I love it because it reminds me of my uncle Michael. I've talked about him before, and Callum gets his middle name after him. He died almost 18 years ago, during what could politely be called a very different musical era from where we are today. Not that today's popular music is necessarily BETTER. Just very different.

I have a memory of driving with my parents and sister up to New York City to visit Michael a couple years before he died. I think it was early 1993? I have some visual memories of his apartment, the layout and the tiny kitchen and maybe a ladder? Like he had a loft bedroom? It's all very fuzzy. I was young and it's been a long time. But I remember his tape deck, his whole musical setup, on a low shelf. And I have a distinct memory of squatting in front of it with him and sorting through albums and him playing music I hadn't heard before, and making me tapes of it. I still have the tapes, carefully labeled in his calligraphic handwriting. C+C Music Factory. Deee-Lite. The bands' names are written on white labels with a thin blue marker. I haven't listened to them in years. I'd have to dig up an old stereo or boom box with a tape deck, for one thing, and for another, I don't know if the tapes are even still functional, and plus, this is the age of digital music, and if I want to hear that music I can just queue it up on Rhapsody and listen to it instantaneously.

There are so many layers to this that feel so, so wrong. It's hardly a groundbreaking realization to point out that hey, when people die, their lives stop while everyone who's still alive keeps living and the world keeps changing, leaving the dead people behind. But it's crazy to me that my uncle, who was so into music, who was so into teaching me to be into music, was forced to stop with the early 90s. That my memories of him are frozen at that time, with that music. That he never knew about MP3s and iPods and Pandora and Rhapsody and Spotify. He didn't know about Napster. His knowledge of music sharing stopped at CDs. For god's sake, he didn't ever even get to know about the Internet. He missed Hanson. He missed the Spice Girls. He missed N Sync. He missed Friends.

And I missed him. I was 10 when he died. We were close, he was my favorite uncle, but I only knew him the way a little kid can know an adult. I don't even know if he would have liked Friends. My guess is no, but I have no idea if I'm right. I have no idea what his taste was like. I know stories about him, I know what some his strengths were and some of his flaws. I know certain things from snippets I remember myself. But that's it. My knowledge of him is mostly gaps.

I remember when he came to visit shortly after I'd finally found out that he had HIV. I was probably nine years old, maybe even ten--it was close to the end of his life but during the visit he wasn't noticeably very ill, at least not to me, but I think I recall that he went downhill fast at the very end so maybe I already was 10 during this visit. We went out to dinner and for dessert Michael offered to share a milkshake with me. I'd only very recently learned about his diagnosis and I hadn't had time to learn much about HIV yet--not to mention that in the early '90s there was still a lot of prominent misinformation about how it was spread. I had no idea if you could get HIV by sharing food with someone. I didn't know what to say. I wanted to share a milkshake with him. I didn't want to offend him. But I didn't know if it was dangerous, and I was scared to ask. But then I told myself that he would never have asked if it could be dangerous, that my parents would not have sat there smiling if it could be dangerous, so I said yes, and we shared the milkshake. And then the next day I went to school and I found a book about HIV at the library and I read about it and I learned that HIV couldn't be transmitted by saliva, and I was relieved.

I've always been so glad that I shared that milkshake with him. And yet it makes me so sad and angry that that's one of the only memories I have of him, one of the only real, clear, firm memories. That everything I know about him is so fuzzy and broken. That I have no memories at all, even fuzzy and broken memories, from before he was sick. That I know we were close, that he was the only one who managed to win me over when I was very little and very shy, that he stayed with my family for awhile, but that I don't really remember the closeness for myself. That almost everything from my life of which I have clear memories happened after he died. That one of the only things that reminds me of him is music that is badly out of date.

It's been almost 18 years since he died. But the pain hasn't gone away. It fades and it's not constantly present, but it's there. It still hurts. Even now. And it feels weird, like maybe I'm overstaking my claim? He was just an uncle. I was just a kid. Maybe if he were still alive, we wouldn't be that close anymore. Maybe I'm using rose-colored lenses. Maybe I should be over it by now.

But I'm not over it. I won't get over it. I miss him. And I'm angry that I missed most of his life, and that he missed most of mine. 18 years later and it's still so unfair that he died when he was just 39. Maybe we wouldn't have been that close by now, if he were still alive. But I wanted the chance to find out.


  1. Damn girl. You are such a fantastic story teller. I'm so glad I know you.

  2. Agree. Reading this made me misty. I feel similarly about my grandmother's twin sister. She was my first piano teacher & I was probably closer to her than to my Grammy. She died of leukemia when I was maybe 11? I still think of her often, especially now that I have a daughter. It's a wonderful thing to have family members who made such an impression on us so early, and these remembrances are the best way to honor their lives, especially when they ended too soon! Oh, now I'm for real crying. Lots of love for your uncle, my great aunt, and that person in everyone's lives!

  3. My goodness, this is so tragically beautiful.

    I actually just read a book that I think you would really enjoy. Or maybe not necessarily enjoy, but really relate to. It's called "Tell the Wolves I'm Home" by Carol Rifka Brunt. It's one of the best books I've read in the last few years.

  4. Beautifully told, Jess. And you have every right to stake a claim. He was special to you and that's all that is important. I think it's wonderful you gave Callum his name!

  5. This is beautiful. The stake is most certainly yours to claim--honoring him with both the memories and the longing for more to remember is a wonderful thing. There's something deeply uncomfortable about that robbed time.