Monday, October 28, 2013

A Reminder to Make the Most of the 'Living Years'

"Say it loud, say it clear.
You can listen as well as you hear.
It's too late when we die
To admit we don't see eye to eye."

Mike and the Mechanics

I've never been a Mike and the Mechanics fan.

That sounds as if I don't like their music, and that isn't true. I always enjoy listening to their songs when they come on the radio. I've just never bought one of their albums or CDs.

On this day 25 years ago, I was about two–thirds of the way through my first semester of graduate school. I was also working full time for an afternoon newspaper.

I was busy, too busy to keep up with the latest music releases.

But I heard Mike and the Mechanics' hit from their second album, which was released 25 years ago today — "Living Years" — and spawned the hit song by the same name.

I have always felt that "Living Years" the song was so successful because it was so honest. And I am more convinced of that today than I was then. You see, even though I had experienced personal losses — several of them, in fact — by that time in my life, I guess I still felt that, somehow, I (and the people who were important to me) would go on indefinitely.

Of course, I know that isn't true. Maybe, deep down, I knew it then but wouldn't admit it, but I will admit it now. I don't know what happens when we die, but I do know it is something everyone will do. I can't prove that I am going to die. I just know that I will.

I think I can handle the knowledge that I will die. I guess I'm still not sure how I feel about the deaths of people who are important to me. Maybe that is because I have lost too many without telling them things I wanted to tell them. If I have any real regrets, that is it.

That is why "Living Years" speaks so powerfully to me today. Even now, I find that song as moving as I did when I first heard it — perhaps even moreso because I have endured personal losses since the song was released that have a great deal of relevance.

I can't say that I know much about the album "Living Years" because I've never listened to it. I heard the title song many times back when it was on the radio, and I liked it. At that time, I really didn't think much about the message — at least in personal terms.

But it took on a whole new meaning for me after my mother was killed in a flash flood nearly seven years later. There have been other losses for me in the last quarter of a century, but that is probably the greatest.

I guess it is only human for people to have issues with their parents. Sometimes those issues are really significant; other times not so much.

And most of the time, people die before those issues are addressed. That can scar those who are left behind. I know.

It is probably the rare individual who can say that, when his/her parents died, he/she had resolved all their unspoken issues and the air between them had been cleared. In my own case, there probably weren't any major issues lingering between Mom and me. There were just things I wanted to say to her, things that would have made it easier for me to say goodbye and deal with her death.

I'm sure my mother knew all the things I wanted to tell her. I just didn't say them. I guess I always figured there would be time.

I don't know if I have ever told anyone this, but the main reason — if not the only one — that I decided to enroll in graduate school was because it was what my mother wanted for me. I have been thankful for my master's degree many times and for many reasons over the years, but the truth is that I probably wouldn't have pursued it if not for her. I probably would have been content to stay where I was and continue to do what I was doing.

I suppose that, no matter how old one is when it happens, it is a painful experience to lose your mother. I remember what Sports Illustrated's Peter King wrote after the death of his own mother (although not word for word). He said something to the effect of: "No matter how old you are when it happens, it feels strange to be a motherless child."

Of course, "Living Years" was about the relationship between a son and his father. But its message really applied to any close relationship that ends with no warning, and that message is worth repeating any time.

An old friend of mine, who lost his father when he was 12, reminded me of this song on Father's Day this year — the ideal day to mention it and just in time to mark the 25th anniversary of its release.

I recall when my friend and I were teenagers, seniors in high school. For awhile, he insisted he would not go through our high school graduation ceremony because his father was not alive to share it with him.

We talked about it, and he eventually decided to go through the graduation ceremony. I don't know if anything I said persuaded him, but I was glad he chose to do that. His mother was still living at the time, and I remember telling him that it would mean a lot to her.

I don't know if that influenced his decision. He's never mentioned it to me. I guess I have always believed that it did.

Regardless, there was one time a few years after our graduation when my friend's mother and I were alone together, just sitting in her living room and chatting about old times. I made what was, for me, an offhand remark about one of our classmates and something that happened during the graduation ceremony. It was a very ordinary kind of thing, or so I thought.

Originally, our high school graduation was scheduled for the football field, but it rained the morning of the ceremony, and the whole thing was very nearly moved into the gymnasium. The school board — or whoever it was who made the decision — waited until practically the last minute before declaring that things would proceed as planned.

The chairs, which had been put in position the day before, had been dried off, but nothing could be done about the surface of the football field, which was soft and wet. One of the classmates ahead of me was wearing shoes that really soaked up water, and I told my friend's mother that this classmate made a rather loud squishing sound as he walked across the stage to accept his diploma.

I laughed, and she smiled, but I thought I could see her eyes glistening at the mention of the graduation ceremony. I know she wasn't getting choked up about my classmate's soggy shoes.

I think it meant something to her that my friend went through graduation — maybe she knew somehow that he had been thinking about skipping it — and I'm glad he decided to participate in it after all.

I only live a few miles from my own mother's grave. Sometimes — and for a variety of reasons — I feel the need to visit it. Often when I do, I speak to her — almost as if she could hear me. It seems like a natural thing to do. When she was alive, she was the one I turned to for advice when I faced difficulties in life, and I speak to her now the way we once spoke to my grandmother when she was in dementia's grip.

I'm not really religious. I've gone through phases in my life in which I sought the answers — hasn't everyone? — but, when you get right down to it, I don't really think that my mother can hear me when I speak in the cemetery. Why do I do it then? I don't really know.

Maybe it's because there's a part of me — probably a very small part but a part, nonetheless — that concedes that there is a possibility that there is an afterlife.

And maybe it's because there are still things I wish I had said to her in her living years.