Anatomy Of An Engram

Music holds a very special place in my memory. When a song plays, moments in my life flash before the foreground of my mind, unbidden and unbridled. Today has been a day of musical memories.

It all started with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by the Rolling Stones. It came across the airwaves and brought me back to the day of my father’s wake. It will forever be burned into my mind.

My dad’s favorite movie was The Big Chill. It’s about a funeral, and the reunion of the friends that attend. In it, that song plays, and my old man had told me my whole life that when he died, he wanted us to play it at his funeral. So as I organized the songs for the wake, that one was the first one on the list.

Before everything started, I took a moment to see see his body by myself. I needed to be sure I could compose myself before I went through the rest of this day; I figured the easiest way to do that was to get my emotions out of the way right off the bat. I stood there as Kieth Richards serenaded me with those opening chords, staring down at my dad’s lifeless body. I placed my hand on his chest. He was cold and stiff, almost like he wasn’t real. It was then that I realized that this body no longer contained my old man. It was simply a collection of bones and tendons that somehow used to hold the entirety of the man I once knew.

My thoughts returned to me, and my day carried on. Later, I heard “When The Time Comes” by the Classic Crime. It carried me back to a moment from that same day. My baby sister didn’t want to see our dad’s body. She refused to go up to the casket with the family for the whole day, knowing that it would be the hardest thing she had ever done in her short fifteen years so far.

She came up to me when everyone had left and it was just us at the funeral home. She slipped under my arm and hugged me close.

“Joshua, I want to see dad, but I just want you there with me. Will you go see him with me?”

I blinked away tears, trying to be strong in this difficult time for her.

“Of course, little one. Let’s go.”

We held hands as we slowly made our way to the front of the visitation room, and that song began to play. It was perfect. It’s a quiet song, one that talks about the loss, confusion, and pain that unfortunately accompany love. We reached the casket, and my sister burst into silent tears, hugging me once more, even tighter than before, he little body shaking as she attempted to hold herself together. We stood there until the song faded out. She reached out and touched his cold face, breaking into tears anew. It was heartbreaking to see, but at the same time…it was one of the most tender moments I have ever experienced. In those short three and a half minutes, we shared something special that no one else will ever know or understand, something special and unique that will forever be just between her and I.

I returned to today with a sigh as the memory gave me one last kiss and left me with my mixed emotions.

And then, I heard bagpipes in the distance. Don’t ask me from where, or why someone was playing bagpipes at 8:30 at night, but there I was once more, burying my father in my mind.

My dad was in the Marine Corps, and so when we finally laid him to rest, the Marines sent out several men to perform a flag ceremony and play Amazing Grace on the bagpipes. That, by far, is the hardest, most intense, most emotional ten minutes of my life. Nothing will ever hit me like that again. It destroyed me. Those sweet notes sounded strong and tender as the casket was lowered into the ground, and the freshly folded flag was presented to my family.

I do not cry. At all. Freaking ever. But that day, as Amazing Grace hit me like a ton of bricks, every hair on my body stood on end as if at attention, and I bawled like a newborn baby. My heart shattered, and if I had not been sitting down already, I would have collapsed to my knees from the weight of it. I tried to look away. I tried to close my eyes and shut out the sound, but my body straight refused the commands my brain was giving. My heart sped up and slowed down, my breathing stopped entirely for what seemed like an eternity.

And then, as the echos of the music bounded away, it was over. He was in the ground. It was final. It was over. It was real. This was no show, this was no test. I and my family were short a very important member. Our team captain was down for the count, and we were never the same.

And here I am at the end of this walk down memory lane, left with some weird mess of memories and moments parading through my mind’s eye, making me relive those life-altering two days. Later that week, I turned twenty-one. I had my first legal drink without him, and with every drink I’ve had since then, I’ve been confronted with one very important piece of information: Life Goes On.

It is vital to remember these things together. Remember what happened. Remember where you’ve been. And just as importantly, remember that life graciously doe not leave you in your most painful moments. Time moves on, and therefore, so should we.

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