Songs of My Life: Rocky

songsofmylife“Rocky” caught me quite unexpectedly. I remember all of us – which now consisted of Aunt Joyce, Uncle Jack, my cousins John and Jim, and my brother Dave – we were on our way home from somewhere in the middle of the Fall of ’75. This particular ride home I had luckily drawn a window seat. Since it was dark out and I couldn’t read, which was how I normally spent my time in the car. I leaned my head against the cool glass listening to the radio.

The bouncy melody caught my attention and the lyrics caught my ear:

Alone until my eighteenth year
We met four springs ago
She was shy and had a fear
Of things she did not know
But we got it on together
In such a super way
We held each other close at night
And traded dreams each day

And she said, “Rocky, I’ve never been in love before
Don’t know if I can do it
But if you let me lean on you
Take my hand, I might get through it” (through it)
I said, “Baby, oh sweet baby
It’s love that sets us free
And God knows if the world should end
Your love is safe with me”

It was a love song. I wasn’t aware of how cheesy the lyrics were and I was interested in how they ‘got it on together in such a super way’ – well, after all, I was in 7th grade now:

We found an old gray house
And you would not believe the way
We worked at night to fix it up
Took classes in the day
Paintin’ walls and sippin’ wine
Sleepin’ on the floor
With so much love for just two
Soon we found there’d be one more

And she said, “Rocky, I’ve never had a baby before
Don’t know if I can do it
But if you let me lean on you
Take my hand, I might get through it” (through it)
I said, “Baby, oh sweet baby
it’s love that sets us free
And God knows if the world should end
Your love is safe with me”

Well, this was sounding like a typical love song. The fact that they had a Gray House like I did caught my ear but my interest was beginning to wane:

We had lots of problems then but
We had lots of fun
Like the crazy party
When our baby girl turned one
I was proud and satisfied
Life had so much to give
‘Till the day they told me
That she didn’t have long to live

She said, “Rocky, I’ve never had to die before
Don’t know if I can do it…”

That hit me. I had just been introduced to my first tragedy song. OK, not my first one, there was Terry Jack’s” Seasons In The Sun”  but this one caught me by surprise. I couldn’t cry – everyone was in the car, but a tear escaped anyways as the lyrics finished:

Now it’s back to two again
The little girl and I
Who looks so much like her sweet mother
Sometimes it makes me cry
I sleep alone at nights again
I walk alone each day
And sometimes when I’m about to give in
I hear her sweet voice say, to me

“Rocky, you know you’ve been alone before
You know that you can do it
But if you’d like to lean on me
Take my hand, I’ll help you through it” (through it)
I said, “Baby, oh sweet baby
It’s love that sets us free
And I told you when the world would end
Your love was safe with me”

She said, “Rocky, you know you’ve been alone before
You know that you can do it
But if you’d like to lean on me…

The story/the song – haunted me for days.  While I still remembered tragic song ‘Seasons In The Sun’, now I was on the other side of my own tragedy. These characters were now much more believable and so much more personal.

One of the things I would struggle with in grieving over my parents, after moving in with Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack, was the reality of it all. There would be mornings I would wake up, realize I was in our new bedroom at Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack’s house. Dave’s bed would be three feet from mine. And in that realization would also come another wave that my parents were dead. My grief was reset and the pain of this new reality would again take root.

My only experience with death before this had been when Skipper, our family collie, had to be put down. Skipper was laid in the outside stairwell after he broke his leg. I remember spending the morning with him crying knowing my Dad would come home and take him away. And when Dad came home from work, he loaded Skipper into the station wagon. Dad left with Skipper and came home without him. Skipper was dead, I don’t remember burying him – he just wasn’t home anymore.

I didn’t know how death worked. Mom and Dad were in heaven, right? That’s what everyone said. I would see them again when I went to heaven – when I died. We all died. Everyone dies. No one lives forever. Someday – I would die. When would that be? How would I die? Would it hurt? How long did I have? If I could die, so could my brothers and sisters. I didn’t know if I could go through what I’ve gone through these last 9 months again. I would not want to experience that pain again. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t.

Before my parents died I had been reading read ghost stories, and I still did. I ached to see my parents again – even as spirits. For months and years, I would lie in bed in the dark. After Dave and I would spend some nights talking until Aunt Joyce would open the door and tell us, “no more talking”. It was in this dark quiet I would explore what death was to me. My thoughts would chase me into the dark corners of my mind. In these nights I would reach out to Mom – mentally, or maybe it spiritually – it was all just in my head. I would lie in bed and think – thinking, reaching – for some kind of sensation, looking for some response that wasn’t of my own making. I would concentrate harder and harder; reaching further and further. My tears would stream down the corners of my eyes onto my pillow as I waited for a response, something — anything. And as my overtures drifted away unanswered into those dark corners, I would fill in what I wanted to hear…

“I will always be with you, Johnny.”

But even as I invoked those words I knew it was a lie to fill in the void. I just could no longer stand the emptiness. I didn’t understand, why would she not respond? What stronger bond was there than a mother and her child? But she didn’t answer. Was there no spiritual world? Was I really never going to see her again? The questions would start there, run to the empty edges of my mind and spill into my emptiness. I questioned everything because the world I thought I understood was now gone. I would go through life day by day as a kid growing up. But in the darkness of my room, where I could hide my tears, I would continue to ‘reach out’ only to find isolation in a void, even as my brother slept 3 feet away. As this void gained substance I realized it would hold the weight of my questions. I realized I was not going to hear from Mom, or Dad, and further questions would drift unanswered. And I stopped reaching out.

From this void, this blankness, I built a foundation. I separated life from living. Over time I found that I was going through Life. And in going through Life, I was, in fact, living but Life had lost a lot of its warmth. Grief’s oldest cliche’s turned out to be true – ‘Time heals all wounds’ and ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’.

By the time I had gotten to High School I had again caught up to my peers and then some. As a teenager I knew most adults didn’t get It, that is – Life, but I also included my peers. It seemed no one understood that Life was a facade. That there was nothing lied beyond what we saw – we are alive and then we died. Heaven was a story you told children and scared adults to ease the pain of those who were left behind. But now I knew, there was nothing after you died.

My questioning of everything allowed me to stand on my void with what I thought was true knowledge. While my peers who fought the status quo of living, I had unlocked what Life really was – or so I thought. The trick to being invincible was letting others think you were vulnerable. The invincible teenager – the ultimate cliche. I lived in the moment. My future expectations would be nullified. The logical result would be to end the charade of living but my pain was still too fresh. The longing for my brothers and sisters was still too strong; and I could never cause them this much pain again. Suicidal thoughts would echo for years. Slowly they would get trampled to murmurs by the constant stepping through of Life and relearning how to live.

And while this new enlightenment seemed bleak, there was comfort in understanding. I had matured well beyond my years. This knowledge gave me confidence. In this understanding I saw things differently, better than most adults – again, so I thought. And while these questions built me up, I shriveled from death and its ultimate coming. I knew how far death could change one’s life without actually ending it. I understood it was just the beginning of a long and possibly overwhelming process. Death would forever have my respect and, unfortunately, my heart.

I learned to ‘play the game’. I did not cause problems. I would not be a burden to others. Knowing there was nothing while others believed there was something (void vs. heaven) allowed me patience for my grief to subside, to be comfortable with my new being. But despite going to church, and even starting confirmation classes at Zion Lutheran Church, it would be many years before I understood how Faith worked.

John and I took confirmation classes together at their church – our church. When Dave and I moved in with Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack, it was natural that Dave and I paired off with John and Jim since we each had a cousin that was the same age. However, while John and I went to the same confirmation class, I was signed up to attend Wilmot Jr. High that Fall while John was going to Deer Path Middle School in Lake Forest. John had trouble with reading and math and Deer Path could help him get the classes that Wilmot Jr. High did not provide. So we went to separate schools. Dave and Jim, however, went to Woodland Elementary just a few blocks away.

As in any family siblings fight. As Dave and I were integrated into the Beckmans we did more things together. I was great when we played tag, or they when they taught us ‘Kick the Can’, or fished down by the lake. But there would be times we did not get along.

One of my first fights with John turned into a real fight with punching and wrestling – just like Dave and I used to do. (But strangely, or rather, understandably, Dave and I no longer fought anymore.) I don’t remember what is was about but it started in the house and I chased John out to the front lawn.

I knew John and Jim had fought because I had seen them. I chased John through the front door and pushed him as he gained speed across the yard. I had learned from my fights with Dave that if I didn’t get them down early I would never be able to catch them because of my weight. Down he went and I was on top of him punching him in the arms. As with Dave it never seemed right to punch someone in the face.

John was a lot stronger than Dave so he was able to throw me off of him. And in the midst of tears and punches John yelled at me, “You’re lucky you have somewhere to live.”

Which I responded with “At least I go to a normal school.”

We had both shocked each other in what we had said. Later that afternoon Aunt Joyce had reprimanded me for calling John out on going to Deer Path. I complained he started (typically not a good response since adults don’t care who started a fight).  I had apparently undone alot of work Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack had done to get John the help he needed by pointing out the stigma that came with going to a different school from the other kids in the neighborhood.

Yea – it was a crappy thing I did but so was what he had said. Yes – two wrongs don’t make a right – and you can’t take back what is said. Two years later it was a mute point as John and I both went to Deerfield High School together. But what really happened that day was John and I became brothers. We learned our boundaries and what we were each capable of. Were we inseparable? no. But we both enjoyed going to the Chicago Plant Show in the spring, going to the Botanical Gardens or the new cactus shop that had opened up in the Commons in downtown Deerfield that next summer. And we always had, and still have, fishing.

We – Dave, Jim, John and I became ‘The Boys’. We were introduced as individuals but we were collectively referred to as ‘The Boys’.  John and I tended to  be more plants and animals. John more into animals and I more into plants, particularly cacti. Dave and Jim tended to be more on the mechanical side with snowmobiles and cars. And there was stamp collecting, beer can (and pop can) collecting, and family vacations, and swimming, and watching our favorite TV shows, or listening to our favorite 45’s.

We did a lot of living together. And while I would lie in the dark contemplating Life with its dark edges and its various drop-offs – I was still living. And with my new brothers I walked through each day, living a little more. And as I figured out Life,  the Past was being put into the void. Never being forgotten but supporting the weight of my being – and understanding who I was.

Later I realized this was a good thing – I was beginning to forget; so I guess that’s also a bad thing. Life was moving on. The tidal waves that had swept away my previous life were now just memories; strong and life changing but only memories. My dead parents were being left to the darkness of my late night thoughts and wet pillows. All the lives touched by that tidal February night had changed. The Zilligen children tumbled behind in the wake. Sometimes we couldn’t breath. Sometimes we were dead weight. But learned to keep up with the lives were surrounded by. And in my trip, within one of my efforts to the surface to take another breath, I found two more arms pulling me along and I found I had gained two more brothers. I had lost a part a brother and some of my sisters. Tidal waves of life are always destructive. I learned that death was striking, up close it was it was way more devastating and unlike anything I had imagined. But while it was not insurmountable, only time could calculate the loss and the lessons learned. ‘Rocky pushed me down the real path of death, not the flowery archangels of death, but its cold reality. Now I understood. “Now it’s back to two again.” Dave and I against this new life. Thank God we had to live Life. The pain did subside. And we awoke in arms of a new family.

Leave a Reply