Sometimes he wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. Not particularly hungry, sometimes not even wet or poopy. I can identify the times when there is nothing obviously wrong, just by his cry. So can his mother.
“Ron, will you see if you can settle him? When he’s that way I just get more and more nervous. He can feel that and just gets more upset.”
“I’ve got it. Just try to go back to sleep.” I walk downstairs and check his diaper. No problem there. I pick him up and start walking and gently rocking him. That usually does the trick, especially if I sing him a lullaby.
One song I sing him is The Erie Canal Song. Here we go:
I had an old mule and her name was Sal,
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal,
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal.
We’ve hauled some barges in our day,
Filled with lumber, coal and hay,
And every inch of the way we know,
From Albany to Buffalo.
Good. He’s conked out now. I’m not a very good singer and, at first, I wondered if I was subjecting him to aversion therapy. Maybe the little guy was feigning sleep just to get me to stop singing. But, I could feel his little body relaxing and so I was encouraged to continue.
Christine is still exhausted and our son is already three months old. All new mothers have hormone things going on that men can’t fully understand and that would probably drop an NFL linebacker in his tracks. But, she’s had the added burden of watching him undergo infant open heart surgery, kidney failure, peritoneal dialysis, collapsed lungs, two weeks of ICU, and a ton of additional uncertainty.
We still don’t even know how long he might live. The doctors are really positive, they have new techniques and all that. But the bottom line is this: there are no fifteen month-old survivors of his particular defect or surgery. None.
I’m sure his screaming is due to post-surgical pain. I don’t share this with her. She has a lot on her plate right now. We both do.
It’s a week since the Erie Canal. Tonight, he’s crying hard again. I’ll sing one of the only other songs I know, Born to Be Wild. I don’t have Steppenwolf’s band backup. Just acapella. Here goes:
Get your motor runnin’
Head out on the highway
Lookin’ for adventure
And whatever comes our way
Yeah Darlin’ gonna make it happen
Take the world in a love embrace
Fire all of your guns at once
And explode into space
Like a true nature’s child
We were born, born to be wild
We can climb so high
I never wanna die
You know, Born to Be Wild is written in a minor key. In Western European music, minor key music conveys a sense of sadness, foreboding, mystery, darkness. Maybe my singing is so bad that the little guy doesn’t sense that it is being sung in a minor key. Whatever. He quieted down just the same.
Back in your crib, little guy. I hear a little sound behind me, turn, and find Christine behind me sniffling. “What are you doing up,” I ask.
“Just trying to figure out how you get him calmed down. Were you singing Steppenwolf to him? You can’t be singing that to him; he’ll grow up to be a head-banger, or a drug addict!”
“Usually, I sing the Erie Canal Song. Think he’ll be a boatman when he gets bigger?”
“Erie Canal Song, Born to Be Wild? You need to work on your repertoire, boy!” She looks stern but the edges of her mouth are turned up and I can tell she is trying to stifle a smile.
“I sang him Amazing Grace one night. Maybe he’ll become an amazing girl and change his name to Grace.”
“Enough. Let’s go to bed.”
It has been ten years since I quit singing those songs to my young son. He’s growing up and, anyway, I’ve lost my voice for it. I’m standing in the wreckage of two marriages due, mostly, to my inability to deal with feelings, emotions, relationships. The inability of my father before me. And his father before him.
The hippy-like, shoulder length hair is gone. The beard and moustache are gone, the hair paraphernalia that always froze my mouth shut in the winter here in Alaska. But I’m still hanging on to a magenta and turquoise paisley shirt because, somehow, it is still “cosmic.”
I still listen to Steppenwolf. These days I gravitate toward one of their ballads. You might be surprised that, among their more raucous hits such as Magic Carpet Ride, Screaming Night Hog, and Born to Be Wild, hides a ballad: It’s Never Too Late to Start All Over Again. I listen to it a lot: psychotherapy by Steppenwolf.
You can find a way to change today
You don’t have to wait ’til then
It’s never too late to start all over again
No, no, not too late
It has been forty years since I quit singing those songs to my younger son. He has a daughter, two years old, and a new son, several months old now. Marsha and I are visiting and it is bedtime. His wife is reading bedtime stories to their daughter and Jason is rocking the little guy, singing softly. He starts with the Erie Canal Song, moves on to a sea shanty, then an Irish lullaby and, starts an Irish drinking song when the little guy conks out.
I am glad Marsha is here today to hear this. She is a voice teacher. My voice teacher. Because of her, I can read and sing the tenor and base lines in four-part choral music. And, beyond that, she is helping me find my voice.
I am touched with the singing. When he emerges from the baby’s room I’m still wiping tears from my eyes. “You okay, Dad?”
“Better than okay: you’re not a head-banger, a drug addict or a boatman. And you have a better repertoire.”
“Never mind; it’s a long story.”
Music can hold enormous power in memories and experiences, transporting us instantly to an age, location, or person. What sonic joys, mysteries, disbelief, and clarity have you experienced? Identify songs of influence in your life and explore them like variations on a theme, melding syntax and song structure, recalling the seriousness or levity that accompanies. Whether it’s an account of when a specific song first entered your life, the process of learning to play a song, teaching someone a song, experiencing the same song in different places as it weaves through your life, unbelievable radio timing, sharing songs with those in need, tracking the passing down of songs, creative song analysis, music as politics, etc, I am interested in those ineffable moments and welcoming submissions of your own variations on a theme, as drawn from your life’s soundtrack. Please email submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep an eye out for others’ Variations.
**(“song” is a broad phrase: could be a pop song, a traditional tune, a symphony, commercial jingles, a hummed lullaby, 2nd grade recorder class horror stories, etc)**
Ron grew up in northern Arizona, New Mexico and desert California. He moved to Alaska fifty years ago from Miami, Florida, and retired from the University of Alaska Fairbanks in 1999. His writing has drifted from scientific papers to science writing, to non-science nonfiction to fiction to short nonfiction. He is the author of three books: Interior and Northern Alaska: A Natural History, How Not to Die Hunting in Alaska, and a novel, Undeserved Punishment. Two short pieces were published in Watershed Review and Cirque. He and his wife Marsha spend part of the winter in Wenatchee, Washington. Ron can be reached at email@example.com