I don’t remember how this James Taylor Greatest Hits CD found its way into my collection. My guess is that I bought it during my hippie phase freshman year of college. Even though it was the late 90’s, I’d dance around the college green with my new friends – bell bottoms skimming the grass, green blades tickling my bare feet. I dated guys whose hair grazed their shoulders and stacked my music collection with 1970’s classics. Of course, that was one of many phases I passed through as I ushered in my early twenties. In time, I forgot I even owned this CD until shortly after my first child Joy’s birth.
Joy spent most of her first weeks in various hospitals. When she was home, my husband and I worked round the clock trying to plump up our thinning baby who appeared to be refusing to eat. She’d scream and shriek until her lips turned blue. We wouldn’t learn of her swallowing difficulties and hypersensitive gut until later.
At five weeks old, Joy stopped breathing during a CT scan of her lungs. Over the next few nights, while doctors kept her in the hospital for observation and testing (that never lead to any answers or explanations), I was repeatedly startled awake by crying children, beeping monitors and nursing assistants ripping open Velcro blood pressure cuffs during vitals checks. The doctors remained silent, yet the quiet I longed for never came.
The afternoon we returned home – and with the memory of watching my baby go limp still chilling my veins – I laid down next to Joy on a blanket in our living room hoping we could both nap. Within minutes, she started again with her screams. I walked with her. I patted her back. I bounced her on my knees. But her frenzy only grew. Bleary eyed and desperate, I reached into my music collection, pulled out the first CD my fingers touched and pressed it into the player.
The opening bars of “Something in the Way She Moves” filled the room. And Joy calmed. The smooth sways of James’s voice, the gentle strokes of his guitar strings, all seemed to seep in through her skin, coaxing her to relax. Her breathing slowed. Her reddened cheeks softened to pink. Her shrills eased into gurgles.
I settled onto the sofa and pulled a blanket around us both. For the first time since Joy’s birth, I was not counting the ounces she drank or monitoring the color of her lips. I was not playing the role of her nurse. And I was not the broken woman afraid her baby might die. I was just her mom. I pulled Joy closer, and kissed her tiny hands. Days earlier, I thought I had witnessed her last breath. But as James crooned against the setting sun, we were together still. The melody nudged me to rock and sway, while holding us both up – and together.
As I hummed along, the lyrics (which I’d heard many times before) took on new meaning. Though probably written for a lover, the song reflected my feelings for Joy. I just wanted to know her, hear her and be near her. I imagined us together years into the future – laughing over a shared ice cream sundae – a daydream I hadn’t allowed myself until then.
In time, and as Joy’s list of unexplained ailments grew, we learned that Joy responds to other artists, too. While trolling through 80’s music, my husband discovered that Joy likes Hall and Oates. Norah Jones settles her when she’s fussy. And Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration” makes her smile. James is still our “go-to,” though, when she’s inconsolable. Much like that first listening session, James’s impact on Joy is almost immediate and always successful. But she’s not the only one.
When I’m alone and overwhelmed and hungering to return to those barefooted college days – before my life was stuffed with medical jargon and 911 calls and hospital stays – I sit with James. He tells me stories of love and friendship and distant places, until I’m content. The meaning of his words – propped up on lilting guitar strums – support me.
But Joy’s experience of James is not the same. When Joy’s belly cramps from the formula we pump in through the feeding tube that’s sewn into her abdomen, James’s melodies seem to organize the contractions along her digestive tract. When her arms and legs spasm and lock and her fingers twist up into each other like claws, James’s voice unravels her muscle fibers and dulls the pain. And when she wakes at night, screaming for additional rest that her body refuses to grant her, James’s phrasing lulls her back to sleep.
Though their hurts manifest differently, I wonder if Joy connects with James’s pain… and how he escapes its grip. In “Something in the Way She Moves,” James sings of the comfort he finds in his lover’s voice, rather than the words themselves. Here, James captures Joy’s relief. James’s own life – speckled with depression, addiction and heartbreak – colors his cadence, contours his voice. It’s his sound that pierces Joy’s pain and melts it away.
Nineteenth century German author, Berthold Auerbach, once said, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” For Joy, that music is James Taylor. So we make sure he’s always with us. We’ve programmed his station on our phones. And we can access his music with the click of a button in almost any room in our house. Like her magic elixir, James has settled Joy during doctor’s appointments, before procedures and after surgeries.
Nights after Joy has worked through several therapy sessions at school and we’re running late with her bedtime regimen, the world can overwhelm her. Fatigue throws her into a torrent of screams. Her arms and legs flail. Her lips stretch back to expose bared teeth. My husband pulls Joy into his arms and sinks into the rocking chair in her room. He grasps her tightly to him with one arm while using his other hand to shield his face against her trashing. I press “play” and the opening riff of “You Can Close Your Eyes” moves towards her. “The dust of her everyday life washes away” and her limbs still, her screams subside. My husband loosens his grip on her and folds both of his arms over her slim back, easing her cheek down onto his shoulder. And they rock. And they rock. And she rests.
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 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)**
Emily Klein is a writer from New Jersey. Her work has appeared in Parents, Brain, Child, Literary Mama, The Healing Muse, Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Mothering Children with Special Needs (anthology), Success and Baristanet. She also writes nonfiction children’s books for Scholastic.