My father-in-law is a good and decent man.
My father-in-law has stage four cancer.
My father-in-law is going to die.
My heart is breaking.
I don’t know how to process this biological certainty. The imminent specter of death. The last few days have seemed to scream by in a high-functioning haze. Leaving work early on a gorgeous Colorado Friday to rush to the hospital after he took a serious turn for the worse. My wife crying on the phone, begging me to hurry. Sitting on a train, praying for it to go faster than physics would allow while staring ahead blankly, not knowing how to help, how to support, how to logically assess the seriousness of the situation…how to cope. Finally, sitting in a hospital room watching a disease hellbent on eliminating as wide a swath of humanity as possible lay waste to a man I respect, admire and love.
How? Why? Does this eventually make sense? When does the adulthood that I always imagined existed as a child reveal itself and infuse me with all of the understanding, bravery and confidence in the world?
I don’t think it ever does.
Jeremy Bolm and his band Touché Amoré have kept me good company lately as I’ve grappled with these questions under the red glow of cancer. Their album, Stage Four, detailing Bolm’s grieving process after his mother died of the same terrible illness afflicting my father-in-law, lives on a loop in my mind and heart now. The lyrics are honest, passionate and absolutely heartbreaking. Bolm’s incredibly vulnerable declarations of hurt, loneliness, regret and suffering are absolutely necessary and equally wonderful. I find myself comforted, listening in gentle communion, to a work of art that shares my grief brilliantly and empathetically.
Music matters. It’s not just entertainment, though it most certainly can (and should) be. It has the potent ability to codify communal anguish, detailing inexplicable events followed by impenetrable grief. The indescribable given substance and shared with strangers. It’s a sonic embrace from another who says, “yes, I know.” While cancer renders the observer powerless, music helps patch the heartache. Touché Amoré’s Stage Four grounds me during a time of deep uncertainty and sadness, and I am beyond thankful for it.
Last night, in a moment of lucidity amidst a day of fog and fever, my father-in-law pulled me close and hugged me. Unable to speak due to the amount of damage cancer has done to his mouth and throat, he pointed to his heart, then at me. In that moment, I felt a goodness I have not felt in a long time. As Bolm sings on this record: “When words are softer spoken, they often sound the best.” My heart is branded by those words, softly spoken.
Thank you, Jeremy, for sharing your grief with the world through this album. This heart has received and is eternally grateful.
To my father-in-law, thank you for being a wise, honorable and caring man whom I will continue to admire until I die. I love you.