Let the Music Speak for Itself

Posted: May 1, 2012 in life is strange

Fall, 2007, Edmonton, Alberta

I parked my car and waited in the empty parking lot. The banks of snow, four-feet high in some areas were full of gravel and frozen garbage.  The snow had stopped earlier that day but the light was pale and flat with the promise of more to come.  I saw headlights come around the corner of vinyl-clad building behind me.  Thad, my 18-year-old nephew, pulled up beside me.

“Auntie Carm,” he said.  “Welcome.”

I left the warmth of my car with my camera hanging around my neck and my tripod in hand, not sure if I’d need it.  The light from a single streetlight didn’t make it to where we stood, but I could see enough of the industrial building to know it had been a forgotten investment.  The faded gray siding, steel door with scratches and rust, and brown wild grass crawling up the walls hoping to get away from the snow, had the distinct look of neglect.

“It has that homey feel doesn’t it,” I said.

“Hey, come on.  It’s all we could afford.  No one ever complains about our jamming sessions.  It’s perfect,” Thad said with his standard mischievous grin.

He led me through the door and up the narrow steps into an open room.  It housed the band’s sound system and some scattered guitars, Thad’s drum set and a case of water. It was perfect.

“Ok, what do you want me to do?” he asked.

This year I had made a point of doing something special for a Christmas present.  We’d be moving to Arizona two days after Christmas and as it stood, that decision wasn’t popular within our tight-knit family.  I had met with each nephew and niece separately to capture them on film, doing something they love.  They could choose what they wanted to do or where we’d meet to get the shots.  These photos would go to each of the parents and my in-laws in hopes that they might forgive us, just a little.  Thad was the only one left.

He could have picked any venue, or any one of the six instruments he could play.  But his choice was the warehouse his band rented, playing his drums.

“Just play.  Forget that I’m here,” I said.  “I’ll tell you when I’m done.”

Thad had already thrown his jacket on one of the chairs and picked up his drumsticks.  He started with the snare drum.  Slow.  Rolling the sticks around each other.  Then building speed.  The base drum was next.  Each drum’s sound was distinct and added layer by layer.  His eyes closed as the rhythm sped.  I never did use the tripod.  I moved around him, close up, just the sticks, just the base and when he opened his eyes, he gave the sheepish grin like he’d been caught doing something wrong.  That was the essence of him in that one moment.  I was lucky to capture it.

“Got it,” I told him.

“That didn’t take too long.  We have time for you to give this a try,” Thad held his sticks out.

“I thought you had a party to get to?” I said looking at my watch.

“We’ve got time.  Come on.  I’ll teach you how to twirl the sticks.”

I had played drums in Jr. High but that was in a previous life.  I sat, and I played.  I lost stick after stick, we laughed.  I asked him about school, which he hates.  I asked about girls, which he likes.  And we talked about his dreams of becoming a music composer.  And like any time spent with a teenager, it can come to an end very quickly, especially if there is a party to get to.

As he locked the steel door behind us he said, “I’m glad you aren’t moving to Saskatchewan, it would suck to visit you there.  Phoenix . . . now that was a good choice.”

“Thad, thanks for doing this,” I said.

“Hey, if it’ll help get you in Granny’s good books again, I’ll do what I can.  Bye Carm.”

I watched him leave, his left taillight broken and a fish-tail around the corner from going to fast.   “Bye, Thad.”

Fall, 2011, Scottsdale, Arizona

“I think I just hung up on Tony,” my husband Brad said, closing the patio door behind him.  He stood there staring, holding his phone out in his hand for me to see.

“Why’d you do that?”  I asked.

“There’s been an accident.  Thad and his two friends were driving home . . . they were hit from behind by a drunk driver.  Thad’s dead,” Brad said.

Tony, my brother-in-law had been informed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) just hours earlier, to call any family or friends that would need to be informed of our nephew’s death before the information got out on Facebook.  And while Tony made more calls, I sat in on the floor in front of my wood coffee table in complete denial.  How could Thad be dead?  He can’t die.  He’s only 22.  He’s too talented.  I felt the tears wet my face but I couldn’t move.  My son Dawson sat across from me with his head down.  He made the groaning sound of a hurt animal as he took in the reality that he would never see his cousin again.  I couldn’t move.  I kept breathing but each inhale was a burden, something I was struggling against.  I couldn’t comfort my son.  Brad stood where he was.  It was the first time I’d seen him cry in the 19 years we’d been married.  I’m not sure how long we stayed like that.  I forced myself to move, spooning my 9-year old son from behind, holding him as Brad finally grabbed us both from the other side.

No one is ever ready for that phone call that comes, the one that says someone you love has been killed.  But ready or not, it came.  It was one of the few times I felt the distance of miles between our family and us.  Four years earlier, I wanted to be apart from them.  We were one of those families that spent a lot of time together.  Every Sunday was dinner at my in-laws.  Through the years, our clan had grown to 13 people around the table or fire pit, eating food, listening to music and playing games.  For me, as an only child, this was a little more chaos than I could handle.  At the same time, we loved and helped to raise our three nephews and two nieces, babysitting, watching plays, going to their concerts, and teasing them as they went through puberty.  When we moved to Arizona, that definitely put a damper on the Sunday night dinners.

We did call back later that evening.  Karen, Brad’s sister couldn’t talk.  She tried but Tony had to keep the conversation going.  Thad had been coming home from a party at about 2 a.m. with two other friends, both18 years-old.  They had a designated driver.  A pick-up truck was going 180 kilometres an hour, running over the smaller Grand-Am.  The car flew over an embankment and two of the boys were thrown from the vehicle.  All three boys were killed instantly.  The 28 year-old driver of the pick-up survived with injuries.  He was legally drunk.

That young man’s choice changed everything.

For three days after we got the news, we stumbled around, booked flights from Phoenix and looked at old pictures — a story in each one.  We checked Thad’s Facebook page and watched the stories and pictures flood his wall — a new kind of memorial.  We counted the minutes before we would be with our family, not sure what to expect.

It was an awful and beautiful thing being home again.  I could barely catch my breath when we walked into Karen and Tony’s house, the family surrounded us.  I heard that animal sound coming from Karen’s throat.  She couldn’t stop and as the rest of us untangled ourselves, Brad held his sister up.  She wouldn’t let go.

We all seemed to stand in our own space, staring or crying.  And then we got busy.  It seemed easier when we had something to do.  Food was made, laundry was done, floors were washed and people came and went.

The community’s support amazed us all.  Daily visitors came with food, cards and flowers and even toiletries that were running low.  Prayers held us up as we made funeral arrangements.  We connected with old friends and new ones were made in a way that only Thad could pull off.  And there was laughter. There had to be.  We were there for Thad, who was one of the goofiest guys I had known.

The funeral was standing room only.  There were over a thousand people in the church.  It was a day that started out with dread.  A day to survive.  But as Thad’s friends shared their stories, his teachers praised his uniqueness and the music was played, the day became one of hope.

We decided to extend our stay.  In the midst of the days spent on the family acreage, it snowed.  I woke up to a snowfall that was steady but slow, like feathers floating to the ground on a windless day.  It was quiet.  The horses rolled in the field and swung their heads, stomping and nudging each other — this was the first time I felt I could pick up my camera.  I’ve been the one taking pictures at every get together but this wasn’t the same.  I walked out in my pajama’s not wanting to miss capturing the scene.  I stood far away from the horses, composing the feeling of the landscape.  But soon, I moved in closer. The snow was soaking my slippers and my feet began to ache from the cold.  I moved to the fence, the horses came closer toward me, blinking against the snowflakes in their eyes.  The world was quiet, muffled and evenly lit around me.  It was that still moment in the storm that took me by surprise.  It’s where peace was hiding.  I stayed until my teeth chattered, the hot coffee calling me inside.

The rest of the days spent together were too short and the goodbye’s that are normally hard enough, were full of tears, hugs and a longing not to let go.  And all too soon, we had to move on to our “new normal.”  Lives were forever changed, perspectives had shifted and life meant something so much more than it did just two weeks prior.  I know that Thad would be the first to tell us to get on with it; do what you love, listen to loud music, hug a friend, tell a silly joke — and do it like you mean it.  And if I get overwhelmed with the grief of it all, I make myself still, breathe and look for peace — because even though it’s hidden sometimes, I think peace wants to be found.

  1. Susan says:

    This is a really moving piece, Carmen. Every word infused with love and loss – it moved me, very gently, to tears. Do you have the pic of Thad playing drums? And yes, I agree, peace wants to be found and DAMN those drunk drivers. That young man’s peace is going to be very hard battle. I hope he finds it though. Unspeakable pain.

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