I know “they” say that smell is the strongest of the senses tied to memory. Well “they” have clearly never studied my brain waves while listening to The Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” It’s been over three years since I last spoke with him (we’ll call him Devyn), and this was Devyn’s favorite song. And every time I hear it, it affects me. My reactions have evolved over the last 36+ months, running the gamut from blissfully hopeful to excruciatingly sad to wistfully resigned and everything in between. And every time, I am a little surprised that it still has this pull on me. Perhaps it’s not The Verve, but this one specific part in Mumford’s “Little Lion Man” that reduces me to a blubbering mess in 3.5 seconds flat. Or maybe it’s the sheer joy of a top-of-the-lungs car sing along with my girls to the acoustic version of Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill.” Regardless of the song or the emotional impact, one thing is certain: music moves me like nothing else in my life.
I’m not a musician. I don’t compose music or play an instrument (anymore). I don’t write song lyrics and can’t sing – at least not well enough to do it in front of anyone other than my kids. So it’s unusual for someone with no musical skill or background to have such an inexplicable tie to music. I used to think it was my love of dance that formed my connection to music. But I haven’t taken a formal dance class since I was 8 and my mom made me drop it for an advanced English class. But undoubtedly music has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. I have vivid memories of sitting in my biological father’s 1974 lemon yellow Datsun shortly after my parents’ separation while he listened to Heatwave’s “Always and Forever.” It wasn’t one time, it was several. And while I may have only been 8, I got it. The lyrics were easy enough to understand; and I knew why he was upset. But I remember feeling a heaviness in my chest every time he played it that my 8 year old brain couldn’t quite explain.
Looking back, maybe it was prophetic to my own future failed marriage(s). A few months after I kicked my second husband out, as part of his effort to get me back, I remember him commenting on the songs he suddenly noticed in our old shared iTunes account. With songs like David Gray’s “Life in Slow Motion” or Jason Mraz’s “I Won’t Give Up,” I was silently screaming, pleading with him to get help before our family was destroyed. He eventually realized it, but a little too late. And despite how horrendously he treated me, and even knowing most assuredly that my decision to end the marriage was the best one I could have ever made, those songs still prick at my emotions every time I hear them. I used to not be able to listen to them at all; now I can listen with a much lighter, albeit damaged, heart.
So I’m sure it will come as no surprise then that my bond with music has caused a few awkward moments as well. I went to Catholic school and despite my lack of real religious fervor, there were certain songs that touched me inexplicably. The lyrics surely didn’t address the trials and tribulations of a teenage girl. Yet there was always this funny feeling in my gut when those songs played. One of those songs was “On Eagle’s Wings.” For those of you not familiar, the lyrics aren’t exactly worthy of a Grammy. But for someone who rarely stepped foot in a church outside of a wedding or funeral, it was one song that remained extremely poignant decades later. Fast forward to 2003. I was freshly separated from my first husband and definitely struggling with the loss of the relationship which had spanned 11 years. “Freshly” in this case was a few weeks. My girlfriend was getting married on Long Island, and it was the first such event I was going to by myself in over a decade. I was a mix of emotions about going, given I had RSVP’d months prior as a plus one and now I was going stag. Emotional Trainwreck Kat was dreading sitting through the Catholic ceremony, smiling and pretending she still believed in the whole “’til death do us part” fallacy. But Looking For a Rebound Kat was excited to get drunk at the reception and try to meet a cute boy to be inappropriate with later that night.
Despite my best efforts, I was running late. (Shocker, I know). Putting makeup on while doing 90 on the L.I.E., I was daydreaming about a fun and carefree weekend, something I hadn’t had in quite some time. And I was spending it with my closest female work friends. The bride and I were one of a work foursome. The other two were coming with the boyfriend/husband in tow so I was mentally prepared for being the 5th wheel all weekend. Or so I thought. I pulled up to the church with less than 3 minutes to spare. I was so late I had to actually squeeze past the bridesmaids in the church’s vestibule. Not wanting to make a scene, I gingerly opened one of the stately swinging doors. Given the imminent commencement of festivities, the creak of the 100-year old wood caused the entire congregation (or so it felt) to turn around expecting to see the procession starting. The form-fitting black dress I had picked for the late morning ceremony flashed like a neon sign reading “we’ll start as soon as THIS one finds her seat.” With about 90 seconds to go, I spotted my friends sitting in one of the first rows behind the bride’s family. “Of course they sat in front,” I muttered to myself as I tiptoed as fast as I could without making even more of a scene. “At least my rebound prospects got a good view,” I reasoned as I slid into the aisle seat my very prepared friends had saved for me. Of course, because the girls were friends and not the guys, my two girlfriends were flanked by their men, meaning I was left sitting next to my friend’s husband. I knew Ben well enough to bullshit, but was a little concerned I wasn’t sitting next to the girls. After all, I was a bit of an emotional time bomb which Joan and Dina were adequately prepared to diffuse. Ben was not.
The ceremony began and the beautiful bride was beaming. And much to my surprise, even my poor bruised heart managed to feel uplifted by the joy spreading across the room. For the first time in months, I wasn’t thinking about the baby I lost or the demise of my marriage that loss spurred. The familiarity with the hymns being sung by the choir was comforting and I felt oddly at peace. Little did I know that peace was really the eye of the hurricane in disguise. My memory is a little foggy on whether I actually received Communion that day (I’m thinking I didn’t), but I recall sitting back in the pew waiting for the rest of the congregation to finish since we were seated so close to the front. Assuming not everyone reading this has been to a Catholic mass, the period after receiving Communion is meant to be a time for quiet prayer and introspection. It’s one of only a few times that full songs are played, usually 2 or 3 depending on how long it takes the congregation to finish the sacrament. It’s also the one time when your mind is truly left to wander as there is no need to recite prayers or figure out if you’re supposed to kneel, stand, bless yourself, or do the Hokey Pokey.
Between the unfettered ability to overthink and the unobscured view of the the bride and groom canoodling at the altar, I felt myself begin to unravel a bit as the first song came to an end. Then it happened.
“You who dwell in the shelter of the Lord,
Who abide in His shadow for life,
Say to the Lord, “My Refuge,
My Rock in Whom I trust.”
Nope. Not going to let this happen.
“And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
Bear you on the breath of dawn,
Make you to shine like the sun,
And hold you in the palm of His Hand.”
Oh, Christ. Breathe, Kat. Breathe. You can do this. Do NOT fall apart in this church.
“The snare of the fowler will never capture you,
And famine will bring you no fear;
Under His Wings your refuge
His faithfulness your shield.
And He will raise you up on eagle’s wings…”
Bowing my head a little more, I hoped to change the trajectory of the tears now brimming at my eyelids. I could feel Ben’s eyes on me and almost sense his panic. Peripherally, I saw what looked like Ben tapping Dina’s hand which was resting on her knee. Then I felt it. Dina’s hand on my upper back. Anyone who’s ever been on the precipice of that kind of emotional cliff knows that even the slightest gesture of comfort can often have the opposite effect, sending you plummeting right over the edge. The tears I had successfully kept at bay finally gave way, dropping almost audibly on the laminated ceremony program sitting in my lap. I wasn’t a mom yet. Neither were my friends. So none of us had purses filled with tissues or wipes or even random scraps of construction paper to wipe my eyes. And even though it was black, I couldn’t exactly lift my dress up to dry my eyes. As the tears continued to fall, the song swelled to its crescendo and I knew if I didn’t get out right then, I would draw even more attention to myself than I hoped to in the slinky blue uneven-hemmed dress I had planned for the reception. I slid my legs out to the aisle and as gracefully as I could, stood up and started back down the aisle. Tears were now streaming down my face, a hand shielding one eye to give the illusion I had something in it. With the exception of the couple’s immediate family and the bridal party, every single person in attendance witnessed the spectacle.
Walking as fast as I could in stilettos, I was thankful for the fabric runner under foot. That was, of course, until the runner ended. Swinging doors need to swing, and the runner couldn’t fall within the door’s span or it would be disturbed every time it opened. That span was probably about 3 feet. But at that moment, it seemed like 30. As my heel hit the polished hardwood, I felt my foot start to slip. I was going to fall in the middle of this fucking wedding. While most people were still facing forward praying, the noise of me hitting the floor would undoubtedly change that. “If I could just reach the doors without falling flat on my face, that would be cool,” I mumbled as I lifted my eyes up to talk to the Guy who owned the joint. The next step was more of a leap, landing just close enough to reach the doors. Of course, the leap caused a momentum that I wasn’t expecting and as I hit the doors, they swung open forcefully, ending any last bit of tranquility. As the doors began to close, I’m pretty sure I heard the collective “swish” of wool and taffeta as the churchgoers all turned in unison at the cacophony.
In my haste coming in, I hadn’t noticed if there was a bathroom in the vestibule. A priest-in-training took one look at me and just pointed to his left.
“My allergies are killing me,” I stammered unconvincingly.
Lying to a man of the cloth was definitely icing on this cake.
The bathroom mirror revealed that I thankfully did not look like a rabid raccoon. But it was very clear I neither had something in my eye nor was being assailed by ragweed. Afraid I’d break down again, I was planning to stay in there as long as possible. Then someone knocked on the door. I pulled myself together as best I could, checked my face one last time, and stashed some toilet paper in my cleavage because of course I had left my purse at my seat lest it look like anything other than a dire emergency that took me away from arguably the most reverent part of the mass. Especially since, you know, I had practically just gotten there.
As I exited the restroom, a rather handsome guy was standing off to the side as his friend went in after me.
“You ok?” he asked.
Seeing the postulant look over in my direction, I replied “Me? Oh yeah, I’m fine. It’s just my allergies.” I’m pretty sure Priest-Lite rolled his eyes. Whatever.
“This weather definitely is just right for that,” he retorted and flashed me a big smile. I smiled back, sensing perhaps this might be just the rebound I had been looking for.
“Are you a friend of the bride or groom?” I asked, silently thinking he better say groom or Alice was dead for not trying to set us up in advance.
“I’m a friend of Jay’s.”
Lucky break, Alice. “You?”
“I work with Alice.”
“A lawyer, huh?” his eyes giving me the once over twice.
“Yep. We work at the same firm.” Not wanting to miss what was left of the ceremony, I sped the conversation up a bit. “I assume I’ll see you at the reception later?”
“I wish I were going. I have to be back in Boston, so I’m headed to the airport as soon as the ceremony is over.”
I think I audibly sighed, since it was pretty clear (a) he kinda dug me and (b) he was one of very few who had not witnessed my breakdown in the middle of Communion.
“Well, it was nice talking to you. Safe travels back to Boston.”
And with that, I walked back to the swinging doors and steadied myself for the glares as I interrupted the quiet once again.
As I slid back into my seat, I noticed Dina and Joan looking exceptionally concerned. Not wanting them to worry, I leaned over Ben and whispered “let’s just hope there’s some random third cousin up front because I definitely just ruined any chance of getting laid by anyone not related to the Mr. and Mrs.” I smirked and all four tried unsuccessfully to stifle laughs. Thankfully by then, the mass was almost over so the laughter was barely noticeable over the choir exalting the new couple in their wedded bliss.
At the reception later that evening, I regaled the new Mrs. with the story of my breakdown. Thankfully, the couple had not seen it from the altar – or she lied to save me from even more embarrassment. I definitely noticed some stares throughout the evening which Dina and Joan assured me were related to how “stunning” the turquoise dress looked against my tanned skin. I wasn’t convinced and resigned myself to a failed Operation Rebound.
About an hour or so into the reception, Alice’s brother approached me. He was probably one of the better looking guests and had most likely not witnessed the Great Allergy Fake-Out. Chris and I spent the night dancing and talking and when the shuttle pulled up to the hotel at the end of the night, he gave me a warm hug and wished me a good evening. Alice later told me she didn’t mention him as an option because she didn’t want me to feel pressured if I didn’t like him, and I don’t blame her. As the guests all dispersed to their rooms, I tipsily went to mine to change and grab my iPod shuffle (it was 2003 after all). Sitting outside alone, I finally let my emotions take over as I listened to whatever playlist was most gut-wrenching at that time. I was disappointed Chris hadn’t made a move, but looking back, it was the best possible ending to that evening. The very next weekend I met my second husband, who despite all his flaws, gave me my two beautiful daughters. And from the time I found out I was pregnant with each of them, I infused their lives with as much music as possible in the hope that they’ll one day find the same joy and comfort from it that I have. And when they ask for P!nk’s “F**ckin’ Perfect” instead of some poppy KidzBop cover of a Justin Bieber song, I know they get it too.
This hits so close to home. Some songs never stop punching you in the feels. Sometimes they lighten from a haymaker to a pesky jab, but they never stop.
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yoi have lots of courage writing what you do and that’s inspiring.. having my then wife miscarry and then going through the divorce .. music does soothe my mind and help me relax.. thanks for the read and being honest!
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Kat, Loved the story. Music plays a big part in my life too. If yourr daughters aren’t asking to hear a KidzBop version of a song, then you are doing a great job. I’m sure the guy from Boston was wishing he could’ve stayed. 😊
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You sure do know how to make a person think, Miss D. ☺️
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Kat, the depth of your heart and soul is endless… Music can be a bitch, or a bastard… randomly dredging up memories, good and bad… I have a similiar relationship to music, mostly older stuff, but there are certain songs that are salve for my heart… I hope you have songs that remind you of how truly amazing you are, despite the twisted and tortured path that got you here.
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Music touches our lives just as much as people or pets do. It can take you back to a time and place where good times or bad reside. I’ll always remember “red light ” playing at my brothers funeral or “under my hat” when we were out cruising in my 55 chevy while he was still with us.
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Kat, music in innate to us as human beings. It will always be a way for us to express ourselves and to connect with each other. For some, it reaches deeper into our souls than others….and for those people it can be incredibly powerful.
As always, incredibly well written…
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Very well written. I’m 4 years in to my divorce and daily here songs that throw me for a loop.
Great read and very relatable. There are definitely more songs that trigger both happy and sad memories in my life than any scent. Keep calm, and keep moving forward.
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Not sure why that comment struck a nerve, but thank you. I needed some of that today.