Perth, April 2006
Mum was diagnosed with incurable cancer. Over 18 months her health deteriorated noticeably but her spirit, love of family and zest for life did not abate. I would talk to her on the phone. You could hear the difficulty she had breathing but all she wanted to know about were the kids. One time when I flew to Perth to see her the family went out to the country so she could go gliding. The irony did not escape any of us that Mum was thousands of metres in the air without an engine, defying death.
Another time when I was over we got rolling drunk. Mum should not have been drinking at all but she let her hair down. Two days before she finally took her leave, when she could barely muster the energy to chew she insisted that she be taken to the shops to buy one of her daughters-in-law a birthday card and pressie.
On receiving the news that Mum was in her final days I readied myself to fly home to Perth. One of the things I did before I left was make up a CD for the family; music to console ourselves following the inevitable next stage of Mum’s terminal illness. I know my family. We would grieve deeply but we would also need a valve, to let out everything we can’t explain. Everything we can’t fathom. Everything and nothing.
Preparing to leave for Perth, I knew that this was my job, my role. So I sat down on the floor with dozens of CDs around me thinking of what songs to add to the playlist. It was painful. It felt morbid. But I knew that cometh the moment, this was the thing I could give to my grieving and bewildered family.
You have to know your family very well to complete a task like this. On one level it wasn’t too difficult because I could picture my sisters’ reactions when a song would start. This made the task easier. On another level it was mind-bendingly difficult.
There was one song that I definitely wanted to play. Ben Lee’s Catch My Disease. I pictured the family on the back patio at Mum’s place in a circle, singing to each other, open your heart and catch my disease. This would be the cathartic moment. This would be where the pain flowed out as the love poured in. I felt very sure that my family would understand and connect and celebrate Mum in this song. But …
I didn’t chicken out. I put it on the playlist. With very serious reservations. As I flew to Perth I couldn’t stop thinking, ‘What if?’. What if one person is offended. I didn’t want to upset anyone. We would share our grief – one clan, one blood, one people. What if this song was misconstrued? Emotions fragile, feelings confused. Great loss can hit you hard and in the most unpredictable ways. I didn’t want an argument to be triggered by this song. Hell, I didn’t even want to see an eyebrow start to rise.
Mum passed away, in her own home, surrounded by her family, surrounded by love. The grief was immense and it poured out. As night fell, family members, having completed the dreadful formal administration that follows death, gathered out the back to begin the informal but much needed wake. Bottles were emptied, laughter and tears shared.
Someone asked, “Where’s the music?”
“I put together a mixtape,” I said, “in honour of Mum and to celebrate her.”
The family ribbed me. “What, you prepared a playlist? That’s ghoulish.”
Then someone laughed and we all joined in. The eldest, Vron, taking charge, gave me a hug and said to the family assembled, “This is just what we need to pick us up.”
And so we danced. To Elvis and Marvin, Johnny and Dolly. More bottles emptied themselves and we swayed and twirled and for a moment Mum was dancing with us. In such a moment the music was all we needed.
Then I hit the pause button.
I said, “I’m not sure about the next song. I think it’s alright but.” Sisters howled me down, chided me for my doubts and said, “Play the bloody song.” So I hit play.
A simple handclap as backbeat starts the song. It is joined by toy piano, acoustic guitar, bass and drums before Ben Lee sings, My head is a box filled with nothing. At this point every one of us, in our own spiralling moment, might have collapsed. Exhausted, defeated, terrified. Then one of the sisters screamed, “And that’s the way I like it”. And we were off. Singing, with handclaps, air instruments and joyous tears. The family formed into a circle on the makeshift dancefloor and we sung our hearts out. For Mum, for ourselves, for what we have and what we can never replace. The song was our valve. So we played it again. And again. And again. And that’s the way I like it.
© Rick Kane
YouTube clip sourced via New West Records