Oh, the lonely sound of my voice callin'
Is driving me insane.
And just like rain the tears keep fallin'
But nobody answers when I call your name...
Vince Gil, "When I Call Your Name"
A beautiful Kentucky autumn day. Sunlight streams through trees on fire with fall color. A mother and her teenage daughter are driving on a winding two-lane road from Falmouth to Erlanger, a journey that takes just under an hour in real time but can feel like eternity when there's homework to do, and laundry to wash, and daylight to burn.
The family makes this drive often. The asphalt is familiar, the curves well-worn, the landmarks noted. At least one month a year, sometimes two, the mother's husband and the teenage daughter's father checks himself into the rehab hospital in the center of the small town of Falmouth to seek treatment for alcohol addiction. On Sundays, the mother and daughter visit. The drive down highway 27 in late morning is hopeful; the evening drive back home is funereal. Both women miss their husband/father. Both worry about him--Did he look jaundiced to you? Do you think he's putting on enough weight? But the biggest worries on the ride home will always be unspoken.
Will this be the last time? Can he stay sober? How much longer can we all do this?
And the blackest worry of all: How many more times do we get to visit him at the hospital following a binge? At what point do we visit his grave instead?
This particular visit, the mother is in her new car. It's a smart, red compact car with a Japanese engine and an American body, like no other car this UAW family has ever had. Its very presence in their lives points toward the new decade ahead and a time of change. The teenage girl will be finishing high school in a couple of years. The oldest daughter in the family recently became a mother to a little boy cherished beyond reason. The mother operates her own beauty shop inside an upscale nursing home and has money of her own to spend for the first time in many years. It would be easy to look ahead with hope.
And yet on the road back from Falmouth, hope is hard to find.
The new car has an FM radio, front and rear speakers, and a cassette tape deck. This is the first family car to have such ridiculous amenities. During the drive down that morning, the teenager first listened to a top-40 station; when that began to fade out, she popped in her Beatles Greatest Hits tape.
On the way back, it's time for the mother to listen to Vince Gil.
The daughter is only listening because she has to. Until the fifth track. As soon as she hears the piano intro and Vince's pure, high voice come in on the first verse, she suddenly becomes interested. She turns it up.
I rushed home from work
Like I always do
I spent my whole day
Just thinking of you
When I walked through the front door
My whole life was changed
'Cause nobody answered
When I called your name.
Something about the plaintive lyrics and the soaring melody and the near-religious fervor of Vince Gil's vocals--the girl feels a lump rise in her throat and tears well in her eyes.It is the first time, but not the last, that she feels so moved by the beauty of a melody that she cries. That song is also how she learns there's a "repeat" button on the tape deck. They replay the song several more times, let that side of the tape finish, then start the same side all over again just to count the tracks until they can hear that beautiful chorus. It becomes a standard on all their remaining drives to Falmouth together. And even after the little red car has been passed on and the mother gets newer, nicer vehicles, she always has to have a tape deck. Because during the most trying journeys of her life, she has to listen to Vince.
Fast-forward many years later.
This time it's a spring day, but sunshine is still breaking through the trees and filling the space with warm light. The daughter sits at the mother's bedside in their final hour together.
It feels like one of those evening drives back home from Falmouth. The same feeling of blackness, of uncertainty, the same lack of hope. A journey has come to an end.
The mother begins to stir. She is there, but she is no longer herself. The cancer has taken away too much. She moans; the nurse comes in and says it's not necessarily from pain and that it's simply a sign that the end is near.
"Shhh, shhh," the daughter whispers. "I'm still here. Let me play some music for you."
On her phone the daughter first cues The Beatles--"Here Comes the Sun" and "Let It Be," two favorites from those days of long car rides on a country road.
The mother quiets. She closes her eyes in half-sleep. The daughter has to leave soon; she has to pick up her own daughter from school and feed her before resuming her vigil. One more song.
As Vince Gil's impossibly beautiful voice soars and fills the room, the mother's eyes open briefly. For just a second she seems to know her daughter is there. The grip on her daughter's hand becomes a little tighter. And as the song finishes she drifts back into restless sleep, something close to a smile on her face.
A short time later, the call reaches the daughter. Her mother is home at last.
Over the next year, the daughter will listen to her mother's favorite song often. It will become a touchstone--when she needs a good cry, when the grief becomes too much. A little over a year after she loses her mom, she will play that song one final time in the kitchen of her childhood home just hours before signing the papers that allow that home to belong to a new family.
As the daughter closes the door, the poignancy of the lyrics take on a new meaning.
Your love has ended
But mine still remains
But nobody answers
When I call your name...
Rest in peace, Joan. It's been three years today and not a day goes by that I don't think of you. I'll play some Vince for us today and remember those drives and the days when we found comfort in music.