A Sentimental Person

Years after his wife’s death, a Michigan pastor learns how to play the blues and how to let go.

Man playing a guitar

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It had been three years since I touched that guitar. Before Lauren died, I played nearly every day — at least picked it up, smelled the earthy aroma of the instrument like mud laced with cinnamon. It surprised me the day I finally took it back out of its case to discover the scent was still there.

There were a few packages of strings in there, too, a capo, and a half-dozen picks, including the green one I caught when Chris Thile threw it into the crowd at the end of a Nickel Creek concert — one of the few good memories from my former life that didn’t have Lauren wrapped all around it. And there were two pieces of paper, folded into squares, with song ideas scratched out in blue ink from a writing session I can barely remember. I used to squirrel away an hour or two for writing whenever I could — a challenge with my responsibilities as a pastor, father, and husband. The ideas were half-formed and uninspired, so I threw the papers into the recycling. Forced myself to put them in recycling, I should say. I have a hard time throwing things out. I can admit that.

I have always been a sentimental person. I’m the guy who buys the concert T-shirt and shows up hours early for a baseball game, leaning over the railing and asking for autographs all through batting practice. Some of that memorabilia are in frames or cases, lined up on bookshelves, or adorning the walls of my office at the church and our basement rec room. I was never a pack rat, though. It was after Lauren died, when I started clinging to our possessions.

For example, there was a package of napkins that was about half full when it happened, and with everyone over at the house (my sister, Emily, and Will and Cindy from church), in a couple of days the napkins were nearly used up. When I realized they were almost gone, I panicked. I stuffed the package, with the remaining napkins in the back of the pantry. And then there’s Lauren’s coffee mug, which I won’t let anyone wash. It sits on the windowsill behind the sink with a sticky note: “Do not touch.” The problem is the finality of it. You put something in the trash, and it’s gone forever.

 

But I was talking about my guitar, a Martin Triple-O Fifteen, built from solid mahogany, front, back, and sides — a guitar which smells to this day like the tree from which it was made. And I don’t know what made me finally take it back out, but the moment I held it, I realized how much I missed it — missed the feel of the strings, the rattle of a finger-slap blues riff, the shimmering sound of a D-chord like a chorus of birds.

When I finally removed it from its case (it was more than a thousand days, can you imagine?), the instrument needed a neck adjustment. So I took it to the shop. I didn’t have any meetings that afternoon, and my girlfriend, who had been in the picture for several months at this point, was picking the kids up from school.

The relationship was my first in the world of post: post-marriage, post-death, post-everything changing. I had gone on a few dates before I met Helen, but only because Emily kept setting me up. When I met Helen, I was strolling through the Saturday farmer’s market. I was kid-free for the weekend, and it was one of the rare days when I actually felt light. In fact, more than once that morning, I double-checked my pockets, because I kept thinking that I must have forgotten something. But my keys were there, my wallet, my phone, and my kids were accounted for (an overnight with Will and Cindy, whose kids are the same age as mine).

The sun was out, and the leaves on the trees were that spring-green color, the color that’s so fresh-looking it makes you think how the tree is a living thing, so full of liquid, when it’s punctured, the sap spills out like clear blood. I approached a produce stand that looked especially attractive. Tin buckets held bunches of greens — rainbow chard with bright, neon-colored veins, parsley and spinach, red- and green-leaf lettuce.

Helen was inspecting some salad greens.

“This is damn beautiful stuff,” I said.

“I think veggies are pretty,” she said

She was pretty. Not in a bowl-you-over sort of way. But pleasing — pleasant to look at, pleasant to be around. She smiles a lot, has good teeth, rich brown hair with a natural curl, which, if I’m honest, reminds me of Lauren. I had wanted to date women who looked nothing like her — women who would never be confused as a sort of substitute for my dead wife. But you meet whom you meet, and when you’re single in middle-age, the pickings are pretty slim.

I turned my attention to a display of radishes, laid out in a row with the stems still attached, purple and pungent.

“Veggies is a funny word,” I said. “Just listen to it: veggies.”

She laughed. I could tell right away she was interested, because she looked at my hand. The ring check. I figured she was younger than me, but still in the range.

“Yup. Single,” I said. I had stopped wearing my wedding ring, and instead kept it in a case on my dresser.

“I didn’t mean …”

“Yeah, you did.” I was surprised at my own self-confidence, but like I said, there was that feeling of lightness.

“Okay, you got me.” She smiled that smile again. “God, this is so embarrassing.”

I shrugged. “Why? I think you’re attractive, and I’m not embarrassed about it.”

She turned her head and looked at me sideways.

“You want to blow this vegetable stand and get something to eat?” I said.

“I don’t even know your name.”

“It’s James,” I said. I told her to meet me at the fountain in half an hour, and I showed up with a bag full of vegetarian samosas and two cups of coffee, and we sat together on a park bench, and I told all. Two kids, dead wife, pastor. She didn’t flinch.

 

Before Lauren died, I worked a lot. I was obsessive about it really, a trap that’s easy for a pastor to fall into. I did care about my church, I will say that. But the thing that drove me was the desire to succeed. Everyone around me — my friends and my peers — could see my work. They could see if the church was growing (or not). They knew if people liked me (or not). I was on display, and that was something I never really came to terms with.

After Lauren, though, I lost my obsession. In the beginning, grieving consumed all of my energy. But as time passed, if I’m honest, I started relying on Lauren’s death as an excuse. It would have been impossible for the church to demand more of me, and I knew it. And I wouldn’t say that I lost my faith, but I lost my certainty. Part of me wanted to keep running just as hard as before, but how does a person run full steam ahead when he isn’t sure where he’s going?

 

While I waited for the repair tech to finish the tune-up, I saw an advertisement for a blues guitar class, and I signed up right then and there. People were always encouraging me to do things: go on trips, start dating, take a class. They were worried that I was like a car, and if I sat still too long, I would stop running. It’s shit, really, the way people try to cut your grief short. That’s my biggest piece of advice if someone in your life goes through this kind of loss. Sit with them and let them grieve. They’re going to hurt — that’s not something you can change — and it’s going to take longer than you think it should. Grief isn’t water-soluble; it doesn’t wash away.

But I was talking about my blues guitar class. Our teacher, Pinkerton Shaw, white and Midwestern like me, played the Delta Blues with the soul of a sharecropper. Five of us sat together in the living room of his house in an artsy neighborhood along the Grand River, and Pinky (the perfect bluesman’s name, right?) taught us theory, the blues box, the pentatonic scale, and a handful of different grooves. There’s no point in false modesty, so I’ll just go ahead and say that I was the best player in the group — except for Pinky, of course.

I started hanging around after class, sharing a beer, and listening to his stories from Berklee (where he crossed paths with John Mayer and Diana Krall — how’s that for a brush with fame?) and from life on the road.

I didn’t tell him about Lauren right off. He knew I had two kids and that I was dating. Pinky was married, and they had a newborn, which is why he’d given up the touring life, bought a house back in his hometown, and filled it with second-hand furniture.

I told him that I loved bottleneck blues, and he offered to teach me how to play slide, and I started staying later and later after class.

“Man, you could really be a player,” he said one night. It was summer in Michigan, and the sun was taking forever to set. At 10 o’clock, the last gasps of gray light still refused to falter. Night crept up on us, and we didn’t turn the lights on, even when it was almost dark.

I leaned my guitar against the wall and settled into my chair.

“Did you ever think about pursuing your music?” he asked.

“Not really. I married young, started down another path.”

He was wearing a dark gray button-up with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and even in the near dark, I could see the blue vein running down the center of his underarm.

“Can I ask what happened?” he asked.

“You just did.”

He smiled and played a riff.

“My wife died three years ago. It was a stroke. One day she was there, and then she was gone.”

“Oh, shit. I’m sorry.”

“It was terrible, but it’s getting better. It’s starting to get better.”

“I don’t know what to say,” he said.

I shrugged. “What is there?”

I’ll say this for Pinky. I know he was uncomfortable. I could tell. But he didn’t look away or bring up some story of loss he’d experienced. He said, “I’m really sorry,” and he looked me in the eyes.

 

I mentioned before that I was feeling uncertain about my relationship with Helen. There were plenty of things I liked about her. I was attracted to her. She was stubbornly idealistic, a quality I admired. And she had won over my kids, Danny and Ruth — my two preteens — which is no small feat.

But then there were things that bothered me. Like, for example, she would offer to watch the kids, and then she was annoyed when I didn’t come home right after class. She didn’t really care that I was late (she was a night owl and never went to bed early). It was jealousy. She was jealous of Pinky, and she was threatened by my history with Lauren. She never said so, but I could tell. I could tell by the way she turned quiet when the kids talked about their mom. I could tell by the way she stole glances at Lauren’s coffee mug on the windowsill while she did the dishes.

And then there were the petty things — her laugh, for example. She had a laugh like a two-stroke engine: hick, hick — hick, hick. And I know this is going to sound terribly superficial, but she had trouble with her skin. Near-constant breakouts on her chin and forehead, which she smothered with make-up, theorizing that it was caused by chocolate (while she ate chocolate) or by drinking alcohol (while holding a glass of wine).

What bothered me is that she didn’t do anything about it. She didn’t go to the dermatologist, or change her diet. She didn’t even wash her face before bed, which is me admitting that she sometimes stayed over.

One day that summer, Helen and I took a trip to Lake Michigan. We walked the Saugatuck Dunes, a hilly forest of beach grass, oaks, and white pines, ending in a strip of white sand at the water’s edge. Then we headed into town, built on the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, a perfect harbor for boaters. We held hands as we walked, watching the sunlight reflecting on the water and the rows of aluminum masts, rocking in the gentle waves.

“Let’s play a game,” she said. “We walk two blocks this way, turn right, and then left, and then we eat dinner at the first restaurant we see.”

“I know a good place,” I said.

“No, that’s too easy.” She turned to face me.

“But it’s so arbitrary,” I said.

She kept pushing, though, and I decided to go along with it. And, of course, she was right. Dinner was great.

 

The first song Pinky and I performed together was at church. Pinky and his wife, Jayna, started coming on Sunday mornings with their baby. They were the type that grew up in church, drifted away during college, but when they had a child, started talking about coming back. And then I came along.

We worked up a version of the old song, “Nothing but the Blood,” a hymn with the heart of a spiritual with its call and response. “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” You get the idea. There’s nothing complicated about it, and that’s the point.

I sang lead, and Pinky added background vocals and some killer fills on guitar. The song leaves some breathing room between lines, and we stretched out the space between chorus and verse so Pinky could play the way he does, his fingers flying across the neck of his guitar, both frenetic and effortless.

We made it into a sort of theme and variation, adding layers of complexity with each verse, and even playing with the melody. The best way to handle the repetition is to treat the whole thing like a suggestion. Start here, start here, the music says. But it doesn’t tell you were to go. It’s up to you to give it soul, build it up until it soars. And it did. It took off, mostly because Pinky is so damn good. Once we got going, it sounded like there were four of us up there playing, and I can assure you, I was only carrying one part. We repeated the last chorus three times and then finally ended the song. Pinky hit one last chord and let it ring, and then, after a moment’s hesitation, the church let go with applause.

The amazing thing about music is that it can become a sort of bridge between the performer and the audience, a shared experience. Of course, not everyone feels it. Maybe 10 percent, 15 percent, I’d guess. And Helen wasn’t one of them. I could tell. “You have a great voice.” The only compliment Helen could manage, when she wasn’t criticizing Pinky’s outfit (he wore all black), or his voice (he sings on key, but his voice is nasal and pinched). I tried to explain the theme-and-variations thing but didn’t get anywhere.

I seriously considered breaking up with her, at this point. Sometimes, it was like we were speaking in translation, and there was something fundamental about me that she didn’t understand. But I was afraid of letting go (see napkins, see coffee mug); she cut the loneliness in my life like cream to coffee. And then there was the kids.

I mentioned before that she won over my kids. This didn’t just happen. Danny, in particular, resisted her. And one day — it must have been around six weeks into our relationship — Helen was talking with Danny, and he was agitated. It was typical stuff. We planned to hike to a little lake nearby, and Danny didn’t want to go. Helen got down on her knees to talk with him, and Danny reared back and hit her with both hands square in her shoulders.

I didn’t see it happen, but I saw the immediate aftermath — the look of anger on Danny’s face and shock on Helen’s. But she didn’t yell at him or even turn away; no, she stayed right down there with him, looking him the eyes. She said, “I bet sometimes you just want to hit someone, don’t you? It isn’t fair, is it?”

Danny didn’t say anything. But later, when we were walking back from our swim, he took her hand. It was a turning point for all of us. There were still moments of resistance, but she just kept bearing with them. Even more than her natural optimism, it was her most admirable quality.

 

Pinky’s blues class ended, but we kept meeting on Wednesday nights. I started bringing song lyrics (usually in bits and pieces), and Pinky came up with the music. When he worked on a song, he seemed to draw from a bottomless store of chord progressions, melodies, and countermelodies, as if he had tapped into flowing water deep underground. And we ended up with some great sounding stuff, though I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. My lyrics were stiff. I didn’t recognize it at the time, but I was like a man poking at my feelings with a stick. I wrote a song about a homeless man, a troubled marriage, and one about a whale hunt. The song about whales was probably the best, or at least that’s what Jayna said. Pinky didn’t come out and say it, but I could tell he wasn’t satisfied. He was waiting.

 

School was now underway again, and Helen spent most evenings at our house, heading straight from work to pick up Danny from soccer or Ruth from lacrosse. Despite all of my complaints about Helen, she was a savior for our family. I cooked dinner while she supervised homework, scrubbed pots and pans, or packed lunches. We were a solid team. And this, I started to remind myself, was life. Life was raising children, going to meetings, and making the best we can out of the moments in between, the little shafts of light.

It was October by the time we managed a real date night, our first since the trip to Saugatuck. She got ready at her own place, and I picked her up, wearing a new shirt and a dash of cologne.

“What do they call this?” I asked.

“A date.”

“Romance,” I said. “That’s the word.”

I could give you the whole blow-by-blow, the way the evening unfolded, or I could simply say that I was a man divided, a split personality — infatuated with this beautiful woman, unspeakably grateful that she was helping put my family back together, and, at the same time, guilty as hell that I was moving on from Lauren. So I did what any reasonable person would do in my situation: I drank. A lot.

We went to a new brewery, which gave me a decent excuse for trying a number of beers. I started with a few samples and then ordered my first pint, and then another. Helen offered to drive.

Soon I could think of only one thing: sex. I’ve already admitted that we slept together, but I should clarify that, as a pastor, this was against the rules. And I know that it’s an excuse, but when your wife has died and you’ve gone years without sex, the hunger is insatiable.

We were seated at a high top, and each time I went to the bathroom, the step down to the floor seemed to grow. I passed Helen on my way, kissed her neck, and stared at the stone tiled wall in the bathroom while I peed. Then I sauntered back to the table.

“Want to blow this vegetable stand,” I said, finally.

“Sure.”

“Your place.”

But then, on the drive, she turned quiet. As soon as we entered her house, she held up her hand — literally held up her hand like a traffic cop — and said, “James, what do you want from me?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean.”

She was crying, standing straight as a pin.

“You tell me you care about me, but then you turn around and act like a jerk. You’re fine with me tutoring your kids, having sex with me.” She stopped. The word sex hung in the air, the long whispering s’s. I was in no condition to talk about it, though, or to drive myself home. She made me a coffee and said she would take me home when I sobered up. I turned on the television, so we didn’t have to talk. And, honestly, we never really circled back to this conversation. I told her I was sorry and that was it.

 

Pinky and I decided to play an open mic at a coffee shop in the warehouse district. All we needed was one song, so I kept writing. I once heard Wynton Marsalis describe how he would write for hours and sometimes keep nothing more than a line or a phrase. And so I kept working, until I finally had something.

Not long before Lauren died, the PTA brought a magician to our kids’ school for a fundraiser. The show was in the auditorium with a reception in the cafeteria, where they served appetizers and punch in plastic stemware.

On the way to the event, Lauren and I were arguing about something. We were running late and stressed, and I’m sure we were both aggravated, but the kicker is that I remember thinking during the magic show, “I wish this guy would make my wife disappear.” I didn’t really mean it, but the thought ran through my head, and then, in a matter of weeks, she was gone. Really gone.

Anyway, this is what the song is about: magic tricks and making things disappear and then wishing they would come back. About regret and death and how it is completely and utterly relentless. It wasn’t the greatest song in the world, but it was a big improvement from my other stuff, and at least it was honest. It was that or the whale song.

Helen came to the open mic. We hadn’t exactly returned to normal, but it seemed like we were moving in that direction. Pinky and I were pretty early in the schedule, and there weren’t many people in the room when we played our song, which was disappointing after all the work we put into it. The host called us to the front, and we waded through tables and chairs heading toward the makeshift stage, framed by the two speakers, mounted on those flimsy plastic floor stands. There was seating for about two dozen people at eight or nine tables, and the place was half full. We plugged in, played the song, and then it was over. A few people seemed really into it, nodding their heads and tapping on the table to keep time. But mostly the experience was pretty anticlimactic. We played our song and people clapped. Then we sat down.

Helen bent over and whispered in my ear. “That was really good.” She locked eyes with me, and I knew she meant it.

What I never expected was that, after two more acts (another singer-songwriter and a poet), the host called the next performer to the stage, and it was someone I never expected. It was Helen.

Before saying anything else, I should also mention that the place was now packed. Late arrivers filled the open tables, and some were even standing around the edges, leaning against the brick walls. If she was intimidated, she didn’t show it. When her name was called, Helen took a deep breath and marched to the stage, Pinky in tow. (They’d spent two weeks working on it; he filled me in later.)

They covered the U2 song, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” and it says something right there that she knew enough to pick a classic and a song that worked well with her voice. She sang on key (even when the melody jumped to a different range), but what was most striking was the way she rounded her phrases, instead of simply sitting on the notes. She didn’t have a big voice, but it was cool, with a little bit of grit, a little bit of texture. And, of course, Pinky knocked it out of the park.

It was the performance of the night, and as far as I was concerned it came out of nowhere. After nine months of dating, I should have known. But here I was, completely shocked at what had just taken place.

There’s a lot more that I could say about how things ended between us, but I’m trying to stick to the parts that really matter. And I think it’s enough to say that she was really gracious, and that I learned something about how self-absorbed I was. I should also add that she still regularly visits with the kids, and not only because she understands how difficult it would be for them to lose another mother figure. She really cares about them and makes time for them, even though it’s been a year since she broke it off.

If I sound nostalgic, I might not be getting my point across. I don’t miss dating Helen; we weren’t a good match. And it’s not right to say that I have regrets. That’s not it, either. Not exactly anyway. I wish I had treated her better, and I’m sorry for that, but I don’t wish that things had happened any differently. I’ve apologized, and she doesn’t need anything else from me. She’s a lot stronger than I realized.

 

I’ve said before that this kind of grieving doesn’t ever end. Lauren’s death changed me in ways that are permanent. But today, finally, I put that coffee mug in the dishwasher and ran it through. And then I put it back into the cabinet with the others.

As for Pinky and me, we’re still getting together. Still working, still playing. And my writing is getting better, little by little. Though I’m still trying to write the song that answers the question I don’t know how to ask.

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