A few weeks after my mother died in 2011, I went to my massage therapist for a much needed massage. While she would work, instrumental music would always play softly in the background. That day the music made me unutterably sad. I’m not sure if it was because my mother was a pianist or if it was some quality in the music itself. It was at least a year before I would let her play any music during my massage.
After Hank, my ex-husband, died, I didn’t think much about how music might affect me. I did know that Beethoven’s Fifth might be impossible to listen to. That was the music I played for him on my phone in the hospital right after he died. It was his favorite piece, and I thought it would be a fitting way for him to step through the curtain to the other side. But even on my classical radio station they rarely play the Fifth, so I haven’t encountered it yet.
What I have encountered is a song that is part of my yoga teacher’s line up. She always plays the same set of yoga music during our practice. Mostly it’s just in the background, and I don’t even pay attention to it, but at the very end while we do our final stretches and prepare for shivasana, a plaintive instrumental piece comes on, starting off with a simple piano melody accompanied by strings that then switches to a guitarist plucking the melody.
Before Hank’s death, I must have heard that particular song a hundred times without giving it a single thought. But the first time I heard it after his death, I couldn’t even stay in the studio. I lay there for a few minutes and then got up and went outside, struggling for breath. Once I was away from the music, I was able to gather myself together and recover. I was shocked that the grief could be triggered so suddenly.
After that I would try to withstand the music at the end of class, but I never could. I would always wind up getting up and leaving after a few minutes of torturing myself while my spirit dangled over the abyss of pain. My yoga teacher noticed and asked if I’d like her to take the song from the line up, and I said, no. I would eventually get used to it.
I was so angry at Hank when he was alive, so stressed out by the chore of taking care of him after his stroke, so exhausted by the sheer drudgery of the work involved that I never dreamed how his death would waylay me. Sometimes I would find myself utterly baffled by his absence. How can that be, I wondered. Even now I have to remind myself, he’s dead, he’s not coming back.
What I rarely talk about is the fact that I was not always alone through the ordeal of taking care of him. Soon after our divorce, I reconnected with an old friend from college, and we started a long distance relationship. Even after I moved back into Hank’s house after his stroke, my friend helped keep me sane through regular phone calls and the occasional visit to Charlotte.
Since Hank’s death, we’ve resumed our relationship and can see each other more frequently. For Thanksgiving I went to his house in Florida. One night as I sat holding his hand, I noticed a tune in my head. It was the sad song! But this time it didn’t make me sad. It was just there, the way music sometimes is.
The next day I got a text from Karen, my yoga teacher, telling me that she looked up the song. It’s by an artist named Prem Parijat and is called “Forgiving.” I like the present-tenseness of the word. Not “forgiven” but “forgiving” — a process that really never ends.
Then it happened again, more than three months after his death. I was in fine spirits throughout the whole class. As the familiar melody began, I lay on my mat. This time I didn’t get up and leave. Instead I sat up, silently heaving, and let the tears roll off my cheeks. Karen came over and rubbed my back. When the music stopped, I wiped my tears, rolled up my mat, and went on with my day.
I was always surprised by the suddenness of the emotion. I’d be completely immersed in the asanas, in the lovely feel of stretched muscles and deep breathing, and then those notes would slip inside me and shatter something, something I didn’t even know was there. When it happened, I was reminded that my shell was more fragile than I realized and that deep wells of sadness lurked just below my surface.
Finally, four months after Hank’s death, I made it through an entire yoga class without crying.
Yoga served me well through those months of caregiving hell, giving me time to de-stress and take care of myself. Afterwards, yoga music gave me the opportunity to grieve and to remember that mixed in with all the pain and frustration, there was also a deep and abiding love.
*Note: I have changed my ex’s name in the interest of privacy.