Memories can warm you up but they can also tear you apart. The same goes for music. The right song can be an instant mood booster, serving as a reminder of happier times. Other songs can evoke nostalgia, making one yearn for a certain time or person associated with the tune. My relationship with music has evolved over the years. It has been present in the worst of times and the best of times in MY LIFE. It has been my most loyal friend and also the most sudden reminder of times and people long gone.
When I was seven years old, I was adopted by my first grade teacher. One year later my mom had my first little sister Natalie and a year later she had my second little sister Olivia. Being the oldest child in my five person family had its ups and downs. My mother and I were both the oldest of three sisters, and she projected a lot of the responsibility that she experienced growing up in a working class Italian family in Queens, New York. I was the built-in babysitter, the chief of all things chores, and as I got older the second tier chef. Despite several of my friends opinions that I was my mother’s little Cinderella because I was rarely allowed to go out with my friends, I viewed my chores as just the way of life in our house. Besides, my refuge when spending so much time under my mother’s strict schedule was to be home when she wasn’t so I could blast my music as loud as I wanted.
My mom and I fought a lot when I was living at home. It began when I was about twelve and continued until right after I turned twenty years old. Her outspoken, New Yorker personality and my own teenager attitude clashed and we got along like water and oil. I learned that the best reaction to my mom when she was starting to get into one of her angry moods was to leave her alone. However, since I was expected to be home most of the time, my only escape used to be taking my two dogs on very long walks. I would set out, iPod in hand, and let the sounds of my favorite band Rise Against, lift my spirit. When I listened to my favorite music, I could forget about the constant fights, the ever-present anger towards my mom, and the developing self-hate and doubt that I was not a good enough daughter. At my worst I battled self-mutilation, an eating disorder (so California), and several suicide attempts- the first of which was when I was fourteen years old. At my best, I found enough strength within myself to get me through those dark times.
When it was time for me to go to college, I was determined to start a new life in a place no one knew me. More importantly, I was determined to be as far from my mom as I could possibly be. Moving to Chicago for school at DePaul University when I was eighteen years old helped me accomplish both of those goals. However, the transition from an overbearing family to a much more solitary life eventually caught up with me. I couldn’t avoid the guilt that I was missing the last bit of my mother’s life being over a thousand miles away from home.
My mother was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer my senior year in high school. Despite her illness, I was still determined to leave our constant fighting behind and make a new life for myself in a different state. The only in-state school I applied to was San Francisco State, a twelve hour drive from my home in southern California. That first year in Chicago taught me a lot of important lessons about being an adult. I managed all of my own expenses and made sure that, with the help of money put away from my biological grandfather, my tuition was paid on time. My grades excelled and for a while I was truly happy. When summer came around, I decided to work at a special needs camp in central California, which is about a six hour drive from my family in southern California. It was easy for me to be distracted from any guilt or sadness I felt when I was working at that camp. I think I spoke to my parents a handful of times that entire summer. I felt totally self-sufficient for the first time in MY LIFE, and thought I didn’t even need my parents or family.
When I came home for a week at the end of that summer, my mother’s illness was beginning to show. She had lost all of her hair from countless chemotherapy treatments that just didn’t work. Her skin was jaundice due to the beginning of organ failure. And she was nauseous all of the time. When I was home that summer, it was also the first time that my mother and I spent more than a week together and didn’t fight. Not once. It was as if, along with her new appearance, she had also gained a new personality. Except she was still the same energetic and passionate woman I had grown up with. The only difference was how she replaced her anger with passion for a new, healthy life. Her prognosis hadn’t changed and her health had gotten worse, yet she seemed the most at peace I had ever seen her.
During the week I was home that summer, one afternoon my mother told my little sister Olivia and I that we were all going to make dinner together. She told me to go get my laptop and put on some music, but nothing too loud or obnoxious. This caught me off guard because growing up my mother never liked us to have music on. She always complained that it was extra noise and gave her a headache. I put on the Beatles as a compromise to her generation and we began to take ingredients from the fridge. I don’t remember what we ended up making, as my mom wasn’t much of a cook, but I do remember the video I took of the three of us goofing around while listening to the Beatles “All You Need Is Love”. I remember not being able to stop laughing for about twenty minutes. It was the happiest we had been together in a long time.
Although I still feel the deep pain of loss when I re-watch this video of the three of us, it is also a good reminder of an important lesson I learned that day. The repeated lyrics “all you need is love” echoed true of my mother and my relationship. All we needed was a little bit more love and music to be able to laugh together instead of yell. The change of both of our attitudes on life and ones another allowed my mother and me to move past whatever anger we held in and just enjoy the time we had left together. Although I wish that day in the kitchen could have happened so much sooner in MY LIFE, I am realizing that we both needed time and the right perspective to lead us to the more peaceful time in our lives. Good things really do come with time, and I am learning to take a little more time to smell the roses. Anytime I find myself impatient or missing happier times, I remember my mother’s hope and determination to find joy in her life. She wasn’t afraid to fight against all odds, and remained hopeful until the day she died. The hope that music has inspired in MY LIFE has given me a life worth living, which is something that I am extremely grateful for.
How did music save YOUR LIFE?