© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.
Long before I ever married or had children, I theorized about my future family. I would have children who played the lute and harpsichord, I thought. They would also speak Latin (if only to themselves), and Greek (because it’s just slightly more useful than Latin. But still a classic!)
They would sing medieval polyphony (since we’re all squared on what that is) while doing science experiments, and on dates, which they would go on with crisp, brainy partners wearing head-to-toe parochial school garb, the kind of kids who also just love nothing more than reciting the whole periodic table of elements.
To the melody line of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Adding polyphony right about when they hit Thungsten.
They’d eschew anything “popular,” my hypothetical children, preferring encyclopedias and troglodyte reading cells. They would, (but only because they were lucky and didn’t inherit my mathanemia), probably play calculus-o-rama on Friday nights and would, if crossing town after their junior high camp at the Sorbonne, muse on which was greater: the weight of the air pressure around the Eiffel Tower, or the weight of the Eiffel Tower itself.
Fun stuff like that.
Reality is different from theory. Over the span of 20 years now, Randall and I have been raising four adorable yet complex and distinctly individual individuals. And surprise, surprise: Not a pluck of a lute or harpsichord, not a lick of Latin or Greek, not a hint of cerebral or aesthetic esotericism in a one of them. Not in a single one.
Among these four real kids, instead, we have one legitimately gifted drummer (Parker), who could tear it up on any kind of percussion instrument, including his djembe that he played with his African buddies. Two others who barely tolerate Hanon piano exercises, and one who tolerated only Hanson. (Anyone out there remember “MMMBop”?)
Three multi-usage athletes. One giraffe whisperer. One aspiring chef. One who knows by heart every last Disney animated film lyric ever written. Two impersonators. Four life-of-the-party funny people. Four speakers of a few living tongues including Swahili, French, German, Norwegian, Mandarin Chinese, and now Italian. Two who think math is “fine enough.” Two who’ve said it’s a language they’ll never speak.
And all are perfectly fluent in popular culture.
And they love the alternative rock band, Coldplay.
Which preamble gives you some context for that concert I’m going to tell you all about. It also suggests why, when I saw life-sucking sorrow in my kids’ faces about leaving behind a life where they were thriving, I dove straight for Coldplay. Jolt of happiness. Tonic for loss. I know this probably sounds indulgent. I do know this. But I’ll tell you: Coldplay worked for them.
Like it had worked some time ago for me.
I recall in detail a certain evening in Munich. It was nineteen months to the week after Parker’s drowning which means it was, coincidentally, the week of February 20th, what would have been his 20th birthday. I was on hyper alert and had also been keeping a copious journal all those months, so I can recall what I was wearing, down to the socks and shoes. How my heart felt when it got a jump start. How I sweat.
And also that I’d noted toward the beginning of that week that that very day had been the first day in nineteen months when I had not cried at all.
That’s right. Until that day, I, (a former non-crier and resister of all things soupy), had cried daily. At first, it seemed I simply bled tears for most of the day, gushing for hours on end, as if amputated and left on a gurney to drain my stump dry. Raw, shredding howls. With a splash of cold water to the face somewhere in between.
After several weeks, I’d cry for only a part of the day. Strange, rib-bruising gulps for air. Eventually, tears for just an hour or two. With my head between my knees. I popped lots of the capillaries in my eyes that way. As often as I told myself, “Alright, girl. Today, dry all day long,” a whiff of something, a passing thought, or a slant of light would hurl me into the Gulf of Yowl.
I could not help but sob — stiff and utterly silent — in a back pew at church. It was as if walking through the chapel doors alone twisted open a faucet. I cry-prayed nonstop in the car on the 45-minute drive back home after dropping off the children at school in the morning. Standing alone in a remote corner of Munich’s vast English Garden, caught in a chilly downpour, pleading to the trees in low half-spoken murmurs, I wept like a lost soul. Or a lost mind.
Leaking for an hour, maybe, without the slightest flinch in my face in the hairdresser’s chair. On the doctor’s table. Cross-legged on the floor in a reading circle with Luc’s 2nd grade class. In the mechanic’s waiting room. In the frozen food aisle.
And every time I tipped my head forward to pray. Like a water pitcher. Pouring spirit blood without reserve.
Friend, let me tell you. That’s quite a lot of saline.
But then there was this one day. The first day I did not cry.
So what did I do? I marched right out the door and bought a gym pass.
I had hardly been able to walk quickly, let alone run, in that year and a half, something totally uncharacteristic for me, a former 10-k racer. I’d tried, I tell you, but I found it hard to synchronize my tears with breathing steadily and deeply.
But I now knew I was ready.
“We’re gonna what?”, Claire asked when I announced my plan.
“Bond through our sweat glands, darling.”
“Ohhh kaaaay. But you haven’t even been walk—“
“I know. Right. Yes. Well, we’ll just change that. We start tonight. Here’s your card,” I said, handing her the Eltersport Familienpass and some lycra. I tried to look sporty as I walked away.
Part of me kept prodding: I had only eighteen months left with this child at home. But the other part of me was wiser. It knew I didn’t “have” eighteen months at all. Not with her nor anyone. Those eighteen months were an illusion. I only had the moment I was standing in, a slice, wafer thin, that could vanish at any second with one simple disorienting phone call.
I had to live. And if I was going to live, I had to live with vigor and total engagement. Which seems like a tidy enough proposal, except that the bigger part of me was stretched toward heaven with such yogic yearning, and the leftover part of me was working like crazy on this planet to be neither paralyzed by the fragility of this life, nor sucked under the quagmire of the listlessness and despair that typify major grief.
(Not depression. No, not depression. Depression I can talk about one day, if you’d like. At least a little bit. But this is not depression.)
Grief. The dark, wide-jawed, devouring beast.
Not giving into which has been by far the greatest and most exhausting temptation I have ever had to withstand.
In my whole life.
We biked to the little gym around the corner, Mom and daughter. We worked out. We were the only ones there the first couple of nights, so it was strangely quiet. Because I didn’t like hearing myself thudding on the treadmill, I considered putting in earplugs.
Not for music, mind you. But to block out the sound of my own feet. Exercise music I couldn’t do, I knew that. For a year and a half I hadn’t listened to anything but the most quiet classical music, if anything at all. Beyond that, I hadn’t watched television. I hadn’t seen a movie. I hadn’t listened to a radio. I hadn’t read a newspaper, magazine or flier off the street. No Internet surfing. No advertisements. Nothing that would distract me from the hard work I was doing just to keep vertical and attentive to the family. And nothing that would possibly break the crystalline spell I felt connected me with heaven. With the spirit. With Parker.
So that evening I pulled my hair back in a ponytail, stepped onto the black rubbery band of automated track, and put in earplugs. And began chugging along. Running felt good. Claire, I knew, was watching me cautiously from a far corner where she was biking. I reached up at about kilometer two or so to increase the speed, and instead clicked on the treadmill’s T.V. screen.
Up popped Germany’s MTV.
It felt not so much illicit as it did inane and heavy with shadows. I was instantly repelled by everything I saw and heard and so I was trying to turn it down, change the channel, or turn it off, when this one video came on.
From somewhere I recognized the tune. Orchestral. Heavy, martial beat. Maybe I’d heard it in town at a store? Or from a taxi radio? Point is, I instantly knew it. And the name of the band as it flashed at the bottom of the screen: Coldplay.
One of Parker’s favorites.
“Which one’s this one?” I’d asked him three years earlier in Paris, tugging one of the earplugs out of his ear and trying to listen to the music myself while he’d dropped his back pack in the entry way of our apartment after school .“Who is it? ” I’d asked, “Green Card? Yellow Play?”
He’d laughed and tossed his sweatshirt toward the coat rack.
“Cold Day?” I’d peeped. Face it: I was never going to be cool. Or get those band names straight.
“Coldplay. Ca-old. Puh-lay, Mom,” he’d said, smirking while passing me and heading straight for the kitchen. “They’re incredible,” he’d said, calling back to me as I’d hung the sweatshirt properly. “No one really knows them yet. But you wait, Mom. They’re gonna be huge.”
In this MTV video that’s just starting and to whose powerful beat I can already tell I’ll run really well, there’s this lead singer. He has me transfixed with half a phrase. Eye color, Parker’s gray blue. This pleading, desperate voice. Half cry, half clarion call. In-your-face intensity, something that looks like hurt. And something urgent, warning.
And then a faceless drummer. Hammering, as Parker did, hammering hammering hammering non stop on the timpani. Like the heartbeat of the universe. A give-your-all, no-holds-barred, unapologetic pummeling boom-boom-boom on the kettle drum.
I ran with it. And listened closely:
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
I listened even more closely:
One minute I held the key
Next the walls were closed on me
And I discovered that my castles stand
Upon pillars of salt and pillars of sand
The visual was huge plumes of curdling smoke and dust, like the aftermath of massive destruction. I could relate to that. And flashing chunks –- just suggestions — of a canvas, fuzzy and floating. They were fragments (could this be true?) of Delacroix’s massive painting, “Liberty Leading the People”, which hangs in one of the main galleries of the Louvre. A piece and a painter to whom I have a bit of a private and special connection. I had tried to sketch that canvas more than once, sitting on the worn leather bench right in front of it, because even back then I was fascinated and touched by the idea of a woman leading the suffering and sorrow-filled sprawl of humanity. She is vulnerable herself, the woman, stripped so that her vital heart is exposed. But she’s stepping over ruins and the bodies of the dead, strewn as they are so brilliantly painted, in a tangled heap.
I couldn’t make out every word, but caught these:
I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing
Roman Cavalry choirs are singing
My missionaries in a foreign field
Something about a
wicked and wild wind
Blew down the doors to let me in
Something with deep meaning was going on, my gut knew it, and beneath it all, beneath all sorts of holy and historic references, there was this boom-boom-booming of that darned drum. A primal call to engagement. And then a church bell rang repeatedly, compelling, moving forward, like the woman Liberty, guiding a revolution.
Whew doggie. All this revolution and revelation and a workout, too?
By this time, my heartbeat had revved. But not for the running, which I hardly noticed I was doing. I knew a little something in my spirit had loosened, thanks to this earnest-faced guy with steel blue eyes wearing a T-shirt and begging me to listen as he pulls me into that puny treadmill TV screen in the corner of an empty health club.
He was calling to me. He was calling me to live.
And if you’re gonna do it, (he seemed to be singing), do it with every bit of you in the gamble, with your eyes open and searching, voice sailing and true, arms stretched wide even if —especially if — it means your heart is fully exposed.
And the drum? It simply said: Move it, lady!
Then this wrench-everything-loose, everyman’s chorus. A wailing arc of Oh-oh-oh-oh-ohhhhhhh-oh, repeated oooh-ver and ohhhh-ver again, that drew the skin back taut on my forehead and made me, (Claire looked on from her Lifecycle, concerned ) sprint.
At the machine’s highest setting.
The video ended with all the band members turning and, slowly, dissolving as if in flakes. Of deep red.
Life as loss. The poetically ephemeral.
Then the caption with the song’s name: Viva la Vida.
Long live life.
Just as I reached up to turn off everything— I’d seen and done what I’d come for— the German MTV announcer gave the name of the album:
Viva La Vida Or (he continued in his English with a strong German accent), Death and All His Friends.
We’re ready to go to their concert.