This is a letter to my son- who turns one today! It’s written so he knows what he’s getting himself into. It’s more than that, but mainly just a heads up. There are things he will have in his past that were not put there by his own actions and decisions, or even mine. We all have those things we pass on to others or carry with us through our journey. My biggest piece of luggage is depression.
It comes and goes in different ways but it never leaves completely. There’s been a lot of talk about mental illness lately and we can’t talk about it enough as a community. Mine isn’t as crippling as some and isn’t as dormant/avoidable as others. There are times when I have to leave a grocery store (usually a grocery store, not other places for some reason) because my anxiety has moved the walls too close or the wind of a passing stranger’s pedestrian wake is too invasive. I also have this recurring dream in which I am trying to get somewhere- sometimes across the street, sometimes to another room in a house that seems to be mine but is unfamiliar, sometimes other places entirely- and I can’t get there. I’m alone sometimes. I am with others sometimes. But I am always unsuccessful in my attempt before I wake up, nervous and defeated. These things are obvious signs I’m not doing well, but there are so many more signs along the way. There are for all of us. Knowing how to talk to people about them or recognizing them in your own life can save so much energy and even a life in the most extreme cases.
Baby Bear- I want you to know it’s okay to not feel great inside. To be aware of your feelings and know there are others who are feeling the same. I want you to know other people feel. I hope it makes you a better, more understanding person. I used my feelings as weapons when I was too young to understand what it meant to be a good friend and I am really going to try to show you the dangers of that sort of self-centeredness.
A couple stories before I finish this letter. They both involve live music and depression. Fun topics.
I learned about Frightened Rabbit from the television show “Chuck” in about 2010 or 2011. They instantly became one of my favorite bands. I missed the chance to see them once while on vacation. One of my best friends bought Kim and me tickets to see them open for The National as a wedding gift in 2013. It ended up being one of the most tense moments in our marriage when we ended up being VERY late (something I learned early in our marriage that I didn’t think mattered to me but very much does matter to me) and only seeing one song by Frightened Rabbit. It was fine I told myself, we’ll see them next time they come through Denver. It was three years later when they released their final album as a band. By then, Kim knew how much the band meant to me and had come to appreciate them almost equally.
Frightened Rabbit is a band I’ve written about before. The intricacies of the word play and the melancholy way they talk about life and the inherent sadness in it is refreshing and makes the music feel familiar instantly. “I’m working on drawing a straight line and I’ll draw until I get one right…” “I guess I’ll save suicide for another year…” are just some examples of simplicity with which they express infinitely deep emotion. According to a 2016 Westword magazine review of the show I’m referencing, “Frightened Rabbit has been writing heartfelt indie rock for thirteen years for lonely souls who want the emotional catharsis that a folks ong provides, plus the energy only a rock song can give.” On this particular night, we were treated to an excellent collection spanning their whole catalog, despite the recent release of a new album. Kim and I were in the left balcony at the Ogden Theatre, on the rail. The show was high-spirited and felt like a party with long-lost friends. There was an urgency in it all despite the sadness in a lot of the songs. One of their dancier tunes- Old Old Fashioned- got everyone into the mood. After that song, or one near it anyway, Scott pointed out two people having “the time of their lives” up on the balcony and thanked them for it. If you know me and how I listen to music and interact with it, you can probably guess who one of those two was. He had joked with the crowd multiple times, juxtaposing humor with the clearly formulated expressions of his own depression. He opened the encore with an acoustic cover of “Purple Rain” as a tribute to Prince who had recently passed away. After that was “I Want to Die Like a Rich Boy” which is somehow more depressing than the title would lead you to believe. Then the band came out and played one of my favorite songs of theirs, “The Woodpile” and ended on a song from an older album. It was a beautiful night and one of those nights that brought me and Kim closer as a couple because of the togetherness of the experience. It was the last time we got to see them. Scott Hutchison died of suicide in 2018. To have a night where you pay good money to spend with someone who will never know you or the impact their words and music had on you and for them to notice you having the time of your life was special. To lose that voice hurts but demonstrates a point I want Emmerich to know- our feelings are real and more than just novelty items to look at and put away without thought or action.
Another story, if you’ll permit me. A few years ago at the coffee shop/church we attend, there was a show by a band called Loud Harp. They are wonderful humans and beautiful artists. Their opening band that night was Giants & Pilgrims who share both of those qualities as well. They are delightfully whimsical and deep. Tim Coons, the lead singer, started talking about this song he was about to sing and it was so beautiful I was crying by the end of the first verse. As someone who struggles with depression, it was nice to have someone sing about the worry of passing it on to your children. Again, this feeling doesn’t just sit dormant, it weaves itself into the fabric of a person’s being and sometimes crosses the metaphysical space between generations in a very real and physical way.
So, as I was relistening to this album a few weeks ago, it hit me that one of my biggest worries as a dad is that my son will carry my depression with him either as his own or a burden unknowingly hoisted upon his innocent shoulders. All I can do is help him with that, whatever it looks like for him. And then, holding him before one of his naps I saw my face from pictures of my childhood in his sweet sleepy stare and it wrecked me.
If you’re feeling like you can relate, you’re not alone. If you don’t feel that, reach out to someone in your life who may relate. I’ve got a great support structure around me to help when I am really down. There are resources for all of us whether we think we need them or not.
So anyway, here’s my letter to you son. It’s called “Holding you, myself”
“If I could break the course of course I would,
But it could darken your blood too.
If it comes to this, I’ve open arms
And side by side we’ll shout the Psalms.”
-Giants & Pilgrims
In the transitional moments
when you look up at me-
a diaper change or a soft “goodnight”-
You are a universe of memories.
Your sweet soft cerulean eyes
so similar to your mother’s.
They stare and shine and show me the past.
A prayer in them drifts into the atmosphere,
Hoping it will return in the rain or a breath.
We say “amen” together with a blink.
There is something pulling at the corner of my mind,
the same way your eyes pull down just slightly at the corners.
An image I was on the other side of.
Somehow you are there now, too.
This begs an apology.
I shout against this shadow I cast on myself.
I push it away from us, even now,
as I look down holding you, myself-
the new unwritten living memory of my youth.
A shout, a whisper, a song, a meditation…
“We will carry the light that forces the darkness to run.”