A Father’s Last Song?
This essay was originally published by The Washington Post under the title “Holding On To My Son’s Fading Childhood, Through Music.”
One of my first acts as a father was to sing to my son. After learning how to hold him like an over-inflated football and changing that first odorless diaper, I sang to help him fall asleep.
It is a ritual we have maintained for almost 12 years. No matter how tired he is or how angry about some perceived parental slight, my son always asks for a song before going to bed. And I oblige, squeezing myself in beside him in his twin bed, both of us under the covers, taking a moment before singing to talk about whatever is on his mind.
I don’t know why he still insists on a song every night; it’s an exquisite mystery. Sometimes I think it is manipulation and he is trying to stay up later. He rebukes me if I pick a short song or give a rushed rendition. Other times, I think he continues to find comfort in the ritual. He told me once that I have a beautiful voice. He is the only person who thinks so, which makes me almost certain I am being played. But it doesn’t matter. When I sing to him, I believe it, too. It is one of his many gifts to me.
The tunes have remained nearly constant, but our relationship to them has evolved. If I could offer one piece of unsolicited advice to new parents, it would be to think through your song selection with an eye to when that partially formed newborn cooing in your arms weighs 100 pounds and can beat you at chess.
Jimmy Buffett’s “He Went to Paris” has been a staple from the start. I love the song’s quiet contemplation and thought its straightforward storytelling structure would make for a suitable lullaby. That the story the song tells is horrific (“The war took his baby, bombs killed his lady and left him with only one eye/His body was battered, his whole world was shattered and all he could do was just cry”) did not give me pause, because this was long before my son could understand language. It did not cross my mind then that I might still be singing it to him after he finished his algebra homework. “He Went to Paris” has now spawned more than one late-night conversation about World War II, the Nazis and our Jewish heritage.
Likewise, Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street” once seemed like a natural lullaby. It is a beautiful, piano-driven song best enjoyed in a dark room at the end of a long day. But the lyric “Some guys they just give up living, and start dying little by little piece by piece” can, it turns out, be unsettling to prepubescent ears. “What does it mean to give up living and to die little by little, piece by piece?” my son asked when he was 8. A perhaps age-inappropriate conversation ensued about the hardship, struggle and grief inherent in life, and the need for resilience. My son absorbed the explanation with a healthy sense of detachment, but I still wonder if exposing him to Springsteen’s dark vision at such a young age was a parenting swing and miss. In my defense, I also sing Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” which has led to more uplifting discussions about taking chances and being open to adventures.
About the time my son turned 4, I added the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” to the rotation. I thought its whimsical lyrics might capture his imagination, but it was a grave miscalculation. Like most children that age, my son was a literal thinker. The lyric “The sky was yellow and the sun was blue” infuriated him to the point that the goal of soothing the boy and nudging him gently off to sleep was jeopardized. “That makes no sense,” he fumed. The lyrics to the song’s bridge did not help ease his mind, either. The line “Well I ain’t often right, but I’ve never been wrong” left him more puzzled. “How can that be?” he asked. After dozens more listenings spanning several years, one night he offered a possible explanation: “Maybe he never speaks.”
Of all the songs in my repertoire, the one I return to most often is the first tune I sang to my son: “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead. I would wager I have sung that one more times than Jerry Garcia. It flowed out of me that first night involuntarily, like a breath, “River gonna take me/Sing me sweet and sleepy/Sing me sweet and sleepy/All the way back home.”
For all its imagery of flowing rivers, sleep and the peace that comes with being home, the song is also a beautiful statement of the transcendent: “Lovers come and go, the river roll, roll, roll.” It was plain to me, on that first night with my son, that we are forever joined, no matter the roads ahead for each of us. We are stones in each other’s river, carried along in the other’s current. He is my son. I am his father.
How many more renditions of “Brokedown Palace” or “Racing in the Street” will my son allow me? As Jonathan Safran Foer writes in his novel, Here I Am, “No father knows when the book has closed on the last bedtime story he will ever read.” I know it is coming — the night my son says, “You know what? I don’t think I need a song tonight.” Will it be next week, next month, next year? There is no way to know. But when it comes, it will be a moment I remember forever, as definitive as a clock striking midnight.
Until then, I will continue to sing to him. The penultimate line of “Brokedown Palace” — “Fare you well, fare you well/I love you more than words can tell” — will continue to be my parting refrain as I turn out his bedroom light. I will carry that refrain with me long after he leaves our home in search of wherever his river takes him.