How John Denver Helped Me Find My Way Back Home
An essay about how music can connect us to each other, through grief and even across time and space.
It is 2016. My mother has just died some 2,000 miles away from where I live in Los Angeles. There is an immediate sense of coming untethered that accompanies this once unfathomable loss. A sense of connection to something older than I am suddenly snapping, something that remains a mystery to me despite all of my attempts to reveal and understand it. My mother is gone, and a part of me has gone with her, a part of me I don’t know how to make contact with again.
It is 1997. John Denver, the musician who gave the world “Rocky Mountain High” and inspired a multi-generational debate about whether he is country music or pop music, is about to die and he knows it. Of course, I am not there with him as he plummets toward the unforgiving surface of Monterey Bay, though there would’ve been room for me in the empty rear seat of the homebuilt tandem two-seater plane he is piloting. Poor design choices, an ill-conceived decision not to refuel the last time he touched down at the airport, and probably over-confidence in his abilities as a pilot have conspired to doom Denver. This isn’t my story, but it is a part of my story, and years later I will wonder if he thought about his children in these final moments and if his children still struggle, despite the cushion of time, with the sudden and deafening silence that replaced their relationship.
It is 2004. I am living in the city of my birth, Detroit, with aspirations of becoming a paid member of the diverse taxonomy of writers. One strategy to accomplish this goal is to cold-email the local alternative newsweekly’s music editor and ask him if he’ll employ me as a freelancer — even though I have no credible experience and I’m wholly unqualified to discuss music given twenty-eight years of life with only passing interest in it. I include in this email a largely fraudulent resumé that states my name is Cole Haddon and that I am a published journalist. Neither is true. The music writing sample I submit along with this fictional identity is real, though, and he promptly replies with three sentences: “I love your name. Great work. Let’s talk.”
Within a year, I am working so consistently as a music journalist that I decide to fulfill my lifelong dream of moving to Hollywood to pursue a career in screenwriting.
It is 2016. I am standing in a Michigan funeral home, trying to hide how my chin is shaking because I somehow never internalized my mother’s life lesson that it is okay for men to cry. She was an Australian immigrant who came to America to marry my father, who is sitting in the funeral home tonight despite the fact that the two of them divorced more than a decade earlier. My sister has assembled several large boards of photographs that summarize and celebrate our mother’s life, and in one of these my father is also sitting down, our mother on the floor in front of him and me, maybe four or five months old — which places this event in late-1976 — propped up by pillows between her legs. We are in the living room of his parent’s house, his long, thick arms are hanging over her shoulders, and there is love between them, loud and clear to me, and the sight of it — non-existent in any of my memories of them — sends me fleeing to a dark room to bawl.
I forget about the photo as soon as I leave the funeral home later that night.
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