unexpected grief

by christie shumate mcelwee

The death of Eddie Van Halen sucker punched me with a serving of unexpected grief. During my 61 years, I’ve lived through the deaths of many famous people, even a few performers close to my age. When Michael Jackson died, I sang along to “Smooth Criminal” in my car. Prince’s demise had me dancing in the living room to “Let’s Go Crazy.” When we lost Joe Diffie and John Prine this spring to Covid-19, I had my husband pull up “Third Rock from the Sun,” “John Deere Green,” and “Angel from Montgomery” while I toasted their songwriting and musical skills.

But Eddie…Eddie made me cry. What was it about the death of this rock and roll guitar player that brought about such unexpected grief? 

Van Halen’s music, especially their 80s videos on MTV, are a part of the soundtrack of my young adulthood. I played the tape of 1984 in my old Honda until it screeched and snapped. I’ve always joked that I was “Hot for the Teacher” in my younger, hotter teacher days. I was no Mary Kay Letourneau or the bikini clad woman in the video, but I do know I was the object of a few high school boys’ crushes. When Sammy Hagar took over vocals from David Lee Roth, I loved the new sound. “Right Now” is still one of my favorites. 

And then there is Valerie Bertinelli, whom I’ve adored since I first saw her bounce that basketball on One Day at a Time. How I envied her 1981 marriage to Eddie. She and I were pregnant at the same time in 1991 and our sons are just two months apart in age. I’ve always felt a connection with her, through her divorce and remarriage and her love of cooking. We’d be friends, if we knew one another. Her online tributes to her ex-husband broke my already fractured heart.

I’m still not sure I am able to explain the tears that fell on Tuesday evening after I read of Eddie Van Halen’s death from lung cancer. Maybe it is this loss on top of the pandemic and this crazy world we all live in now. I’m grieving everything: the deaths of over 200,000 American lives, the incivility of current politics, the lies spread every day, the ignorance and cavalier attitudes that some have toward this virus, the hatred spewed online, and especially the unknown of when our lives will get back to some semblance of “normal.”

So, thank you, Eddie, for your glorious guitar playing, your infectious smile, and that hair, oh that hair. You have reminded me to gather close those I love, forgive past indiscretions, and always always dance with abandon because, “Right now…It means everything.”

Don’t want to wait ’til tomorrow

Why put it off another day

One more walk through problems

Built up, and stand in our way, ah

One step ahead, one step behind me

Now you gotta run to get even

Make future plans, don’t dream about yesterday, hey

C’mon turn, turn this thing around

Right now, hey

It’s your tomorrow

Right now,

C’mon, it’s everything

right now,

Catch a magic moment, do it

Right here and now

It means everything.

Songwriters: Alex Van Halen, Edward Van Halen, Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony

“Right Now” is as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1991.

The Winter (and Spring) of Our Discontent (and Joy)

“Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.” William Shakespeare, Richard III

The bleak yet resplendent winter bled into cruel spring. Great loss and tremendous riches were callously thrown together.  Our broken hearts were pieced back together, and again tossed asunder. These storms have had us seeking refuge in kind words and gentle souls. Our sense of stability shattered, yet love still blooms even in the darkest of alleys. 

When we said goodbye to one of our cats, we were enveloped in a cloud of disconnect and deep grief. This bitchy feline who had graced our lives for the past eleven years with disdain and adoration caught us mourning her absence in every empty corner of our home. The one left behind snuggled closer, confused with the disappearance of his companion. We ached.

A new grandchild came three weeks early, making his family’s “party of five” complete. He had little problems entering this world other than jaundice and the complete surprise of his parents. Schedules had to be readjusted, appointments rescheduled, and more diapers purchased. We rejoiced.

Another grandchild made her dramatic entrance six weeks early, causing worry and distress among all who love her and her mother. After only two weeks in the NICU, this tiny girl is strong and fierce and adored by all. We celebrated and breathed.

A father’s heart stopped beating, leaving his family grieving the loss of this big, loud, loving, complicated man. We are still wrapping our wrecked hearts around the finality of this loss. Gratitude flows for the people who have shown up for us, offering their presence, their words, their sympathy. We grieve.

A daughter-in-law, after three years of intense study, is graduating law school on Saturday. All who love this smart and splendid women will be walking with her as she accepts her diploma. We beam with pride.

This weekend we will gather to honor mothers, family, and that damn circle of life. Each loss chips away at our hearts, but with every birth and joyful occasion the wounds begin to heal. We steady one another, throwing out our arms to the universe and embracing all that is joyful and agonizing and glorious. Summer is still weeks away, yet we feel its warmth and its light. We love.

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.” – John Steinbeck, The Winter of Our Discontent

“Pack Codes and Tribal Laws”

I grew up in an old green house with a pitched roof that was located near the top of a steep tree-lined street. We played games in the road while one of us was on look-out. “Car!” When hearing this alert, we would scramble to the grass, waiting for the driver to pass, and then tumble back to resume whatever ramshackle competition we were playing.

This is just one of hundreds of stories my siblings and I have tucked away from our childhood. Each of us may have a different perspective. My recollections as the oldest are much different from my youngest brother’s, yet we hold a connection, a bond, a book of tales from our youth that is uniquely ours.

These stories wire us together, despite the arguments, the betrayals, the loss, the misunderstandings. Families are complicated. This is why so many novels center on them. From Thomas Wolfe to Pat Conroy, authors continue to write about these fragile units and how our families frame our psyches.

Families, especially our relationships with our siblings, remind me of spider webs, and how they are both delicate and a force of nature. They are spun into complicated designs with intricate details. They are mighty, yet with a flick of the hand be flung away across the yard. But…but the next morning they can reappear, bigger and more dazzling than the day before.

If you grew up in a family with brothers and/or sisters, you get this. We were the troops, with our parents the generals. Even in the worst of fights, we came together with a silent understanding of our loyalty.  We could be vicious to one another, but if someone else said or did something to hurt one of us, damn. Watch out. That tenuous filament became the strongest of steel beams.

What happens to these connections when one of us stumbles, loses our way, or even dies? What happens to the stories? Where do they go? Only our siblings know the real family secrets, the cracks, the nightmares that still keep us awake. Without them, where does the history go? Is it tucked away and stored in a dank closet or thrown out to the wind?

I have friends who have lost sisters and brothers, and when asked about it, they say it is like losing a limb. They still feel the presence, but are still shocked it is gone. Many of us say, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a brother or a sister,” but I think it is better phrased, “I can imagine.” I can imagine the loss, the emptiness, the ache. I can imagine and it breaks me into fragments. I can imagine life without my siblings and it is silent and gray.

Most families are grimy and convoluted and tangled up in our unreasonable expectations of what we want from one another, yet we desperately cling to the frayed rope that leads us to our crazy family tree. When we discover a branch has suddenly snapped, we gaze down with a dizziness we have never known. We teeter on the edge, not knowing whether to turn back or jump.

A good friend of mine just recently lost his brother, and I can imagine his grief. I know he is lost, but what he still possesses are the stories, the family lore that now only he truly understands. These anecdotes will be shared with others, stories most likely told amid raunchy laughter and salty tears. 

This is how our webs remain mighty, despite everything. Despite the silences, the harsh words, the broken promises, and the elusive definitions of family, we tell our stories, no matter how fractured or imperfect or disfigured they may appear. And with each anecdote, we disclose where we came from, what we really are, and who we wish to still become.

“We know one another’s faults, virtues, catastrophes, mortifications, triumphs, rivalries, desires, and how long we can each hang by our hands to a bar. We have been banded together under pack codes and tribal laws.” – Rose Macaulay

“Our brothers and sisters are there with us from the dawn of our personal stories to the inevitable dusk.” – Susan Scarf Merrell

 This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Jenny Josephine Fisher Warner, and her sister, Edith Fisher Ludwig. I know nothing of their “pack codes and tribal laws,” but I’m sure they were fierce. I see my sons’ faces in these young girls. The power of family...and genetics.
This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Jenny Josephine Fisher Warner, and her sister, Edith Fisher Ludwig. I know nothing of their “pack codes and tribal laws,” but I’m sure they were fierce. I see my sons’ faces in these young girls. The power of family…and genetics.