“Pale Green Things” is the closing track to the Mountain Goats’ classic record The Sunset Tree. The album tells the story of the band leader’s youth spent with an abusive step father. In the closing track, he tells the story of when he learned of his step father’s death, but instead of remembering all the abuse and cruelty, he instead remembers a rare moment of tenderness shared between the two, a trip to a race track on a Saturday morning, driving with the windows down, parking by the paddock, his stepfather already old, already sick, leaning on a fence in the dawn with a stopwatch and a racing form.
It’s probably one of the saddest songs ever written.
When we lose, when we are faced with loss, we remember not the horror or the fear or the dread or even the boredom, we remember quiet moments when everything seemed okay, and those moments cover over everything else. It’s almost a defense mechanism, designed to protect us from the darkest places in times of grief.
Right now we are all facing loss, and our brains are all performing these mental gymnastics. We remember not the grind of daily life before the virus, but instead the joy of going to the office, seeing friends, attending family get togethers that in reality were something you dreaded. We look through our rose colored glasses back on a world now gone and see only happiness and contentment, when in reality life before this was equally as difficult at times. Just in a different way. I think, in the end, this might be a good thing.
I have often heard that the best season of Saturday Night Live is the first season you were allowed to stay up and watch it. I don’t like the NHL, but I will watch the Stanley Cup Finals if the two teams involved existed when I was young. We are constantly reaching back to a time before the now, a remembrance of things past, in order to feel grounded in our now — our sad, hard now. We do this all the time. We did it all the time. Even before this all started. Our lives are a series of consequences, a series of left turns or right turns that bring us to where we are right now. In some ways, that is a miracle. All the little moments of decision — sometimes our choices, sometimes choices outside our influence — lead us without fail, without stumble, to this moment, right now, sitting in the sun on the porch of my apartment, writing this on my laptop.
But there is another side to that coin. A sad side. A hard side. A side that more or less, I think, defines us as humans. A side that mourns that which never was, because we turned left, or right, one random Tuesday morning. We mourn all that has passed in reality, and all that has passed that could have been, that never can be now, that is lost, but also never was to begin with. And with that, we also grieve for the future that could have been, if the present were somehow different.
When we look back, we grieve, because when we look back, all we see is hope. Hope that a stepdad might be slowly cooling from the monster he was. Hope for a future that never turned out the way we would have wanted. Hope for a childhood not marred by loss, for a life not marred by loss.
Right now all we have is loss. A loss of concerts and trips already cancelled, a loss of friends and loved ones. A loss of a future that makes sense, that feels certain, and in that lack of certainty we are also grieving for all that was to be, which is now gone. And that last one wraps of up everything together in a grim, sad box: we mourn for the now, we mourn for the before, and we mourn for a limitless future, unbound by consequence, unbound by decision, more so than it ever was before. We are stuck, not making any turns, right or left, and so all that could have been — not some, but all — is gone.
When my father died, I mourned for years not what I had lost, but what I had potentially lost. I mourned for being an adult and not having a relationship with my dad. For not having him there to help me, guide me, mentor me. And when I do think back on the 13 years I did have with him — while I do, now, think of the hard times, for the first 20 years without him I did not — I thought of those days gone by in the backyard, learning to throw a baseball on a summer’s morning in middle of nowhere Ohio, lost in the haze and mist of Reagan’s America.
And when my stepfather dies, a man whom I have never liked or gotten along with, I will think not of the abuse, or the anger, or the cruelty, but of a cross country meet of mine that he attended when I was in high school. He came alone, without my mother, and brought his ancient camera bag, and took pictures. It was a sunny fall day, warm for September, life stretched out endlessly both of us. I was young. But so was he. Now we are all old. all dying, and already starting to grief those which we haven’t even lost yet.
On the drive to the hospital with the neighbor from next door on the morning my father died, I looked out the window and realized that everything I saw would make me sad if he died. And I was right. I was grieving in advance, even before he died. And that is what we are doing now, in so many ways, grieving all that is lost, even the things that are still here.
A month ago I was looking out my kitchen window into the alley behind the bakery next door. The world was on fire. People were dying in the hallways of Rome hospitals. A rabbit ran through the alley, lost in the late afternoon shadow cast by the buildings. But when it entered a low sunbeam let in through the cracks, it paused, it sat, I saw it breathing, closing its eyes, bathing in the light, the heat. A moment of quiet, of peace, in a world gone mad with grief and anxiety. It sat there for five, maybe six, seconds, and then it moved on, through the alley, under the fence, slipping away into the wild of a backyard. I can’t stop thinking about it.
Two days later I was at the grocery store. People were panicking. The stay at home order was coming. They were loading up carts full of beans and flour and soup and dry pasta. Myself included. There was a woman in front of me in line, with the saddest eyes I have ever seen, and she was just buying a pint of ice cream and a small, potted succulent. I think about her all the time. I hope she is doing okay.
These are the two moments getting me through this. They both crack my heart open in ways I cannot fully understand, but in a way that I cannot help but take solace in. They were life, regular life, and I am clinging to them. Small moments, made large, in a time of grief, of madness, like a trip to the race track on a Saturday morning, pre-dawn, or a cross country meeting on a sunny autumn windless early evening.
If you are reading this, you, like me, are probably grieving the loss of cricket, and more than likely the loss of all sport, even more so after the announcement this week that professional cricket won’t return to England until at least July 1, and even that is a bit overly optimistic in all likelihood. We are grieving all that should have been, all that should be now, and all that was to come. But we are also grieving the past, what we had, and now feels lost. Moments that could have turned out differently, if only the ball had bounced just a little bit higher, creating a future never realized, which became a past never experienced.
But we are also grieving a lived reality. A reality where there was cricket, and cold beer, and warm grass. Those days when you settle in and the cricket is on, and there is so much more to come. I think about mornings here in the states when England are playing a Test match. The first ball, barring any rain, is at 5am on my watch. I have always been an early riser, so this doesn’t bother me. I wake up and make coffee and put the match on and watch the cricket until the lunch break, before showering and heading to the office, where I listen to the game on headphones. I love every minute of a Test match, but those first two hours, when it’s still morning in England, and the ground is quiet, and the day is full of limitless potential, those are my favorite minutes.
I miss that. I miss it so much. Even though England would be a month away from their first Test match of the summer, if this was just a regular summer. And I worry on top of all that missing that it might not ever come back. And so I miss the cricket that hasn’t even been lost yet.
But, looking back, I also miss the tedium. Those long spells when nothing much at all would happen. At the time, I will admit, I would grow a little bored, a little sleepy, especially if the games were in Asia or Australia and it was the middle of the night here. Stretches of 24 overs that see 15 runs. Dot ball, after dot ball, after dot ball, the heat and the haze beating down onto an empty, quiet, stadium, the shouts of the players echoing around the ground. At the time, I was bored, but right now, that sounds like paradise.
And maybe that’s the gift of all of this. It is forcing us to mourn for things that will, someday, come back; forcing us to mourn for what was lost that we never expected to lose, thereby giving everything in our lives — all the stress, all the sadness, all the tedium — a rose colored glow.
We are all rabbits in sunbeams, and we are here forever.
My sister called at three a.m.
Just last December.
She told me how you’d died at last, at last
And that morning at the race track was the one thing I remembered.