After my wife died, music and movies we once loved became the very triggers I tried my hardest to avoid
Jennifer Dawson, my wife of 12 years, would have been 40 today. We met in August 1989, at our alma mater, Southern Methodist University, stamping textbooks at a long table in the campus bookstore. She overheard me talking to another co-worker about my two favorite movies from that summer, “Do the Right Thing” and “sex, lies and videotape.”
She seemed … amused.
“What?” I asked.
“I just read a piece in the Daily Campus that said pretty much the same things.”
“I wrote that,” I said.
“I know,” she replied. “I liked it. It was a good piece.”
She stamped a couple more books, then added, “I mean, the segue between the two reviews was a little strained. But I liked what you had to say.”
Jen was born in New Jersey and raised in suburban Atlanta and Oklahoma City. She had dark brown hair, brown eyes, big hands, slender fingers, bad posture, perfect teeth and a rosy-cheeked smile. She walked faster than anyone I’ve ever met, talked even faster and gestured wildly when she spoke. She could not sing or dance but was a fine pianist. She loved karaoke, particularly Bruce Springsteen, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and anything by Kander and Ebb. Jen was a double major in English and film, like me. She was an atheist and a liberal Democrat who did not attend her own college graduation because then-President George H.W. Bush, the commencement speaker, opposed abortion rights. (I have a photo of her in a cap and gown on the street outside the auditorium holding a sign that reads, “Bush: Stay Out of Mine.”) Over the years she worked as a pizza delivery driver, a Blockbuster video clerk, a literary festival coordinator, a rape counselor, a party photographer, a print manager for 20th Century Fox films, an independent filmmaker, an assistant to an executive at New World Television, a stay-at-home mom, then finally a secretary at the Greek Orthodox Church next door to our apartment in downtown Brooklyn. She worked for three months at ground zero serving food to recovery workers.
She was the mother of my two children, Hannah and James. She drank in moderation and didn’t smoke or do drugs. She walked two miles a day and spent two hours each Saturday and Sunday swimming, lifting weights and running on a treadmill. When she died in April of 2006 — of a heart attack triggered by a defective mitral valve that had somehow escaped the notice of doctors — she was in the best physical shape of her life.
James was 2. Hannah was 8. I was 38.
Jen was 35.
She loved books, music, TV and film, and was as important an influence in my development as a critic as any teacher or editor I ever had. As is always the case in long relationships, we had certain songs, films, shows and books in common. These were the things we talked about when we weren’t talking about people we knew.
Some things belonged to both of us from day one: Martin Scorsese, Frank Sinatra, Shakespeare’s tragedies and sonnets, Tom Lehrer, Pauline Kael, Chuck Jones’ classic short “Feed the Kitty,” “Prime Suspect,” Albert Brooks, Public Enemy, Woody Allen, Looney Tunes, Jim Jarmusch, the Beatles.
And of course there were my things: horror films, 20th century classical music, comic books, Kurt Vonnegut, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, T.S. Eliot, the Marx Brothers, Norman Mailer. And her things: Bob Dylan, Raymond Carver, Ella Fitzgerald, Germaine Greer, Jane Austen, screwball comedies, 1950s melodramas. And everything related to Walt Disney.
Jen was equally fascinated by the animation, the theme parks and Disney’s life story. We visited Disneyland and Disney World many times. Jen became so adept at using the parks’ FastPass system that we rarely spent more than five minutes in any line. Her ground zero helmet had a Cinderella sticker on it.
Still other things we loved equally, or almost equally, even though one of us had loved that thing longer than the other, and had introduced it into the relationship anxiously, like a zoologist dropping a new species into a balanced ecosystem.
I introduced Jen to Miles Davis via “Kind of Blue,” and it became one of her favorite albums. Both times she was in labor, she played it on an endless loop; I have video of her doing breathing exercises while listening to “So What.” I turned her on to Randy Newman’s pop songs, got her interested in graphic novels (only realistic stuff; superheroes mostly bored her) and cajoled her into watching a wide array of Hong Kong action films and westerns. She became a connoisseur of the Hong Kong flicks — especially movies starring Chow-Yun Fat, whom she referred to as “the man I will one day leave you for.” But she never quite warmed to westerns as a genre — except for “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” which she thought should have earned Eli Wallach an Academy Award nomination as best actor, and “Unforgiven,” which she saw three times in a theater, twice without me. (She said the ending was “Taxi Driver” in Stetsons.)
I had little interest in musicals before I met Jen. She took me to my first midnight showing of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and showed me how to do the Time Warp in the dorm beforehand so I wouldn’t feel left out. She adored circa-1950s and 1960s “talking” musicals — productions built around non-singing performers such as Rex Harrison (“My Fair Lady”) and Louis Jordan (“Gigi”), who talked their way through lyrics. I pretended to like these movies, but without much conviction. I don’t think I ever made it all the way through the film version of one of Jen’s favorites, “The Music Man,” without nodding off. When Jen took me to see a repertory screening of Bob Fosse’s film version of “Cabaret” — a film I’d only read about — I was impressed but not moved, but Jen watched it so often that it grew on me. Now I could sing you the score from start to finish — although with a voice like mine, I doubt you’d want me to.
Jen loved “West Side Story,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “On the Town,” and anything by Stephen Sondheim — especially “Company.” She once described introducing me to “West Side Story,” Sondheim’s breakthrough as a lyricist, as “the high point in my tenure as this relationship’s Broadway ambassador.” No kidding: That musical was the gateway drug that led to a lifelong Stephen Sondheim addiction. When the MTA introduced a new subway car many years ago, I realized that the sequence of notes that sounded when the doors opened and closed was reminiscent of a line from “Somewhere“: “There’s a plaaaace for us …” When I pointed this out to Jen, she grinned and said, “The first time I told you I liked ‘West Side Story,’ you said, ‘Gangs don’t dance in formation.’”
One of my greatest memories with Jen is Sondheim-related. Shortly after we relocated from Dallas to Manhattan in 1995 and moved into a 250-square-foot apartment in the West Village, we saw Michael Mann’s “Heat” on opening night. It knocked us out. Jen said she found that closing shot in the weeds at the airport — Pacino holding the dying De Niro’s hand while Moby’s “God Moving Over the Face of the Waters” droned and the runway lights flashed — to be as beautiful and mysterious as the end of “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Both of us took a hayseed’s delight in hearing a packed crowd whoop and holler at the end of the bank robbery sequence when De Niro and Val Kilmer escaped the cops in a battered station wagon. (Jen turned to me in the dark and exclaimed, “They’re cheering the criminals!”) Afterward we went to the Lion’s Head tavern, got drunk, stumbled back to our apartment (she called it “Snoopy’s doghouse”) and put down the futon to go to sleep while listening to the original cast recording of “Company.”
“Another Hundred People” moved me to tears.
It’s a city of strangers,
Some come to work, some to play.
A city of strangers,
Some come to stare, some to stay.
In my mind I saw the doors of trains and buses sliding open and streams of people pouring out. I looked over at Jen. She was crying, too. She’d wanted to move to New York since she was an Oklahoma City teenager obsessing over the New Yorker, Woody Allen and John and Yoko’s Dakota years.
If you had asked me a decade earlier if I could envision myself being moved to tears by a Sondheim song, I would have said, “Who’s Sondheim?”
Then there were the works that came along after we met and enthralled us both. “Twin Peaks.” “Olivier, Olivier.” “Secrets and Lies.” The original “Vanishing.” “Big Night.” “The Larry Sanders Show.” “The Sopranos.” Hayao Miyazaki. Pixar. “Goodfellas.” “Howards End.” And David Milch’s romantic and profane western series “Deadwood,” which I might not have watched past the third episode if Jen hadn’t watched the first season twice in the weeks following our son’s birth. She finished the first season finale in the wee hours one morning while nursing James. At breakfast that day she told me, “There are two important things that you need to know: ‘Deadwood’ might be the greatest dramatic series in the history of American television. And your son’s first word is going to be ‘cocksucker.’”
I haven’t revisited “Deadwood” since 2006, unless you count stray scenes that I rewatched while researching articles. The show’s third and final season aired a couple months after she died. I watched all 13 episodes and reviewed them for my newspaper’s website. I didn’t save copies and the articles have since disappeared into the void of cyberspace. I don’t know the last season as well as the others. I own the Season 3 boxed set but haven’t opened it.
Sondheim. Kander and Ebb. “Feed the Kitty.” “Deadwood.” In the last few years, to greater or lesser degrees, these things and others have been off-limits.
A song, a poem, a scene from a film triggers memories. You’re startled, moved, shaken. And you’re faced with two options: 1) engage with the work and the memories it calls up, or 2) retreat, postpone, avoid.
Option 2 is very attractive. You’re buying Tums and hand soap at the drugstore and a song comes on, a song you associate with somebody you loved — a shared reference point, an in-joke, an anthem, a confession — and suddenly you’re a mess, a wreck, useless, so you leave the store without buying anything. You’re watching a movie in a multiplex or in somebody’s living room and here comes a character that reminds you of somebody you miss — a parent, a sibling, a lover, a friend — and you excuse yourself for a while and go into another room or take a walk around the block, and when you’ve regained control, you go back. (“Hey, where were you?” “Nowhere. Just taking a break.”)
Retreat, postpone, avoid.
Some of Jen’s things, our things, I’ve revisited with gratitude, affection and joy. Others I’ve engaged with reluctantly and emerged on the other side unhappy but unscathed.
Others are radioactive, and I haven’t gone near them because I’m afraid they’ll contaminate an otherwise happy, functioning life.
I can’t see the Disney logo without thinking of Jen, or watch a Jackie Chan film, or attend a musical. The associations don’t destroy any possibility of enjoyment — the acclimation process has gotten easier and quicker with time — but they’re still a psychic speed bumps that I have to get over. Sometimes it’s easy. Other times it’s impossible.
I took my daughter to see Tim Burton’s film version of “Sweeney Todd” at the local multiplex on opening weekend. I thought it was imaginatively directed and did not disgrace Sondheim, despite casting performers that were better actors than singers. But I still couldn’t wait to get out of there.
I didn’t listen to “Company” again until a year and a half after Jen’s death. I was reviewing Kim-Ki Duk’s identity-switching urban drama film “Time” and realized that something about the film’s tone and themes – its vibe — reminded me of “Company.” So I pulled the CD off the shelf (the box was dusty) and gave it a listen. It was hard to concentrate on the music. Jen kept crowding out Sondheim.
But after a while, Sondheim asserted his supremacy, thanks mainly to Jen’s voice in my head telling me, “Just clear your head and listen to the music.”
That’s good advice; I’m listening to Jen’s favorite album, Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks,” as I write this, for the first time since 2006, and it’s reminding me of the first time she said it to me.
When I met Jen, I respected but didn’t like Dylan. She could quote the lyrics to many of his best-known songs the way a preacher quotes the Bible. The first time she put on “Blood on the Tracks” in her dorm room — on the evening of our first date, after eating Chinese food and then going to see “Eat a Bowl of Tea,” a film I have not yet revisited — she moseyed around the room singing along with the first song on the album, “Tangled Up in Blue.”
When she saw me trying not to wince, she said, “What, you don’t like this?”
“I like his lyrics, but I’m not sure they’re as deep as people say, and I don’t like his voice,” I said. “He can’t sing. He sounds like a Muppet.”
“You don’t listen to Dylan because you want to rate his technique or pick out holes in his argument or figure out what the message is,” she said, caressing the air with her piano hands. “It’s about the words he uses and how he sings them, and the rhythm. It’s him saying, ‘All right, let’s go here now,’ and you saying, ‘OK, fine, let’s.’ He’s just a guy with a guitar talking to you. Bob Dylan can sing. He just doesn’t sing the way you think a singer is supposed to sound. The title isn’t about a train. The tracks are the album tracks. He’s spilling his blood here.”
There was a knock on the door — a roommate returning a book. Jen moved to answer it, touching my shoulder as she passed.
“Just clear your head and listen to the music,” she said, “and see what happens.”
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