Proust had his madeleines. The very scent of the pastries baking was enough to inspire over 1000 pages of memories. But for me it has always been music.
Just three notes of “My Cherie Amour”, which I heard at the gym yesterday, and I am instantly back to the summer of 1975. I was working at a day camp, assisting the arts and crafts counselor set up for the onslaught of kids due in three days. She had brought a boombox and was blasting Stevie Wonder’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2 as we swept and organized and made lists of supplies needed to ensure a smooth summer. Three notes and I am in the crafts barn, with the sunlight—green from reflected leaves—filtering through the open windows, and the omnipresent scent of the white pine needles that carpeted the surrounding woods. Just three notes and I am back to that joyful summer when I felt empowered by the job, a salary, and the prospect of starting college in the fall.
Unfortunately, not all music triggers happy memories. Play three notes of “I Love It” by Icona Pop, and I am instantly thrown back into the turmoil of my cancer diagnosis. It was not a song I would have listened to under ordinary circumstances. But it was on my running playlist, with a beat designed to help me keep pace and propel me forward. I had run to it hundreds of times, pre-diagnosis, not really paying attention to the lyrics. But now every time it plays, it’s not the propulsive beat that I hear. It takes me back to a morning between diagnosis and surgery, during that anxious phase when it was unclear what they would find when they cut me open.
Waiting for the Inevitable
That fall, we had plans to visit my adult kids in San Francisco for a long weekend. The surgeon advised us to keep them, scheduling the procedure for our return. We drove to wine country and sipped reds and whites, pretending all was fine—the kids afraid to ask too many questions, me afraid to share too many fears—and spent a night in a small inn in Sonoma.
I was up early after a fitful sleep and went for a run among the golden-hued vines while my family slept. I held it together for the first couple of miles. It was a beautiful morning and there was so much to see as I made my way down new roads. But the anger and fear that I had suppressed came roaring to the surface as I hit mile three and this song came up in the rotation, the singers shouting, “I don’t care!”
The tears streamed down my face as I pounded out the last mile back to the inn. I did care. I didn’t want this. I didn’t want cancer. I didn’t want surgery. I didn’t want the shadow of uncertain prospects clouding my future. I didn’t want any of it, but I couldn’t make it go away. I was crying for my loss of innocence. I was crying for my future pain. And I was crying because I could let it all out while no one would see, knowing I would have to hold it together again as soon as I got back to the inn.
Music and Tears
I don’t run as much these days. Maybe it’s the creeping age and achy knees, or maybe it’s the excuse I give myself as a cancer survivor. But I’ve deleted that song from my playlist just in case. I don’t want to be reminded of that fear or that tearful run. And if it pops up as I’m flipping through the radio dial or at the gym, I play a different tune in my head.
That December, I had made it through surgery and two chemo treatments when the kids came home for Christmas. And we had gotten good news so we wanted to make the holiday festive, despite my baldness and ongoing treatment. We decided Handel’s Messiah was just the thing. It’s always an emotional performance.
The sheer magnitude of the voices on stage and the awareness that there exists genius enough to create such exuberant music are all it takes to generate a sense of wonder. And, no surprise, as the hallelujah chorus began, I had tears streaming down my face again. But, this time they were tears of joy.
Three notes, three simple chords for strings, and I am back in the auditorium, wrapped in the love of my family. Three notes and I feel hope. Three notes and I know I can tackle whatever comes next. Three notes and I feel awe at the wonder of life.
I’m thinking of adding the hallelujah chorus to my running play list. Hallelujah that I am well enough to run. Hallelujah that I’ve made it to the three mile mark. Or, maybe just hallelujah for the power of music to inspire memory and emotion.