4/19/2012

Five years ago today was my mom’s 59th – and last – birthday. We knew it was going to be the last one. It’s a strange thing to “celebrate” a birthday when you know – know – that the person won’t have another one. I spoke to her briefly on the phone that day, but by then the cancer had sapped most of her stamina, and even a ten-minute conversation left her pained and exhausted.

Five years ago today was also the day that cancer killed Levon Helm.

And there’s absolutely zero relationship between those two things, except for in my own mind.

That night, I saw my favorite band, Drive-By Truckers, at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, NC. I was thinking about my mom. I was thinking about Levon. I was thinking about cancer. It felt weird to get to a rock show, but it also felt weirdly right. Patterson Hood, lead singer of the DBTs, said he was only playing that night because if he wasn’t, he’d be at home crying. The opening act, Megafaun, played an acoustic cover of The Band’s “I Shall Be Released” that almost brought me to tears.

During the first encore, Megafaun and the Truckers took the stage together and played an 8 minute, loose and messy – and perfect – version of greatest song that Levon ever sang, The Band’s “The Weight.” 750 people in the crowd smiled, and shouted and sang along. We all shared a few minutes of authentic, communal joy remembering a musician we all loved by sharing the music he left behind.

I remember it like it was last night. In a moment when I needed it most, it reminded me that, despite what cancer was doing to her body, Mom would live on in everything beautiful she created while she was with us. I don’t know what “heaven” means, but in a very real way I feel like maybe I saw it four years in a sweaty rock club.

To all of you who’ve thought of Mom in the last five years – who’ve gone for a run, or worn a “Fight Like Hell” shirt, or just seen an “NSH” sticker and smiled: thank you from the bottom of my heart. She lives on because of you.

 

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