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Whose Country is This?
My kids and I listen to country radio when we drive around. I’ve listened to a lot of country songs. Last year, when we went to the Grand Ole Opry—the “heart of country music”, old-style and new—I heard Country Music Hall of Famers, now in their 70s and 80s, sing some of their famous oldies (which were new to me, but familiar to many in the audience), contemporary pop-chart stars sing their current billboard song (very familiar to me, given that radio stations insist on replaying the same 10 songs every hour), and new songs from talent making their Opry debut. The voices were varied and rich and the songs different enough from each other, though, not surprisingly, they were all about love and relationships. As my teen daughters have observed, most songs are about love and relationships.
But it’s a singular type of love and relationship that they’re about: romantic love, between young people experiencing first love or old married folk who are still rockin’ along in their rocking chairs. Rarely are they about the love a parent has for their child and NEVER EVER are they about a parent’s love for their young child who is living with and dying from an incurable illness.
On one hand, this is fair enough. Such a love doesn’t suit the standard country tropes of trucks, tractors, beer, cutoff jeans, Friday nights and Sunday mornings. Mostly though, it’s a pity, because there is no love more extraordinary, intense, constant and admirable than a parent’s love for their young child who is vulnerable, sick and dying. What an incredible feat it would be for a lyricist to turn their talents to this near-unspeakable subject and do it well?!
I suspect, however, that no matter how beautiful the melody or words, such a song would never make the charts. Who would want to listen? Who could bear to listen? Even the parents who know this world too well probably couldn’t stand it. I would try. I don’t know how I’d do. The song would have to be so artful in its construction, capturing the dualities of sorrow and joy, loss and hope, fear and courage. It would have to make the unimaginable and unnatural suddenly accessible and knowable. I have never heard a song that has done this.
Here’s another thing that came to me at the Grand Old Opry (not for the first time but in a different way that really hit me over the head): a young child with an untreatable illness from which they are going to die doesn’t make any sense, at all. One of the acts at the Opry was a family of six beautiful and talented siblings, ranging in age from 14-21. These were the oldest six of TWELVE children, all from the same two biological parents. I went on the group’s Web site and looked at the photos of the 12 children. As presented and described on the site, these 12 children from one family are not only talented but also healthy and thriving and the parents are focused on their dozen’s ambitions and success. No genetic mutations or illness to be seen and no apparent indications from the older children that any mutations are lurking either.
How to reconcile this with the number of parents I have come to know whose first-born child is diagnosed with a life-limiting illness in the first year or two of life? How to reconcile this with these parents’ agonizing over having other children?
Of course, I can’t reconcile any of this because that isn’t how ‘It’ works. There is no rationale for why these children are born sick or have time-bombs lurking in their DNA. There is no meaning in the pain and heartbreak that parents experience when hearing the prognosis. S**t happens. Bad s**t happens to good people. We know this. The meaning comes in how parents respond. It is found in how they commit their lives and hearts to caring for their sick children with a blinding, unwavering intensity and love. If only country music could deliver us a masterwork about this to which we all would listen.
In the meantime, here are two songs:
2) And Taylor Swift’s Ronan, which is a compilation of entries from a mom to her son which Taylor turned into a little gem.
(If you are reading this and have a song you want to recommend to parents, about this sort of intense grief- and joy-laden parenting, please recommend it here.)