"It's a mecca for the middle-aged," said my husband as we shuffled up the stairs of the performance arena, hemmed in on all sides by hundreds of gray and graying fans. It was true. Even though my memories of the music sped me back to my teen years, the star performers were 62. Still, if they're Simon and Garfunkel, how could I feel anything but groovy?
They strolled onto the stage and my heart turned over in a '60s rhythm. Old friends. Art Garfunkel positioned himself behind the mike and immediately transfixed us with his familiar, only slightly wavering voice. Using his body like sign language, he gripped the mike stand and tilted toward us, beckoning us closer, the better to get lost in his stories. He opened his arms wide, gesturing for the audience to rush in, or tucked his hands into his pockets, hunkering down into melancholy. He wrapped his arms around himself, a comfort for emptiness. Hello darkness, my old friend. With his halo of honey-colored hair radiant in the spotlight, he smiled at our now-shared secrets, or at the irony of all the piled-up years. How terribly strange to be 70. He patted his heart and held his palm there, taking into his body all we had to give.
Paul Simon wore a fire-engine-red T-shirt and hardly smiled at all. His hair had thinned and he was jowly, but in the wide-screen closeups, you could see traces of that familiar visage. His face was inscrutable, even though his dark eyes bored into the crowd as if searching for his soul mate. Still, once he got going, he jammed. His whole body rocked on the rocking numbers, and during the slow numbers he'd caress the strings, ending with a dainty little wave as he drew his hand back into the air behind his head, as if sprinkling pixie dust on us all. Got to make the moment last. Whether he strummed or plucked, his long fingers showed off how graceful they still were. When he sang solo, his voice was full, throaty, powerful _ there was no going gently into that good night for his voice. It tunneled into the mike and poured over the thousands who swayed, rapt, under its spell.
If his face was expressionless, his voice colored every phrase in shades of gold or gray, so that the songs seemed to rotate across time, across my youth, and across the bittersweetness of hearing them in middle age. How surprising to find that, all these decades later, even a brief introductory chord could still call up every rhythm, every verse, every refrain as easily as my own name. My brain had kept Simon and Garfunkel's music pristinely inside me for almost 30 years, and now, the music opened a memory: one day deep in the past, when those lyrics and chords had helped me through the most challenging transition of my young life.
I was 16. Grandmama, my mother's mother, and I had always been close. I was the eldest granddaughter and she and I were both February babies. We always celebrated our birthdays together, and she and Grandaddy had given me my first amethyst ring, our birthstone. On the eve of holidays, I was the one who spent the night, helping her polish the silver and set out the good china. My youth had depended on the comfortable stability of Sunday meals at her house and Saturday night sleepovers when we'd watch Hawaii Five-0 or Mannix and eat vanilla ice cream.
She first began to complain of not feeling well on Mother's Day, and in the coming weeks she had trouble eating, her skin turned sallow, her energy evaporated. She was diagnosed and misdiagnosed, she improved and declined, she was hospitalized, released and readmitted, all in a horrifying cycle. As weeks grew to months, Grandmama became less likely to laugh during my visits, weaker, bedridden, wasted. She underwent innumerable procedures, one so gruesome the attending nurse almost fainted. But finally, in those presonogram days, the doctors figured it out: Grandmama had dozens of kidney stones. Because they would "float" around, the sickness they caused in blocking the kidneys was erratic. Operating was the only choice.
She came through the operation in critical condition. That night, my parents allowed my younger sisters to spend the night out, so there was only me to cope with. In the wee hours of the morning, we were awakened by the dreaded ring of the phone. My parents headed to the hospital. Though the sun was not quite up, there was no way I could sleep. I wandered out to our family room, opened the curtains so I could watch the sunrise, and put Simon and Garfunkel on the stereo. Sitting in darkness, I played their album over and over. It no longer matters which one. What matters is that, against the background music of their voices, I rehearsed how I would be strong for my mother and grandfather the way all firstborns learn to be, and how I would comfort my sisters who didn't yet know they would never see our grandmother alive again. What matters is that their voices prepared me for what comes next even as what used to be was swallowed up in the sound of silence.
Preserve your memories; they're all that's left you. When the morning was bright with sunlight, the phone rang again. My older cousin said it simply. Grandmama died. In the background, Simon and Garfunkel hummed the score for my introduction to death.
Gianna Russo is a poet and creative writing teacher at Howard W. Blake Magnet School of the Arts in Tampa.