Casket Clarity: The Muse in a Time of Chaos

When Music Delivers Truth

Guest Contributor / 4.15.20

This one was written by our friend, Joseph McSpadden:

Muse (as a noun) is a defined as a person who is a source for artistic inspiration. I learned to trust my Muse — the Christ, many years ago. So long ago, in fact, that I can’t remember when it occurred. Music (as an art form) speaks to me in ways that I cannot speak for myself. When words are log-jammed and my brain can’t figure out how to articulate what my heart is feeling, music is usually the thing that gets me unstuck. Often, when I need it, music can deliver truth in seed form, and hitting repeat is my ticket to linger in a moment that illuminates my darkness.

I tend to express myself best on the page, where I can sculpt my thoughts into something useful. I often wonder why I don’t hear theme music at those critical junctures in life. Where is the soaring score that underlines the fact that you have just passed some life test? Where is choral evidence of a completed passage into some higher level of wisdom or maturity? When my father passed away, suddenly I found myself at one of those places where more was required of me than I knew how to deliver.

In 2002, Kari, the third child of my six, became the first to get married. I only had a few minutes to speak with my father at the reception that day, busy as I was circulating among the family and friends who had gathered there. My father was leaving the next day to visit my sister Linda, out west in Idaho. I asked him about his health, and the fact that the doctors wanted to see him immediately. He said he felt fine, and would see them in the fall.

A week later I received a voice message from a park ranger in Yellowstone stating I should call the ranger station. When I did, the ranger informed me that they had found my father sitting against a “tree staring at Bridge Bay.” It was a coronary event. This was on a Sunday. The next day I called and spoke for the last time with my cousin Kathleen, who was in the final hours of her battle with the cancerous wolves that had been on her trail for far too long. It was a hell of a week. I was to do a reading at Kathleen’s funeral on Friday, and my father’s eulogy the next day.

My father’s body had been flown back to Maryland (where my cousin also resided) so we packed up the van and drove from North Carolina to Kathleen’s service in Maryland. I gathered with my brothers and sister and we did as families do in those moments. So much happened that week that, come Saturday morning, I still had yet to write a eulogy. The house was full of everyone getting ready for the day, and I couldn’t find words to say, or a quiet place to form them. Feeling the tension mount and the time grow short, I slipped out of the house and into the car. I rolled up the windows, and sat in the air conditioned silence. Nothing. I was jammed up; too many thoughts and feelings descending on me at the same time. I decided to put on some music, something peaceful enough that I could have it in the background without it disturbing the rush of coherent thought I was praying for.

I turned to an old favorite, David Wilcox’s song, “How Did You Find Me Here?” I didn’t have a plan, I was just searching for a slow song, quiet, gentle, comforting, all the things I needed that morning. As I relaxed, the words began to break loose, to untangle themselves. In a matter of a few minutes I had a theme and began writing furiously. When it was finished I sat back and closed my eyes. I had been hitting repeat on the title track for over half an hour, to stay in the mood of the song that had helped me break out. And it was then that I really heard the words coming through the ether.

My father was the sailor who went to sea and got lost in the wild. A man who never fully came home, never fully grasped a wife and four children. A man who could never fully share his world, or share in our world, had slipped away at last. The same man that, just two months earlier, on Father’s Day, embraced me and held on longer than he ever had. I did not know then it would be his parting gift.

I went on to try and give the best eulogy I could, and after, to find solace in those moments when family gathers around the table. A song I leaned on in a moment of desperation had delivered my heart back to me in a way I could verbalize. What is sometimes called “casket clarity” brings things into sharper focus. It doesn’t necessarily answer all the questions. It does however, give us a passport to closure — as if we had slipped by a border guard into a land where we could find rest. But in my case the journey was not quite complete, I was stuck at the border. I just didn’t know it.

I had thought the Muse was done with me. After all, I had received the grace to write the eulogy, and play the role of the elder brother. But the Muse would come calling again. I spent the next week in Maryland, with my wife and siblings while my oldest, Christie, took the rest of the family back to North Carolina.

That week went by in a flash, the memories of it are warm and pass before me like a collage of sorts. We took care of my father’s estate and spent our time sharing a wealth of memories. At the end of the week, we returned to North Carolina and life as we knew it. I felt good. I had tried my best to be the good older brother, with my wife standing by my side for support. Her words and her wisdom were comforting and a guiding light for me during that time, but there remained some unfinished business.

In the rush to get to Maryland, and dealing with the details of two funerals back to back, I had not had time to breathe. While I had been able to steal enough time to write the eulogy, I hadn’t had time to process my own grief. Again, the Muse showed up. I recalled that Beth Nielsen Chapman had recorded a song in the wake of her husband’s passing, and in the midst of being diagnosed with cancer. John Prine had done the background vocal for the record. She began the song with the lines:

Every December sky
Must lose its faith in leaves
And dream of the spring inside the trees
How heavy the empty heart
How light the heart that’s full

Somewhere inside a floodgate opened and the dam burst. I rocked and shook with pain I didn’t know was there. Grief for a father that was gone. Grief for a father that had never fully come ashore. Grief for what I had and missed, and grief for what I never had. Grief that we never got to say goodbye. There would be no parting words, no chance to face a closing door together. The Muse had opened a way for me to connect, once again, to what was hiding in my heart. I was as surprised by the moment as I was cleansed by it.

Over the past few weeks, I have wondered how it must feel to be denied the right to accompany your loved one to the hospital. To be separated prematurely, forced to face the end alone and miles apart. To be unable to hold hands, to whisper words of love and comfort, to face that threshold of eternity together. To live in the age of virtual funerals. How does that impact the process of grieving? I can only guess. But I trust the Comforter’s ability to handle our need for closure, guide us to that threshold, and play the role of the Muse for us.

Joseph McSpadden is a writer/music journalist and contributing editor for okra magazine. He is also the creator and host of the music interview podcast The Village Night Owl.