25 November 2008

November Rain

A few days of rain in late November, it seems, will not stop, will never end. Today it's not falling as relentlessly as it pummeled the ground, the windows, and the bare tree branches yesterday. But it's still raining, even if not forever.

But back then it seemed like forever, or at least for the rest of my life, however long it would be. It was the day after Thanksgiving when I was fifteen, if I remember correctly. In those days, we used to go to the cemetery on what the department stores call Black Friday. We'd been living in New Jersey for a couple of years by that point; those drives to and from the cemetery on Long Island seemed as if they would never end, either.

Rain cascaded against the windshield faster than the wipers could sweep it away. A film of that rainwater trapped the reflections of headlights and streetlamps as it oozed across the winshield of the Ford station wagon--longer than a boat, with fake woodgrain paneling on the sides--that whisked tires over slick pavement. That same almost-gelatinous mix of water and captured incandescence nearly clung to the side-door and back-panel windows.

Except for the radio, the inside of that car was silent. In the rear of the car, where the seats folded in and left a flat surface on which Tony and Vin, my two youngest brothers, stretched out and fell asleep. To my right, Michael, older than them but not me, flopped on the door, never even stirring when the car rocked. In front of him, my mother, normally a light sleeper, slumped slightly forward, the darkness enveloping her.

Don't talk to the driver. And don't do anything to disturb someone's sleep. I couldn't--still can't--remember who, if anybody, told me those things. All I knew was that Dad was looking straight ahead, at whatever he could see, and there was no way I was going to talk to him, not about what I was feeling, anyway. And I wasn't going to talk to Mom at that moment, either, even though if there was somebody in the family I could've talked to, she was the one. But I wasn't sure that I could get her to understand what I was feeling at that moment-- in fact, what I'd been feeling for as long as I could rememeber--as wind started to whip the rain around and seemingly through me, even though I sat inside that car filed with darkness, the rain glazing the windshield.

Grandpa probably wouldn't have understood, either. But I found myself wishing he were present even more than I did the day after he died, when I was eight years old. I recalled the train rides I took with him: always at the front, by the conductor, where we could look out the front door. It always seemed that a station was not far away, in clear view, even when we were in a tunnel.

But the rain seemed to build layers, like a glacier, on the station wagon's winshield, even with the wiper blades snapping back and forth at their highest possible speed. I don't know how my father saw through it, or whether he did: I could see only nebulae of car lights and street lamps, as if Van Gogh and Munch collaborated on one of Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings of a Parisian dance club. Of course, in those days, I didn't know about Munch or Toulouse-Lautrec, and I only knew about Van Gogh from Don McLean's song Vincent:

Starry, starry night
Flaming flowers that brightly blaze
Swirling clouds in violet haze

Reflect in Vincent's eyes of china blue

Colors changing hue
Morning fields of amber grain
Weathered faces lined in pain
Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand

Everything about those stanzas, except for "Are soothed beneath the artist's loving hand," made sense to me, as I heard them on the radio. I didn't fancy myself as an artist in those days, for I thought they all were like Vincent, Michelangelo or Rodin. I knew I didn't have their talents, and even in that station wagon immersed in November rain en route from the cemetery, I didn't think that my pain was anything like theirs. In fact, I didn't even think of it as pain; when it's all you know, you think it's normal. Suffering may be normal, but one's particular kind of pain may not be.

No, all I knew at that moment was that night had fallen early, the rain was falling hard and relentlessly, and at that moment I couldn't leave the inside of that car, where I couldn't talk to anybody, even if I'd known how to say what I felt and they could've understood that language. (Somehow, my mother understood it just about perfectly when I "came out" to her decades later.) And I didn't even know that I could speak that language, much less that it was my native tongue, if you will.

The radio deejay followed Vincent with the final overture of "We're Not Gonna Take It" from Tommy:

Listening to you, I get the music.
Gazing at you, I get the heat.
Following you, I climb the mountains.
I get excitement at your feet.

Right behind you, I see the millions.
On you, I see the glory.
From you, I get opinions.
From you, I get the story.

I wasn't paying close attention to the lyrics. Mainly, I heard the drumming and guitar, relentless as the rain but clearer than the winshield would've been if we'd been riding through a sunny day. Like most kids my age, I felt a surge of emotion that would've been empowering if I could have honestly told myself, much less anyone else, what demons I wanted to conquer. But, of course, as I began to learn my own language--much, much later--I would see that "conquer" and "demons" were part of the wrong metaphor. Still, the music made me feel, if not uplifted, at least--well, as if I were weathering the storm, or that storm.

I am playing that song on my CD player now. And I feel I can make it through the November rain--which is so much less daunting now! For that reason, that song, that piece of music, means much more to me, in a more visceral way, than The March of the Valkyries ever could.

That night, after we returned to New Jersey, the downpours still hadn't let up, and there were even more bare trees. My brothers went to bed; Dad was doing something to the car, and Mom turned on the TV. I sat with her, pretending to pay attention to the TV show. She knew I wanted to talk, but I didn't know what to say. Take that back: I knew exactly what to say. But I couldn't: I didn't think I could make it make sense, not even she would understand. So, I excused myself. "I'm going into my room to read."

"OK." Although I really did go into my room to read, she knew full well that wasn't the reason why I excused myself. About half an hour later, she knocked on the door to my room and opened it slowly.

"Are you OK?"

I nodded.


"Well, I'm feeling sad."


"Somehow that trip made me sadder. I know Grandpa's been dead for a long time. But I miss him even more now."

"I do too."

She knew, looking at me, that something was troubling me. For starters, I felt guilty: Although she clearly empathised with me, the way I elicited it wasn't honest. Yes, I missed Grandpa--still do--but that wasn't the reason why I thought the November rain would never end.