I am writing to tell you about one of your fans. No offense, it’s not me—I’m more of a rock-and-roll guy, myself. The fan whom I’m writing about is my mom. Her name was Jennifer, and if she were writing this letter, she would describe herself as your biggest fan.
How big of a fan was she?
She was the kind of fan who talked about you like she actually knew you—like you were her favorite nephew, or the kid next door who mowed her lawn. She wore T-shirts with your face on them. She owned multiple copies of your CDs. (I have no idea why.) And, she obsessively recorded even your most obscure TV appearances, regardless of channel or time of day.
She was such a big fan, Josh, that in 2007, my 65-year-old mother bought two scalped, front-row tickets to your concert in San Diego, more than 1,000 miles away from her home in Portland, Oregon. Then she and my older sister drove all that way to see you. At the time, my mom was practically housebound, and the San Diego trip was her only real vacation in years. You were the reason for that vacation, Josh. You were the reason for her to find someone to take care of her dog and collect her mail, the reason for her to get the hell out of the house.
She was that big of a fan.
* * *
Josh, about a year after the concert, my sister died unexpectedly from an illness at the age of 38. My mom was a wreck. People say that the death of one’s child is unique in its ability to cause devastation, and that was certainly true for my mom.
In the wake of my sister’s death, she didn’t know what to do with herself. She was rudderless when it came to making decisions, particularly with respect to my sister’s funeral. The only thing that my mom knew for certain was that two of your songs, “You Raise Me Up” and “To Where You Are,” had to be played. And on that day, when those songs filled the church, my mom’s dazed shock was replaced by grief. I could see, Josh, that your music—your voice—helped her come to terms with that grief, and begin to accept it.
In the weeks after the funeral, a few of my mom’s friends worked to get her into a routine. With their help, she eventually regained some sense of normalcy. A couple of years passed. And then, she too got sick.
At first, her illness appeared to be the type of treatable pneumonia that she had experienced several times before. It seemed normal to me. Illness was, on some level, my mom’s way of being in the world. As a result of her many previous hospitalizations, I had learned to stay calm. I had learned that she was resilient, and that she would recover. But this time, Josh, she was not recovering.
Fairly quickly, the doctors put my mom on a respirator, which required that she be placed in a drug-induced coma. I visited her in the ICU, playing the part of dutiful son, but I mostly just sat silently in her room.
One of the nurses told me that sometimes people in my mom’s condition can hear others around them, and she encouraged me to talk to her. I forced myself to do it, but it felt awkward. The distance between my mom and me was greater than the distance between the sleeping and waking worlds. It was the distance between a son who had physically and emotionally fled the nest years ago, and a mother who still lived there. My mom and I had grown apart, and that distance made my voice sound hollow and vacant in the hospital room.
This, Josh, is where you came in.
* * *
One day, while preparing for another awkward visit to the hospital, I stopped at my mom’s house to check her voicemail. An excited clerk from her favorite CD store had left her a message to remind her that your latest album had been released that day, and that he had saved her a copy. Suddenly, I knew what to do.
I grabbed a portable stereo from my sister’s old room, and a few of your CDs from my mom’s collection. Then I rushed to the hospital, stopping along the way to buy your new album. As soon as I pressed “Play,” I exhaled, relieved to have found something to fill the silence of her room.
But even though the music may have alleviated the need for my stilted, one-sided conversations, it was not a miracle cure. Over the following days, my mom got worse; and eventually, the doctors said that she was not going to come back. On hearing the news, one of my mom’s oldest friends brought a quilt from my childhood home, and we replaced the starched hospital sheets. We gathered pictures of my grandfather, my grandmother, and my sister, and we placed them around the room. And we continued to play your music, Josh. Beyond that, we had nothing left to do but sit and wait.
As evening approached, my mom’s friend and I decided to sit with my mom in shifts so that one of us could get some rest. I decided to take the first shift. I sat alone in a chair at the foot of my mom’s bed, and reality set in. She was going to die. Her time was running out. And if that nurse was right, if my mom could hear my voice, then I needed to talk to her. I could no longer just point a stereo in her direction and pretend that it was enough. But at the same time, I had no idea what to say. It was then, Josh, that your song “February Song” came on. And it was then—during the aching, beautiful chorus of that song—that I broke down.
To me, “February Song” is about the distance that works its way into a relationship when people grow up, grow old, or change. It is about the regret that comes with recognizing that distance, and from facing the fact that we have allowed ourselves to drift away. But “February Song” is also about the thread that continues to connect us despite the distance. It is a thread that pulls on us, and makes us want to promise that, one day, we’ll come back again.
Hearing that message, and hearing it from a voice that my mom loved absolutely, brought me comfort. It eased some of the guilt that I’d carried around for years, and made me feel normal. Most importantly, it made me feel more connected to my mom than I had in a long time.
Eventually, I got up from my chair, walked to my mom’s side, and talked to her. I don’t remember much of what I said, but it doesn’t matter. If my mom could hear me, she would have heard me reaching out and trying. At that point, she would have ignored the distance between us. She would have ignored my talk of “sorrys” and “goodbyes,” and she would have tried to tell me—as she did when I was little—that everything was going to be alright.
And then, Josh, my mom would have wanted to change the subject. She would have wanted to talk about the music playing in her hospital room. Your music, Josh. “Listen, Ryan” she would have said to me, almost giddy in the moment that we were sharing. “Listen to it. Just listen to his voice.”
Ryan Kahn, son of your biggest fan