Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Dana: Song Lyrics

This is a guest post by Dana Dwinell-Yardley, Jane and Sky's daughter, written for Sky's birthday this past April. To listen to the songs described below, follow the individual links or check out the playlist at the end of the post.

When it comes to traits I share with my father, Sky, many of them are readily distinguishable as products of either nature or nurture. Extraordinarily nearsighted blue eyes, teeth unfairly prone to cavities, light brown hair that, upon reaching one’s ears, prefers to grow straight out from one’s head instead of down? Pretty sure you can chalk those up to nature. Love of hiking, relative fearlessness about driving in bad weather, and the fact that I always carry band-aids in my wallet? Gotta be nurture.

But there’s one trait we have in common that I’m not sure how to categorize. You might say it’s environmental, but sometimes I swear it’s genetic. It’s the singing thing. By which I mean: Sky and I both have brains that absorb song lyrics like a sponge and wring them back out readily in response to the smallest of stimuli.

Not long after my parents started dating, Sky’s ex-girlfriend took my mother, Jane, aside. “Do you know about his singing thing?” she asked. “Um, what singing thing?” Jane replied. She soon found out. Sky had a song for every occasion.

Talking Heads’ “Stay Up Late” — “Well he looks so cute (all night long) in his little red suit!” — was the theme song when me and my brother wore the matching union suits that we had when we were kids. The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (“but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need”) was the mantra when we threw tantrums as toddlers. James Taylor’s “Anywhere Like Heaven” was sung for adventures in the woods and fields around our house: “There’s a pasture in the countryside I like to call my own / there’s a natural pillow for my head, the grass there is overgrown.”

See I am not kidding about the matching union suits.
When the song didn’t quite fit the occasion, Sky would simply rewrite the lyrics and proceed with aplomb. It took me a long time to realize that the original lyrics of “Tea for Two” had the object of affection baking a sugar cake for the boys rather than a maple cake for the children. And my beloved lullaby “Sweet Baby James” was about a cowboy called Sweet Baby James, not a cowgirl called Sweet Dana Bean?!

(Once young Dana realized that Sky might be making up or adjusting some of the songs in his repertoire, she got a little skeptical. My mind was therefore blown the first time that I heard recordings of “Drive My Car” and “I Am the Walrus,” and I discovered that those were honest-to-goodness real Beatles’ songs and not simply products of Sky’s goofy song brain.)

So here’s where the genetic part comes in: I do this, too. All of it. All the time. I’m terrible at remembering tunes without words, and I’ve never successfully memorized a poem longer than 12 lines of Shel Silverstein. But put words and music together and you get a magic glue that just works with my brain.

I was at my partner’s house with some friends a few weeks ago, discussing the state of the world, when one friend acerbically suggested investing money in a basement bunker instead of home repairs or starting a family. I promptly launched into the chorus of Fred Small’s cheerily sarcastic anthem about government propaganda:
“Just... dig... a... hole in the ground, climb right on down
Lay some boards on top of you and sprinkle dirt around
You don’t have to be dead if you only plan ahead
You’ll be glad you kept a shovel on hand!”
A bemused silence fell. “Wow, there really is a song for everything,” said the bunker-suggesting friend.

“Yep,” said my partner, “and the great thing is, with Dana, you get to know what it is!”

(Flashback to Sky’s ex-girlfriend giving his new girlfriend a friendly warning. Yep, my sweetie definitely knows about my singing thing. Good thing she likes me anyway.)

That magic glue combination of words and music has power. The notes and chords and harmonies give shape and meaning to sentences that sometimes read a little mundane by themselves. No matter. Your brain is singing along even if the words are alone by themselves on the page. 

Back cover of my journal, age 13.
When I played Yahtzee with my cousins as a kid, I’d pass the time between turns by writing out lyrics to Beatles songs around the edge of my scorecard. I rewrote the words of barn dance songs to be about downhill skiing. I filled the margins of journals and letters to penpals with song lyrics about peace or traveling or the various dramas of being a teenager. I memorized lyrics to the silly Flash videos that came out in the early days of the internet and recited them to entertain my friends (ask me about “Amburgers and Wootbeer”sometime if you want absurdity and mid-2000s nostalgia). 

I spoke to my first girlfriend in the language of song lyrics, and we filled the margins of our letters with the kind of mushiness that was forgivable to be written if it was just a song. (Jim Sturgess singing “And then while I’m away, I’ll write home every day / and I’ll send all my loving to you” in Across the Universe was made for falling in love by letter.) 

Inside cover of my journal, age 21 and in LUURRRVE.

When that same girlfriend and I broke up, I sat alone in the bathtub and sang chants from my women’s singing circle over and over, calling me back to myself as the tears dripped down my face: “Right here, right now / right here, right now / find yourself in harmony, let go of all your fears / and you’ll find the place to be is right here.” 

Songs are a language that help me translate the inside of myself to the outside. They are often the key that opens the door to my heart so that all the messy feelings I didn’t even know I had can come tumbling out. Grief, gratitude, silliness, strength, love; I’ve got songs for all of them. I’m the stolid and dry-eyed one at funerals — until the assembled friends lift their voices and start in with, “Some bright morning when this life is over” or “Sunset and evening star and one clear call for me.” Same with weddings. Songs about love and community hit me even harder in the feels than the sad ones. Hello open door. 

* * *

A little over 18 months ago, Sky was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. We cried on the telephone that day without the help of any songs. What about … well, everything?! I thought. The homesteader and mediator and parent I call when I need help with a carpentry project or a thorny community disagreement or just some understanding and commiseration about the more hot-tempered members of our family. The gin rummy partner, the hiking buddy, the easygoing adventurer, the role model of compassion and curiosity and listening. The father with whom I share a sponge brain that speaks this absurd and magical language of song. Will it all be lost to the deadly version of brain fog lurking just behind his medial temporal lobe, stretching out its cold damp fingers through the growing plaques and tangles?

Before too long, intellect and practicality and the slow-moving mysteriousness of Alzheimer’s sneakily close the door on grief and tell me to carry on with my life. I obey pretty well. What else can I do? Normal is an entirely relative term anyway.

Nine months after Sky’s diagnosis, carrying on with my life, I went to a sacred sing with friends. Four times a year, the little Quaker meeting hall in the woods by the brook fills with candles and tree boughs and people whose voices join and tumble and flow and exalt in songs to welcome in the turning season. It’s a good place for oiling the hinges on the door to my heart.

Two friends stayed over at my house that night, and in the morning we kept singing songs together, reveling in the deliciousness of three-part harmony. Then, one friend began a song I didn’t know, and the other friend joined her: 
I don't know if you can see
the changes that have come over me
In these last few days I've been afraid that I might drift away
I started to cry. The door was wide open. This song had the key and the number combination and the secret password.
So I've been telling old stories, singing songs
that make me think about where I come from
That's the reason why I seem so far away today
I imagine most people who know Dougie MacLean’s “Caledonia” think of it as a song about a homesick traveler, maybe one of those tunes to be filed under “cheesy ballads.” That day, it was purely about Alzheimer’s and grief, and it was as if Sky was singing it directly through our shared pathways of song lyric language. 
Ah but let me tell you that I love you
and I think about you all the time
Caledonia, you're calling me and I'm going home
If I should become a stranger
you know that it would make me more than sad
Caledonia's been everything I've ever had
My friends were probably a little confused by my reaction, given that I normally greet a new song with curiosity and a focused desire to listen and learn, rather than a puddle of tears. But they are dear, sweet, kind people who are not afraid of deluges of tears or feelings, and they wrapped their arms around me after they finished singing and held me there on the living room rug and let me describe the shape of my grief.

The outward expression of Sky might not match the expression of five, or 10, or 20 years ago. But it is the expression of now. The soul is not a static creature, thank goodness. We are all of us shifting inside our skins and our hearts and our medial temporal lobes, all our lives. The costume changes are just more dramatic for some.

Sometimes Sky does drift. Sometimes he seems far away. But he is never a stranger. The Sky I know is still very much there and will always be, I think. Not all is lost to the deadly fog, just occasionally obscured.

And sometimes the sun is out, as it always is behind the cloud cover. My entire family, including Sky, spent Thanksgiving evening having a spontaneous dramatic singalong of the Les Miserables soundtrack, in which my shoddy piano-playing skills became a glorious orchestra to four enthusiastic and occasionally off-key singers. Sky and I take bike rides and play gin rummy and go on (albeit gentler) hikes. His creative, wry voice shines through his writing. Today the adventure journal is not about the back roads of Maui or the rugged slopes of the Long Trail, but the observations and navigations and surprises of Alzheimer’s Canyon. 

Me practicing enthusiastic and shoddy piano-playing skills, age 18 months, with Sky.

This is a trip Sky did not choose to take. My parallel canyon trip of grief and change and love is one that also feels unbidden and new, despite the fact that I’ve been here a million times before (probably my whole life, honestly) and it’s just wider or deeper or has different native plants around each bend.

But Sky and I, we’ve got our magical absurd song sponges with us on these journeys, helping us tell our stories, helping us translate our insides to the outside.

“And you may ask yourself: How did I get here?” Sky said to me the other day, in his best song-quote voice, in a conversation we were having about life and Alzheimer’s. (Or maybe it was a conversation about something else entirely. “Once In a Lifetime” is pretty versatile that way.)

“There is water at the bottom of the ocean,” I told him in the same voice.

“Same as it ever was,” we said. And then we cued up Talking Heads on the stereo.

Dana lives in Montpelier, VT, where she has been known to create watercolors inspired by choral music, sing songs into the voicemail boxes of friends upon request, dance around her apartment to loud feminist pop music, and rewrite the lyrics of pretty much any song to be about her cats. 

Want to listen to the songs in this essay? Well, Dana made you a Spotify playlist for this very occasion. 


  1. Dana, I too remember lyrics & music readily and have a song for almost all occasions. And I, too, cried when I got to Dougie MacLean's lyric in this piece. I just wanted to say that I think of you & Sayer and your folks all the time. Sending love. Buffy

    1. Glad to know there are others out in the world with a song for all occasions! Also glad to know you know "Caledonia" — it's that much better to read song lyrics when you know the song.

  2. Dana, song lyrics unlock your heart and emotions pour out. Your writing is doing the same for me. Sometimes I'm anguished at not being able to verbally express all the feelings triggered by Sky's Alzheimer's. Today I'm realizing maybe that's OK as I can use others' words- yours, Sky's, Jane's...- to help me. This is a remarkable piece and I am grateful that you have written it. Thank you! There are so many lines that resonate for me. The ones that stand out in this moment are:

    "Before too long, intellect and practicality and the slow-moving mysteriousness of Alzheimer’s sneakily close the door on grief and tell me to carry on with my life. I obey pretty well. What else can I do? Normal is an entirely relative term anyway."

    I obey pretty well, too, and often carry on but there are times when I just don't know what to do. Why can't I be Sky's GPS and reroute his journey? How do I just keep moving forward?

    An historical note... as one of Sky's younger sisters I remember him frequently reciting lyrics when we were growing up. He would say the first part of the lyric and I was to finish the line. For example: Sky would say "You can't always get what you_____." And I was to fill in "want" and on he would go for the rest of the chorus. Funny thing, though, he kept this going long past toddlerhood.

    1. Aunt Mary! I love you! I am glad my writing has helped unlock some of your heart pieces. It's hard to figure how to express all those feelings sometimes. I love your concept of being a GPS... wish it were that simple. And I seem to remember Sky telling me stories of you and he playing with song lyrics growing up. Glad to confirm it from your end. <3

  3. Beautifully written - thank you for this. I love the photo of you as a baby with your father at the piano. Lots of love to you all!

    1. Thanks, Alana! See you at singing soon, I hope.

  4. My mother was always a singer. For the nine years of her increasing dementia, we would sing old songs like "Side by Side" and "Enjoy Yourself" (It's Later than You Think). It always cheered her up.
    Thanks for your essay. I always cry at funerals, too, when the music starts. And I too have a song brain: Beautiful days always get a rendition of the Sesame Street theme (Sunny day, chasing the clouds away..) from me.
    See you on the dance floor! Gayle Giovanna

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