In the three-hour drive from Chicago to Fort Wayne, Indiana, you can listen to The Avett Brothers’ “No Hard Feelings” four dozen times. You may notice that by the time you hit the twentieth replay, those mournful opening strums on the guitar no longer make you tear up. By then, you can crawl into the notes and from within them, you can watch the farms whiz by — silos, cows, and smatterings of trees next to billboards promising eternal life if you carry your baby to term. You can feel your pulpy heart become the strings of the instruments, your far-away thoughts the beats of the drum. You can float into the music and forget that someone you love is gone and you’ve received all the texts from her you’re ever going to get.
It was four weeks before Meredith died that I discovered The Avett Brothers. At forty six, I was fossilized in my taste, anchored by music I grew up listening to in Texas: Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Dolly Parton. Country music before Garth and Shania. During the Outlaw Music Tour this June, an all-day affair headlined by Willie, I arrived early enough to see The Avett Brothers’ full set. From my seat well to the right of center, I watched the banjo player zipping from stage left to stage right by running through the audience, while the tall guitarist strummed in earnest, thanking everyone for coming to the show. I tapped my toe, clapped my hands, and snapped a picture of the band’s cellist swinging his instrument around like it was a part of his body. I was charmed by the group’s energy and the generosity pulsing through the performance.
As soon as the set was over, I Googled “The Avett Brothers” to find out the basics: Were they really brothers? (yes) Where in the South were they from? (North Carolina) When were they coming back to Chicago? (September)
I texted Meredith from the concert: Do you know The Avett Brothers? They’re amazing live. By then her responses were trickling in every four or five days. She likely wouldn’t be game for discussing my discovery of a new-to-me American folk rock band, but I wanted to share it with her. After all, she was still with us, and I didn’t want to one day look back and accuse myself of neglecting her before she was actually gone.
The next week, I asked my younger, hipper friends about The Avett Brothers. My most in-the-know friend, a writer in Manhattan, enthused about her favorite of their songs, “No Hard Feelings.” I downloaded it and listened to it on repeat for an hour at work. The soothing strings and the cooing final lines — the repeat of I have no enemies — was perfect for a lonely Friday afternoon when everyone else was off boating or watching the Cubs game.
I didn’t absorb any of the lyrics as I completed my weekly admin tasks. If you had asked me to describe “No Hard Feelings” that afternoon, I would have called it a mournful, philosophical break-up song about letting go of a Beloved without holding on to regret or resentment.
How lovely, I thought: A break up with no hard feelings. Though already a decade into my marriage, I still remembered every breakup, several of which left me, if not with hard feelings exactly, but with the residue of white-hot disappointments and deep purple bruises of regret.
For the twenty-four hours after Meredith died, I couldn’t listen to music. My heart was a pillow over-stuffed with grief, and a single note would have ripped the lining and sent it all tumbling beneath my ribs. I’d buried grandparents and relatives a generation or two above me, but Meredith was my first friend to die. The first friend who’d pointed at her clavicle and said, “I have this thing I need to get checked out.” At the time, I wasn’t worried about that little bump because I believed that truly fatal things were invisible to the eye.
But eventually she had to do the things people do when their illness comes in stages and they’ve reached the final one. She gifted me jewelry and a carved wooden box for my daughter. “Death is just the loss of a body,” she said. As a spiritual counselor, it was her strong belief that even after people die, their spirits remain to guide and comfort us.
Her death would be my first test run of her strongly held belief.
Two days after she died, I carried around a pink quartz rock shaped like a heart that she’d given me after one of her particularly bad scans. It was cool and smooth in my palm, and the light pink color was cheery and little-girl like. It reminded me of all the times I texted her to tell her I felt fat or like a bad wife for snapping at my husband. Meredith was my friend who could talk me off the ledge. Her words soothed like a mother’s hand making circles on my back. There, there, it’s okay. Meredith knew my petty, ugly side and believed I still deserved compassion. She returned the favor by sharing parts of herself that she hated — her history of embezzlement, her arduous road to sobriety, her never-flat-enough stomach.
With one hand cupping the pink rock, I used the other to queue up “No Hard Feelings.” For the first time since Meredith died, I sat perfectly still and listened to the lyrics all the way through.
When my body won’t hold me anymore
And it finally lets me free.
Will I be ready?
Turns out, “No Hard Feelings” is not a break-up song at all. It’s not about losing love; it’s about leaving this world for whatever comes next.
For the next hour, I hit repeat every five minutes and fifteen seconds.
In the days after she died, I expected the crush of sadness as I faced the loss. The picking up the phone to text her a picture of a cluster birds in the shape of an arrow flying south. The expecting to see her at breakfast every Monday ordering egg whites and coffee, no cream. What I didn’t expect to feel was the terror. I understood, for the first time, that death was coming for me too. I too would have to face the day when it will be my feet that won’t walk another mile and my lips give their last kiss goodbye.
Will I be ready?
I wished for Meredith’s faith as the terror gripped me. At night, while my husband and children slept, I listened to “No Hard Feelings” through earphones, grateful that it offered a possible vision of what remains when we die. When it’s all gone — the rings on our fingers, the keys to our houses, all of our doubts and jealousies — what might remain are memories laced with light and threaded with grace. Maybe what remains is also what we become: part of the pulsing, vibrant, still-alive energy that is actually love itself.
Love in the thoughts and love in the words, love in the songs they sing in the church.
If love is what’s left — after Meredith, and one day after me, too — then maybe my terror about death is a misunderstanding or misapprehension. Like mistaking a song about dying for a song about a romantic breakup.
Two weeks after Meredith died, I joined a conference call with friends to plan her memorial service. I gripped the pink heart-shaped rock to keep me steady. Someone cracked a joke that Meredith would be mad if we “made a big fuss over her.”
“Hear how they’re talking about you?” I whispered with a wink. It felt like she was close, and we were still connected. Not unlike the morning when she first squeezed that pink rock into my hand and whispered, “It’s not looking so good.”
On the conference call, for a breath, I glimpsed what might settle when the spasms of sadness and grief fade into quiet missing. I trusted that the warm expansive feeling of being known and treasured, of knowing and treasuring, would outlast the darkness.
Two months after Meredith died, I sat in Section 307, Row N for my second Avett Brothers concert. It was a brilliant late fall evening made for seeing live music in an open-air venue. Through a jumble of floating clouds, the sun blazed pink and orange nearly stealing the show from the opening act. I didn’t let myself hope too hard that The Avett Brothers would play “No Hard Feelings.” They’ve released nine studio albums and have a tenth on the way. There were no guarantees.
For the first seventy five minutes, they played old favorites interspersed with songs from their forthcoming album. My still-grieving heart bobbed out of the dark waters it had been floating in for weeks. My voice rose with thousands of other fans as we sang lyrics to the songs I’d grown to love over three months.
In the stillness between the main set and the encore, I squeezed my husband’s arm and whispered, “I’m literally praying for ‘No Hard Feelings.’”
Please, please, please.
When they returned to the stage, I clapped has hard as I could, as if with my two hands I could will them to play what I most needed to hear. Before each encore song, I held my breath, straining to hear the first few notes. Each time, my heart sank an inch.
“Thank you for having us, Chicago! We’d like to do one last song.” I pressed my lips together, sure they’d end with something jaunty and raucous that would leave us dancing in the aisles.
But then I heard the opening chords to the song that had arrived in my life as I prepared to say my hardest goodbye. When my body won’t hold me anymore, and it finally sets me free. I stared at the stage, mouthing each word as salty tears ran down my face.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.