Bright Moments Past: On Music and Loss

Question: What’s it all about?

Answer: I don’t know.

But I do know a few things.

I know some of the things that make me tick.

While my weapons of choice remain pen and paper, I would still say that music has always been the central element of my existence. Or the elemental center. Writing is a compulsion, a hobby, a skill, a craft, an obsession, a mystery, and at times a burden. Music simply is. For just about anyone, all you need is an ear (or two); then it can work its magic. But, as many people come to realize, if you approach it with your mind and your heart, it’s capable of making you aware of other worlds, it can help you achieve the satisfaction material possessions are intended to inspire, it will help you feel the feelings drugs are designed to approximate. Et cetera.

This is what music signifies for me. As a dedicated non-musician, I use this art as a viable source of empowerment; while it remains first and foremost a very real and easily identifiable source of extreme pleasure, it’s also a vehicle, something I use to get someplace else. A stimulus that demands a response, inexorably capable of conjuring up words and concepts (and constructions) such as spirit, soul, God, karma—things that are (rightfully) almost unbearably oblique, or pretentious, or all-too-easily invoked, expedient for folks who ardently need a way to articulate the feeling they either can’t quite explain or desperately wish to get in touch with.


Never forget this feeling.

That evening, halfway through high school, watching the snow fall outside your window. Lights out and that music playing: Beethoven. The sonatas, with titles that seemed mysterious and exhilarating: Pathétique, Appassionata, Mondschein.

The music, it seemed, was always there for these significant moments: remembering those times, always accompanied by music that was solemn yet ecstatic. Later on, being ushered into the other worlds of sexual activity, or studying for fast-forgotten exams, or those solitary seconds that sometimes turned into hours, the time alone, in the darkness, before sleep overtook awareness and you still knew who you were–tracing it all back to that first evening, staring at the snow: the sound of the piano, feeling connected to lives apart from your own, able to imagine what the world was like, then, feeling deeply aware of your own life, wholly there, utterly cognizant–which, of course, did not mean you were only aware of yourself; it was exactly the opposite sensation–and not realizing, not needing to know, yet, that this feeling would be increasingly difficult to capture, transitory moments of perception as a tonic for, or distraction from, the muddle of adult life and the urgency and oddness that this new reality entailed. It was not that this music facilitated these feelings, but that it accompanied them. This was what made it central to your world, so inextricable from your soul, from the way you wanted to see yourself.


When all else fails–and all else always fails–there is music. When the emotions and awareness start to squeeze their way behind your mind, giving way to those awful times when you wonder how you can possibly find peace or make sense of anything ever again, music is there when you need it most. August 27, 2002, was the first day of the rest of my life. Anyone who has lost a loved one will recall–or half recall–the blur of events that come after, all of which are a blessing in the disguise of distraction. I did a lot of driving: from my father’s house to my place, from funeral home to father’s place, to the airport to pick up relatives. The sensations would become overwhelming at times, and I struggled through interminable hours when I wasn’t even certain what was real or who I was. During one of those episodes I was coming or going somewhere and I hadn’t been paying attention to my car stereo, and then I came to my senses, recognizing a song I’d heard hundreds of times: in this crucial moment it broke through that haze like the sun and saved my life. I can’t count how many times something similar has happened, though it’s possible I never needed music as much as I did on this desperate occasion.

Here’s the bottom line: when I contemplate whatever life has in store for me, or even if I allow myself to entertain the worst-case scenarios regarding what I could have been or might become, as long as my ears work, all will never be lost. I reckon, if everything else was removed from my life, including love, I could find meaning and solace if I still had music. If I’m ever reduced to a bed-bound wreck, so long as I have ears to listen with, I’ll never be beyond redemption; I’ll always be willing to draw one more breath. Take away my ability to write, speak, see the world, smell the air, drink, eat, or emote, this life will still be worth living if I can hear those sounds.

Excerpted from Sean Murphy’s memoir, Please Talk about Me When I’m Gone (September 2013)