“If you should be the last Autumn leaf hanging from the tree. I'll still be here waiting on the breeze to bring you down to me. And if it takes forever, forever it'll be. And if it takes forever, forever it'll be...”
Damian Kulash: Last Leaf
Nothing in this world can express the utter darkness of an empty stage, crowd sitting as if for a Sunday Mass with the thoughts of your mother in their hearts. Absolute tunnel vision, staring down those church isle’s. Pews filled with the blank faces of friends and family, your voice to fill their ears with some sort of hope. My soul connected to my heartstrings tugging at my vocal chords like a monk may rings a bell in a church, and for a brief moment, Julie Dickson Brown could be seen watching me sing. She had seen me sing many times before this moment, her soulful shadow standing at the end of Arlington’s Unitarian Church, clothed in white, her hair full, as it was before her chemo.
I remember the day she taught me to play the guitar - New Years Day. The icy breath of the years cold winter hovered over the windows of my home, our coziness taunting it from the inside. My family was there to celebrate. All the Jamaicans from my dad’s side and all the local Arlingtonians from my moms. It was a perfect clash of culture. I dont think I’ll ever face a situation again where my hands hold a full plate of curry chicken as I beckon my grandmother for one more sip of champagne. My mom always loved to sing. She reminded me of Natalie Merchant from The 10,000 Maniacs. A voice that filled a room, inflating right out of her mouth and stretching to every corner. I had always known my calling to be for music, and had taken stabs at learning an instrument, but this moment seemed like the right one to really start. A full audience of folk that would never judge. I wanted to play something simple enough to master instantly, making me seem like some sort of protige to my family. Fortunately, my mother had the perfect song. Her “first learn” as well. Norwegian Wood by The Beatles seemed to me to be the perfect song. It’s lyrics resonated with the amphitheater that was my kitchen, a warm, inviting concert hall that almost seemed as if it had been lit with a good fire, Norwegian Wood.
Isn't it good, Norwegian wood?”
My love for song only ever grew when my mother or father was around. My dad introduced me to Parliament Funkadelic and the sounds of Reggae. Dazzled by lights, glitz, and glamour I would sit for hours in front of a father in the midst of a Youtube time traveling session, showing me everything from Peter Tosh to The Brothers Johnson. While my dad allowed me to find hues of a party, purples and reds, in his music, the music of my mother also allowed my spirit to soar. While I try never to force “favorites” upon myself as far as genre, the music my mom gave to me was that of a golden amber. The Dixie Chicks, James Taylor, The Seldom Scene. Real Mountain Music, she called it. Everytime we listened to Wide Open Spaces, our car would grow tenfold, the open road borderless, lacking bumpers in bowling terms. As I grew more and more interested in music throughout high school, I began to form groups and write my own songs. Having the opportunity to play with some of Virginia’s finest cats is something I will always hold in my heart. However, as my musical career grew, and my skills in songwriting blossomed, my teacher, my mother, began to fade.
I can hardly recall the day I learned of my mothers diagnoses. It was a secret being kept from the Arlington public, as well as my eight year old brother, too young to understand the seriousness of the situation. It started in her lymph nodes and was seen as something small and very treatable, however, the situation grew incredibly serious throughout the next several years. I remember the first day I saw my mother with no hair. She shed a tear, so ashamed to be seen in such a vulnerable state by her children. However, everything in our home could be smiled upon. My brother and I ran to her bed, pushing off the floor like a diving board, soaring through the air to greet my mother with a smile and light, laughable taunting, greeted with delicate hugs.
Once word of my mom’s illness became public, old family friends began to pop their heads out of whatever doors they had left us behind. All of a sudden our front porch was filled with half a dozen lasagna trays, four bowls of fruit salad, and at least a dozen “easy, heatable meals”. Of course these kind gestures from our community were gobbled up by my brother and I, however my father did not take these gifts lightly. My dad worked hard for his life, surrounded by the hardships of Jamaican poverty, American racism, and now a wife with cancer. He hated the pity of our community and all the attention that had now been placed on him as “my mothers protector”. An angel of a husband, watching over her to make sure she survived this horrible disease. This pressure is too great for one man.
Three hard years had passed. My mother in and out of chemo, and in and out of work. My father beginning his job as Principal at Mckinley Elementary, dealing with the ridiculousness of parents, as well as midnight runs to the hospital with my mother. However, it was finally over. My mother had been cleared of cancer and it was a time to celebrate. Hundreds of cards flooded our mailbox, a sea of congratulations and praises that slipped from the cards to our fingers, leaving tingling sensations of everlasting joy. It seemed as though we had made it as a family, through the toughest of times, singing songs the whole way through to keep our spirits high.
In my life I have found that with every pro, there is a con. With every positive there is also a negative. This is no exception to hope, for every sliver of hope can be met with utter disappointment and sorrow. My mother was diagnosed for the second time with cancer in the spring of 2015. Immediately my family began to look for options for treatment. A new study was taking place at The National Institute of Health in Bethesda Maryland. Through the help of a family friend, my mom was given the chance to take part in this new wave of treatment, but this meant she would be taken away from us for a summer. An unfortunate sense of foreshadowing looking back on it now. My father went from work in Arlington through traffic, everyday to see her, her eyes lit with excitement every time he came through the door. By this time, her physical state had begun to wither away. Her skin sagging from extreme weight loss, her hair short and grey. I remember the moment hope fell from under my feet and let me fall into tears, both hers and mine, whirlpooling in a sea of devastation. There was nothing more the doctors could do. She was the only patient they were unable to successfully treat. Hope had failed us.
The last time I saw my mother alive was when she was in hospice. The parking lot to the place was always filled with cars, leaving my mother to watch me from her window looking for parking. What a horribly grim sight that must have been. I walked into my mothers room, dimly lit and filled with flowers, balloons, and cards. I talked to her and told her about my day, and what I was dealing with in school. I could see in her eyes that her inner voice was screaming to be heard. She was so weak, she couldn’t speak. Couldn’t utter a single word, but I could see the heartbreak fill her eyes as her mouth began to shake, fighting to spit out the words “I love you”. As I walked away from her room towards the flickering lights of the neon glazed hallway, I looked back at her, staring at me, wishing to say goodbye. At the time I didn’t know it was going to be my last moments with my mother. These are memories I hold dearest.
On the morning of April 1st at 6:30 AM in the hotel room of a Holiday Inn in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, I woke to the alarm of my phone. My father was calling to tell me that my mother had passed away the night before. This call was something I knew was going to happen at some point, but not something I imagined would happen that day. I felt numb. I needed a glass of water. My best friends were staying with me in our hotel room and knew immediately the news from the look on my face as I sat at the edge of my bed on the phone with my father. My friend Peter Banks, drummer for the school Jazz Band for which this school trip to Myrtle Beach had been held for, was the first person I told about my mother’s condition when I was in 7th grade. I remember spending the night at his house, sitting on his leather couch crying in his arms. My face wrapped around his hug, comforted. Peter Banks was with me in Myrtle Beach when I found out the news. I still remember staring at the blank hotel wall in front of me, listening to him loudly sobbing in the shower, tears being washed away through the pipes and out to the ocean. It was the day of our performance and our band directors were made aware of the situation, offering me a chance to take a flight home to be with my family. The music of the stage called to me that day, leaving promises of calm in my lap of what appeared to hold only endless loneliness. As we took the bus from our hotel to the high school that we were playing at, the world became encompassed by a massive storm. I sat against my window, watching the raindrops kiss the glass. Tears from my mother almost able to touch my cheek. Re:Stacks by Bon Iver was what I decided to listen to on that bus ride, a song that still moves me to this day and reminds me of those raindrops.
“The best I had ever played” I was told by my fellow bandmates. I knew my mother was watching me, as I stared into the stage lights looking for a sign in the ceiling of her presence. And with that, I set off for home.
So there I sat, on an empty stage, guitar in hand. The church was the most full it had ever been according to the news paper the following day, with over 700 guests entering and leaving the service. Shuttle buses had be arranged to take people to the service from all across the county. This proved my moms effects on the Arlington community. For years she had been a special education teacher at HB Woodlawn Secondary School, leaving many kids with learning disabilities and social issues with one less person to depend on. The Arlington community came in all forms, representing the love my mom had always spread. I’ve always been the frontman of bands around Northern Virginia, never afraid to get up in front of people and say what I felt necessary. That day at Arlington Unitarian Church was different though. I felt a lack of words, just as my mother had in my last moments with her. All the friendly faces of my world had congregated in this great hall leaving me silent. I couldn’t speak. No more than a few slight mutters. I let song speak for me. My mother had taught me song. My mother had taught me love. My mother had given me music, so why not use it in this moment? I can still see her in my mind now watching over me as I played my guitar, leaving the room humming with the sound of steel, but not the loud clashings of a steel factory. A steel that turned the room to a soft white with a touch of gold, like a sun setting over a snowy bank.
I think about this moment every day and feel I have made my mom proud. Whenever I think of this song I’m always reminded of some tree of life sickened by winter. I’ll sit under this tree in the snow everyday, singing the same song of hope and love, giving me the will to wait for the last leaf to fall.
In memory of Julie Dickson Brown
1/11/63 - 3/31/16