I have a song in my iTunes playlist that I never listen to. In fact, as soon as it comes on (or as soon as I’m aware that it’s come on; there is a deceptive moment of what appears to be silence at its beginning that lulls me into a false sense of security), I quickly hit the forward arrow, almost always unwilling to take that journey into grief that the song has represented to me for more than 30 years now. But this morning, I can’t escape it: its lyrics are all over my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and even NPR greeted me with it as I started the coffeemaker at dawn: “Ground control to Major Tom. Ground control to Major Tom.”
Perhaps it is for the very reason that I can’t listen to it that so many have turned to the song this morning to grapple with what it feels like to learn that David Bowie has died: because there is no song that better captures both the bewilderment and desolation of being suddenly left behind (“your circuit’s dead/there’s something wrong/can you hear me, Major Tom? Can you hear me, Major Tom?”) and our imagination of the bewilderment and desolation of suddenly leaving (“I’m stepping through the door/and I’m floating in a most peculiar way/and the stars look very different today”).
The metaphor is inescapable: Major Tom is both there and not there, simultaneously, Ground Control’s query–can you hear—braided with Major Tom’s lonely assertion of place (here/am I floating round my tin can), the lines running over and under one another in a chorus of grief and shock.
When I listen to the song—when I can bear to listen to the song—I am immediately swung back through time to the afternoon I learned that my brother, Tom, had been killed in a motorcycle accident at 23, and to that moment, just after the horror of losing him had swept into my consciousness, where I allowed myself to imagine the horror he felt as he left. As hard and as terrible as it felt to experience him as gone—gone for good, gone forever, never to sit in a booth in a bar with me and sing all the lyrics to “American Pie” again–it was harder and more terrible still to imagine that he was aware of his absence: that, like Major Tom, he was circling overhead, just out of reach, longing to come back home.
For a song whose first stanza ends with the lyric “and may God’s love be with you,” it is painfully existential: Major Tom, floating through space, is utterly alone. And while there is, arguably, a comfort in the notion that he isn’t crying out in fear or panic, I can’t hear the song without imagining what happens to the astronaut hours or days or months later, when Planet Earth is still blue, and there’s still nothing he can do. Is it better or worse for him to hear Ground Control, if he can’t reply to them? Is it better or worse for his wife to know that he loves her very much, if she can’t say it back?
Because the song raises these questions, it remains one of the sharpest metaphors for death I have ever encountered. And because it can’t answer them, it remains one of the most hopeless metaphors for death I know.
Which begs the question: why is this song on my playlist at all?
Because grief is a satellite that is forever tethered to my love for my brother, and this song is my portal to both. Sometimes, to honor or indulge his loss, I select the song, and weep. The problem comes when I hear it accidentally, the shuffle cruelly cueing it up while I’m raking leaves, or some department store’s peculiar musak blasting it through the speakers on the heels of an innocuous Rolling Stones song.
Or when I wake to discover that David Bowie has stepped through that same door, and we have all become Ground Control, calling out, unsure whether it’s better that he can or can’t hear our grief but unable to stop ourselves from expressing it.