Dear Switchback fans,
I was five years old. My mother and I were sitting at the piano. The room was dark except for the light of the lamp that illuminated the music. As mother to 10 children, she didn’t have a lot of time to play, so it was a rare moment; one of the only moments, in fact, that I can recall when I alone was with her. As she played, I watched her delicate, small hands move over the keys.
Suddenly, I was moved to tears as a thought that I had never had before came into my head: I blurted out, “Mom, I don’t want you to die.” She stopped playing, surprised to see me crying and let out a little laugh. “Oh, Marty, I don’t either.” She then held me there, comforting me. That moment haunted me for years, for I knew that inevitably, like Grampy, Grammy, Uncle Frank, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ida, Uncle Bill, Grandma and Grandpa and countless other people I loved, my mother, too, would die one day.
Two major gifts my mother gave me were the love of music and the love of the Grand Tetons of Wyoming. My siblings and I spent many summers out in Wyoming and it has placed an indelible mark on all of us McCormacks. Our family might have grown up in Woodstock, but Wyoming was the spiritual hub, the Vatican of the family soul. When I wanted to propose to Annie, I knew that the best place would be in Wyoming. When I needed to get somewhere to be grounded, there was no better place than standing on the foothills of Sheep Mountain, looking across the valley at the grandeur of the Tetons. If I was to die today, I would have to be cremated and spread part in Wyoming, part in Ireland, and probably a teaspoon sprinkled in Brian’s food when he isn’t looking. And so, Wyoming has always been part of that “inevitable.” My grandparents rest in Aspen Cemetery, the headstone in line with the Grand Tetons. This autumn, my mother will rest next to them. Someday, my father will join them.
Perhaps I should have taken note of all the signs that her passing was coming. Being Irish, I have an almost primal need to be affirmed by signs -- a year of great people exiting the world stage, a young woman in Sweden sporting a tattoo of the state of Wyoming at our last show there, followed by the appearance of a moose.
There is also synchronicity -- that my dad was hospitalized right before I left for Europe and I was able to see him recover, then return to the States to be at my mother’s side for her passing. And of course, the text message from my brother Peter right before our show in Herefordshire, England, that he was with Mom and Dad and they wanted to wish me a happy birthday. I was able to call and have a great conversation with them and thank my Mother once again for bringing me into the world. I described for them the beautiful countryside and of course, Mom threw in some advice about my music for me. In a lot of ways, things could not have progressed more perfectly in the passing of my Mom. We parted as always, with a lot of unspoken love.
The time leading up to her death was unfair. Prepping for her operation on her hip, Mom had to stay at a rehab center. It had an outbreak of the scabies and so was quarantined, which stripped us of the chance to visit her. Luckily her physician was able to get her out for appointments and we used those times so she could visit with Dad. That last time I saw Mom alive was prior to heading to Europe. I drove Dad to the Woodstock City Park and set up a chair so he could sit with Mom for a while. My sister Cecilia, driving Mom to her appointment, drove to the park. Probably one of the most tender moments was seeing my Dad, leaning on his cane, bend over and gently kiss my mother sitting there in Celia’s car. Like forbidden lovers, my parents were denied that chance to be together for the last two months of her life.
And perhaps, her final passing was also so unfair. Those who have lost a partner or a parent, and been there to witness death -- I know you know. And in spite of years of preparing for this separation, the thought that, as a traveling musician, I could easily die first in my family from a road accident, my mother's death caught me totally off guard.
My mother was a fighter and though she was scared, I knew she would fight. When I arrived with Áine last Tuesday, all seemed OK. Mom’s signs were stable. I spent the day with Dad, having Áine distract both of us. My brother Tony, a physician, arrived as word came that they had to intubate my mother. “You better get here to see Mom,” Tony said. And so, Áine and I came over. “What’s wrong with Mimi?” Áine asked. Her Aunt Cecilia and Uncle Robert, my two youngest siblings, explained. It was good for them to explain to a two-and-a-half-year-old the reality. “She may go to heaven,” Cecilia said. Áine seemed to understand. “Mimi is sick and may go to heaven,” she said. We drove home.
I was still feeling jetlagged from Europe and woke up at 5 a.m. to texts from my family urging me to head back to Woodstock. I woke up Annie. “Mom is dying,” I said. Annie hugged me and asked if she and the baby should come along. But I said I should just get out there as quickly as possible.
Miraculously, Interstate 90 was light of traffic and construction. I arrived in Woodstock in under an hour. The mood had changed. My brothers Fran, Joseph, and Peter were there. Tony was home with Dad, who had visited Mom during the night to say goodbye.
She was still hooked up to all the gadgetry to keep one alive. The fluids and medicines had swollen her, made her look not herself. She was not “herself” anymore. “Let’s try to make this beautiful.” I suggested. I reached down to her and started to sing some of the songs she taught us as children. Fran joined me and we wept as we sang.
When your hair has turned to silver,
I will love you just the same
I will only call you sweetheart
That will always be your name
Through a garden filled with roses
Down the sunset trail we’ll stray
When your hair has turned to silver
I will love you as today.
The Irish also need humor. It is a weapon we have in our arsenal, perhaps put there from all the grief that has been pounded into the DNA through the centuries. We teased Mom that we might have to bury her with Sheevra, the goat who was buried out on the back hill at the farm. It was a longstanding joke that Dad started years ago. One of us noticed that another patient was in the ICU alone in his room. “What if we all walked over and stood around his bed?” my eldest brother Joseph said. Little jabs of humor to ease the pain.
Finally, it was obvious we needed to say farewell. We all told Mom, “Go and be with Grampy, Grammy, Uncle Frank, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ida and all your friends. We are OK. We will take care of Dad.” I said, “Mom, if you wish to stay, that’s fine too. But the decision is yours. We will miss you.”
At 7:40, the nurse said to my brother Fran, “Her eyes are not reacting to light.” Fran took out his doctor penlight and flashed it by Mom’s eyes. I pulled back her lids and looked as well. Empty. Gone.
“This is not Mom,” I said. “This is now just her shell.” We all joined hands around her and took her hands as well and prayed. We wept. We apologized that she had to die this way, when everything looked like it was going well just two days ago. The “would’ve, should’ve, could’ve” talk started. We stepped out of the room and allowed the nurses to take the tubes and needles and gadgetry away. Finally, we stepped back in as more family arrived. It still wasn’t Mom. It was just what was left of Mom. That wonderful shell that had carried us and still had those delicate little fingers, the elfin ears, the grey curling hair with bits of black that she would never go to the hairdresser for. We cut some of the locks. Joined hands again and prayed. Good solid Catholic prayers that are like salvos out of a battleship.
It was time to head back to the farmhouse and to see Dad. I looked one last time at Mom and walked out firmly believing that Mom made her choice and left.
From there, it has been a walk in pain, remembrance, laughter, meetings on the funeral, obituaries, taking in flowers, taking calls from friends, trying to reach the extended family and the flurry of activity that helps bury the loss. The house was filled at Rose Farm with grandkids running around, in-laws and the sort of activity Mom would have reveled in and would have ruled over. “It’s as if she’s in the next room,” Annie said. And she is.
Now, 48 years from that evening at the piano, I think about my mother and myself. In life, she was dubious at best when it came to her approval of my career. “If only” would be the preface to a lot her conversations with me. In many ways, her familiarity with me, (for she was responsible for starting my path in music), clouded her ability to accept that perhaps when one is acting to the best of his ability, the rest is up to a higher power to decide on what being successful looks like.
There is no sure-fire path to “the top” in music. And I personally reject what society considers “the top” in the music business. Mom could have been a performer and she had the goods to be one. Her mother and she were both models at points in their lives. She could have pursued the path. But her calling was to be a mother and for that she succeeded wonderfully.
But music, unlike all of the other arts, is not a business, after all. It is a calling. Success in music means a complete surrender to music. Although we both loved music, we didn’t share a common language of the practice of being a musician. So, Mom didn’t want me to be Bono, but the blonde haired “Rolf” from the Sound of Music Stage Tour? Yes, that would have been OK for Mary McCormack.
If I have any regret over our relationship, it would be that she could have seen that in so many ways, I did meet her expectations. Her own doubts about herself, I had to subdue and not claim as my own. My own embracing of the calling and surrender was reward in and of itself. Still, it would have meant the world to have heard that she understood and approved.
My mother was the inspiration behind the Switchback song "The Fire that Burns." The refrain goes, “The fire that keeps me warm, is the fire that burns.” And in the end, I was able to let go of that burning and embrace the warmth. And that is the part of my mother that truly shined, not only for us kids, but for so many people as well. And that is why she is and will continue to be an amazing, living, guiding force.
Two days after Mom died, Brian and I had to play an outreach performance in Evanston. At the end, I asked if there were any requests. A man waved his hand, stood up and waved frantically. “Wyoming!” he said. “Play something from Wyoming.”
Immediately, Brian said, "That's a sign from your mom." We played "Why Oh Why Did I Ever Leave Wyoming" for the gentleman, who hailed from that great state that my mother so loved. A sign indeed. Mom, your requests from the audience will always go straight to the top of the list.
American Roots & Celtic Soul