My Danny Boy Moment
From the radio a choir sang:
Oh Danny boy, the pipes the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone and all the flowers are dying,
‘Tis you, ‘tis you must go and I must bide.
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow,
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy I love you so.
I suppose the song was to be expected, given that it was a Garrison Keillor program around St. Patrick’s Day. What was unexpected though was that by listening to it, alone in the kitchen on a gray Sunday afternoon, I should suddenly be brought to tears. “Brought to tears” is really too feeble a phrase. It was crying, frankly, a proper sobbing blubber by the end of it. If I had been driving I might have hurt someone.
I am particularly puzzled by my reaction because my susceptibility to Irish sentimentality is effectively nil. In some ways, this ought not to be the case. English surname aside, my American-Irish bona-fides are fairly strong. (In fact, my middle name is Patrick.) It was my lot, however, to spend four years at a Jesuit college in New England where the rolls read like a Dublin phone book, and then five years working at an Irish pub. Together, these experiences pretty much fully inoculated me against the charms of American Irish boosterism.
So why was I crying over Danny Boy? Well, it is a very pretty tune, this Londonderry Air. I always thought so and recall fondly the days in a small a capella singing group at the aforementioned college when my friend Mark Donohoe, with his dark Irish looks and divine tenor, would do his solo turn. The definitive Danny Boy we called it and whenever he sang it the audience would be as hushed as that valley white with snow.
But I am certain it was not a fit of collegiate nostalgia that provoked my Danny Boy cry. I think rather it might have been the “boy” part. And the going part. For I now have a young adult boy, who after the various goings of school and then work and then school again is now off on his own. This is a good and happy thing, of course. It is only to suggest that the last few years have been tinged with the theme of the boy going.
So perhaps, standing there alone in the kitchen, the change of the seasons palpably in the air, I was struck by the new emptiness. Not the physical emptiness of the house as much as the vacuum of purpose, the end of the parental play. The destination was so quickly reached and here I am, at the end of the arc, and time itself seems changed. Time used to have a direction, but life’s arrow has quietly morphed into a circle and in so doing seems, both graphically and figuratively, to have lost its point. So you march around the calendar to the dumb metronome of the seasons, sunshine shadow sunshine shadow, your goals oddly blurred, your role diminished, watching things as from afar. And of what are you certain at this stage? Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy I love you so.
So maybe, by the end of the first verse, I became a little misty over this. And at this point, it was just misty, honest. It was the second verse really where I lost it:
An come ye back, with all the flowers dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be.
Then ye shall find the place where I am lying
And kneel and pray an Ave there for me.
And I will hear though soft ye tread above me
And all my grave will warm and sweeter be
And you shall bend and tell me that you love me
And I will sleep in peace until you come to me.
That’s the killer, of course, the second verse, the one that switches perspectives, from the father waiting for his son to the son mourning his father. I’d listened to Donohoe sing this dozens of times and we all knew it was tenderly poignant, but we were young then and death was an abstraction. Now it was different, for I had indeed come back and found my father dead.
The circumstances were a little less poetic for the place where he was lying was a hospital bed and I was the first to find him there deceased. I uttered no Ave’s. I wanted to look heavenward and say “rest in peace” but could not even bring these words, so false did they feel to me. He was not resting; he was dead. True, he wasn’t suffering anymore but that was not because he was at peace. It was because he was no more. I had no one to appeal to, not God, not him, only my own recollection. And what sort of appeal can one make in the face of death except to wish it weren’t so just yet? And to whom should this be addressed?
So why was I crying at Danny Boy rather than cursing its preposterous delusions, a world where graves are warm and sweeter for their tenants whenever they hear their survivor’s praying for them, as though a grave were like a very small apartment with an intercom? Was I momentarily converted to the fantasy and yearning for a real grave for my own father, together with the occasional chat?
As it is, my father has no grave. When I handed his cremated remains to the Post Office clerk to mail to his old parish in Florida, I was pained to see her throw the box on the pile in the bin as though it were a pair of shoes. It saddens me yet to recall it, so poignantly ordinary. Shocked and saddened, I realized part of the shock comes from something like the Danny Boy conceit, the imagining that the dead person is looking on and calling out “Easy there now!” But the real sadness comes from the realization that what the clerk did didn’t matter.
Something is wrong about this, I felt, so perfunctory and bleak. But I felt it equally bleak to fly down to an unfamiliar church, where no friends or relatives remained, to go through the motions with some idiotic priest who didn’t know my father. All right, the priest might not have been idiotic, but he would have to do what he had to do and I’d have to go through the motions, maybe even muttering Hail Mary’s like the person in the song, but feeling none of the gooey sense of communication or communion. I would emerge more annoyed than consoled, isolated in institutional condolence. Screw it.
At one point I rationalized my absence because to do otherwise seemed like an insult to my father’s own keen rationality. And then I caught myself. There you go again, the Danny Boy thing, as though my father would be looking down and nodding approval. He wouldn’t be, of course, any more than he would be feeling warmer and sweeter in the Florida grass, grateful for the prayers and sleeping in peace until I should catch up with him later. No, he would be what he was in the bin at the Post Office: carbon.
So why then was I crying? Was it just the music? Was it because, when served up with a pretty melody on a bed of velvet harmony, this sweet graveside fantasy seemed suddenly potent, its veracity irrelevant? Perhaps. It is as though in the absence of any believed spirituality, the mysterious effect of music stands in as its last desperate argument, evidence for the rumor of angels. Major is happy, minor is sad. Explain that for me. Why does that suspension on words “summer’s” and “warmer” provoke that little tug. You can analyze the harmony but it explains nothing.
Well, it’s mysterious I admit, but harmony in the service of cognitive dissonance finally does not persuade. So what does it make of music that its chief power is to stir emotions so gratuitously? You don’t mind when happy music makes you happy and sad music makes you sad, but what are we to think when, simply because it can, music gets cheap on us and goes all the way to maudlin, seducing you to wish for unattainable things? Is that what music’s for then, the same thing as booze but with more respectability?
I don’t think though that the musical moment fully explained my jag. It helped, no doubt. But there is a way finally that Danny Boy is touching in a less mysterious and very believable sense. It is, after all, a live father singing to his live son. In effect: son, know that I’ll wait steadfastly for you while you’re away and wish you well. Know that I love you, and if I should die before you’re back, that’s ok, don’t worry, I’m secure in your love. That the father should offer this image of the son standing over his grave and whispering that he loves him cannot fail to touch. But it does so because they are both still alive, sharing the sentiment in the present. If you read the lyrics as directions for a late-arriving Danny, they strain credulity. But imagined as a shared expression between a living father and son, they make a beautiful bond.
So share while alive, that’s the main theme. My real sob came on the line where the father says “And you shall bend and tell me that you love me.” I had told my father I loved him, but what I realized once again hearing Danny Boy is that I could never do it again. The song wants you to believe otherwise, wants to make post-mortem best wishes sound simple and satisfying. But sharing sentiments by oneself doesn’t work. You know this of course but at times, as on a gray dull Sunday, it hits you all over again – this thing about loved ones, I mean – that they must go, and you are there, alone in the kitchen, stuck with the biding.