Grief comes in waves, and these waves never go away permanently.
During the last few years of his life, my paternal grandpa brought our family to the beach twice every summer. He was too frail to come down to the sand, so he enjoyed the view from the picnic area. Going to the beach every summer before college, I came to understand that life works a lot like waves crashing onto the shore. Waves come and go, but they’re always interconnected to something greater than their individual blips.
Last year, my grandpa passed away the week before Father’s Day. I listened to the Carpenters on repeat because I grew up listening to them on LaserDisc and hearing Vietnamese covers of them at my grandparents’ house. Karen Carpenter’s sweet and clear voice unraveled me, plunging me into incredible sadness and also lifting me up, much like how I feel whenever I watch the waves at the beach.
The following winter, another wave came crashing toward my family. My grandma became increasingly despondent and forgetful. The wave of my grandfather’s death had undone her. After a mini-stroke, she developed an amalgamation of diabetic complications, blood poisoning and dementia. My father, who had been undergoing health problems of his own, spent his weekends and mornings visiting my grandmother in the hospital. It was, and still is, a very uncertain time.
When all of this unfolded, I discovered Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” and listened to it on repeat. The ritual of listening to that song was the closest to praying as I, the lackadaisical Millennial Buddhist, would ever do. Mitchell’s voice was always true to the lyric, never overdone with its elegant and emotive falsettos. The lyrics are about a breakup, but they felt so close to my grandma’s fight for mental clarity.
This was when I began to realize my then unexplainable attraction to ‘70s soft rock female vocalists.
As winter faded away, the tides calmed down and my grandma began stabilizing at a rehabilitation nursing home. But with the end of winter also came the final months of my senior year and an outlook of utter uncertainty.
A slow, huge wave swallowed my sanity whole as my last semester at school progressed. I’d spent my entire college career building a beautiful sandcastle, and suddenly everything had transformed into an amorphous brown lump of anxiety and loneliness. My best friend, who had been taking a break from Berkeley, left for Asia. I missed her every day. My stable relationship felt precarious as my boyfriend, who I had already been seeing long-distance for a few years, considered transferring to a school even farther away. On top of it all was the looming behemoth of graduation, work and pending job applications.
For months, I felt like I was drowning. Until I didn’t. Then, I wasn’t sad or anxious anymore — I felt inscrutably, irreversibly empty and went through the motions of life, barely staying afloat.
And then a blessing in disguise fell upon me.
I got sick, bedridden for three weeks with bronchitis and an ear infection.
I couldn’t do work, so I spent a lot of idle time listening to music or watching TV. While binge-watching “The Voice” in my frailty, I came across Carole King’s Tapestry and remembered my love for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Both albums comforted my illness in their familiarity. King’s earthy and warm tone in “So Far Away” and “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” made me feel incredibly sad but also OK about everything that was happening and everything that was to happen. Stevie Nicks reminded me to maintain hope in songs such as “Gold Dust Woman” and “Dreams.”
My transition into feeling OK again was very mundane. I edited my “Sad Girls” playlist on Spotify, which was then full of No Doubt and Beyonce ballads. There was a part of me that desperately needed to trade my love for glamorous power notes for something more quiet and fragile. So I remodeled my “Sad Girls” playlist into my “‘70s Sad Girls” playlist, which became my metaphorical lifeboat.
Karen Carpenter, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Stevie Nicks were strong women who overcame great adversity in their lives to create beautiful music. They were strong and they were vulnerable; they could overwhelm me with sadness but also remind me of joy. They swam against all odds.
I still cry every time I listen to “Songbird” by Fleetwood Mac and “Beautiful” by Carole King. Tenderly, these songs reminded me of the universality of sorrow, that to be human meant the inevitability of loss and change and that I was never alone in my feelings. And this knowledge necessitated kindness unto others and myself.
Listening to my “‘70s Sad Girls” playlist, I was finally sure of it: I can sail through the changing ocean tides.
Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected].