‘A BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER’
On my 2007 Album, 'Fall' you'll find my version of SImon & Garfunkel's classic hit, 'Bridge Over Troubled Water'. This song has a very powerful meaning for our family. I wanted to share this special story with you here...
I count my parents as my heroes, best friends and greatest inspiration, my Mother aspired to be an actress in the 50s. She was going to school and rehearsing shows at night. At one point she was involved in a production of Edward Albee’s ‘Death of Bessie Smith’ for a company that attempted to bring Off-Broadway Theatre to Philadelphia. My Father was a Sales Representative for MacMillan/McGraw-Hill and sold textbooks to Philadelphia Schools. My parents instilled in me the Grace, Courage and Conviction to believe in myself and my dreams. Everything I try to be is based on their example.
In 1967 my parents had been married little over two years. They had just had their first child, ‘Little Joe’, as they affectionately called him. He was a ‘very peaceful and beautiful child’ as my Mother would describe him. They were a happy, young couple sharing in the joy of parenthood, little did they know the ‘troubled waters’ that lay before them. There were troubling signs in my Brother’s development. As he grew he didn’t crawl as normal children do at his age and he had difficulty sitting up. The Pediatrician at the time told my Mom it was ‘all in her head, there was nothing wrong with him’, but my Mom has always had a strong sense about things and knew the Doctor had no idea what he was talking about. Becoming increasingly concerned my parents took my Brother to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
When my parents admitted my Brother it was very hard. They had always been there for him and they hated the thought of leaving him overnight. The next day was no easier. No one was present to receive my parents and they entered my Brother’s room to a very difficult sight seeing him lying in a crib his neck inflated and swollen as a result of the testing. When the Doctor arrived he apologized to my parents for having to see ‘Little Joe’ in that state. He pulled them aside. They had conducted an arterial angiogram. The Doctor said that ‘Little Joe’ was suffering from a very rare type of brain aneurysm extending the entire length of the vein of Galen in his Brain. This vein affects movement, speech and other important functions. The prognosis the Doctor said was fatal. He could not be operated on. Furthermore it was one of only 15 cases known in the world at the time.
It was a cold, rain soaked afternoon as my grief stricken parents left the hospital trying to comprehend this terrible new reality. As my Mother and Father clung desperately to each other in the hospital parking lot a figure emerged from behind them. It was a kindly, older black Woman who had noticed the young couple crying in the rain, "the tears were falling from my eyes like the rain pouring from the sky," as my Mother would describe. Like an angel, appearing almost out of nowhere she came out of her home across the street and put an arm around my Mother’s shoulder saying simply: ‘its going to be all right.’ They always remember that gentle kindness.
The days and years ahead were difficult but also filled with tremendous joy and love. When my Brother was three he suffered a massive stroke which left him paralyzed, unable to walk, talk or feed himself. He was completely reliant on the care of my parents. When Mom would get up in the morning she couldn’t wait to see ‘Little Joe’ and it made her day to see him. She would enter his bedroom excitedly, pick up his covers and pillows, throw them down the stairs, then pick up my Brother and set him comfortably on the couch in the Family room, then she would go outside and look at her impatiens. It was a happy, beautiful, simple ritual. She just loved being with him.
‘Little Joe’s’ case was very important in the Neurological community since it was so rare and many Doctor’s were interested in studying it. At the time, the Head of Neurology at CHOP who was working ‘Little Joe’s’ case had crudely advised my Mother:
“Little Joey has no future, there is no sense in making a hero out of yourself”
Upon hearing those words Mom said it was ‘like a knife going through your heart, his life had extraordinary meaning.’ She told the Doctor she would do no such thing and took him off the case. She could think of no worse fate than for my Brother to be left alone, uncared for, tucked away in some home. His replacement was a young resident neurologist who could not have been more kind, compassionate and supportive. Care for my brother was difficult at times. When Mom would feed him he would projectile vomit everything up. Lovingly and patiently she would repeat the process. She would make sure he was comfortable, talking to him and just being being with him. One summer there was a heat wave that lasted two weeks. They spent the entire time in the only air conditioned bedroom in the house. While ‘Little Joe‘ couldn’t talk Mom and Dad knew how much he loved them. Mom says, “he would make little noises and sighs, you could just feel his expressions of Love. He was so peaceful.” Sometimes he would just snuggle with his head next to hers, or he would wrap his tiny hand around her finger. It was such a powerful, expression of life and love. My Brother would suffer seizures, they were most especially difficult at night. It would begin with a cry, then his back would arch, his limbs would contort and Dad would pick him up and put some cold water on him and just comfort him. Mom says of my Father, “he was so tender, caring and patient. The greatest strength I ever saw in any man. He would just talk to him, comfort him and hold him. You never knew if he was going to die in one of those seizures.”
'A HEAVENLY LIGHT'
My parents were devoted. They loved my Brother deeply and it brought them closer. Often times the trauma of such an illness with a child can break marriages apart. For my parents, ‘Little Joe’ had brought them ever closer. They took care of my Brother for 7 years. The moon came through ‘Little Joe’s’ bedroom window one evening in May of 1973. At this time Mom was pregnant with me. She was due at the end of the month. As my Mother carried my Brother up the stairs and tucked him into bed as she had done a thousand times before, she stopped to look at him before turning in. They call it the ‘death rattle’, a rasping of the throat, labored breathing which my Brother had been having over the past few days. But that night a heavenly peace fell upon him. ‘The moonlight shone through that window right on him, "he looked so peaceful," Mom would recall. About 10:20am the next morning my parents were sitting next to ‘Little Joe’ as the life started to slowly leave my Brother’s body when Dad uttered the words, “he’s gone, Eileen, he’s gone.” As Mom would recall: “I had to walk out of the room. I went upstairs, sat on the couch and never came down again because I couldn’t bear to see his gray, lifeless body, he just was not there. The loss was just too painful.” They called the undertaker and my Grandparents. Mom and Dad overwhelmed with grief sat together in the living room.
I cannot imagine what my parents were going through in those moments. Here they are dealing with the death of their only son while preparing for the birth of another child. My Grandfather refused to let the undertakers touch ‘Little Joe’, “We carried him his whole life, we will carry him out,” and with that Grandfather gently lifted him up off the couch, carried my brother dressed in his light blue pajamas out of our home into the awaiting hearse. Mass was said at the house by my Uncle Ed. My Mother, pregnant with me, sitting in a chair by the fireplace, Dad by her side and a little coffin in the corner. My Brother died May 18 and the funeral was May 23rd. Mom was due May 28. During Communion the song that was played was ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. As my grieving parents struggled with this terrible loss a refrain penetrated the darkness:
“All Your Dreams Are on Their Way”
When Mom heard that line she felt ‘all his dreams were on their way’, Little Joe was finally free and his dreams were all going to be realized.
At the gravesite the undertaker couldn’t rush my Mother out of the cemetary fast enough as he worried the stress would cause her to go into Labor. The profound desolation of death converging with the forces of life met at the cemetery called Calvary. The words of the song almost hung in the air:
"When you’re weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes I will dry them all
I’m on your side oh when darkness comes..."
In three weeks my Mom would give birth to her second and last child. It was almost as though my Brother and I were ships crossing in the night. My Brother’s life had such a profound impact on our family. In a way, ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ is a song about the ‘bridge’ between death into life, despair into hope, fear into faith. It is a song that has so much power and meaning for so many people and for our family it came to symbolize the unyielding power of unconditional Love.
In 2005 Mom and Dad celebrated their 40th Wedding Anniversary. My parents are the most loving, beautiful people I have ever known. It is for them and my Brother’s memory that I recorded a version of ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’ for their Anniversary. For me they are my ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’.
It is through Loving and caring for others we truly see the face of God.