Earlier this year, I received a series of calls I hoped would never come. My younger brother, who had just turned 43, had been taken by ambulance to the hospital. To make matters worse, I was also under doctor’s care with an extreme case of Post-concussion syndrome after a freak accident playing with my dog. My brother was in bad shape, and I was prohibited from flying home to be with him. It hurt my brain to process my predicament, but I knew I was no good to anyone with a brain injury. My mind wasn’t clear, but the bandage had been ripped off my deeply rooted grief, and old, stifled emotion resurfaced for the brother I had already lost, long ago, to alcoholism. As the days progressed, the updates continued…
“He is in liver failure.”
“His organs are shutting down.”
“He is hallucinating.”
“He is terribly jaundiced.”
“They are putting him in a medically-induced coma.
“His situation is dire, you need to come home.”
Five days passed, and I finally flew back home to Indiana, post-concussed brain and all, but only after my doctor gave me a prescription with his nod to travel. By the time I arrived at my brother’s bedside, I first noticed how much he had aged in the year since I last saw him. He no longer looked like an alcoholic in his forties. He looked like a very sick and dying man, in his sixties.
After several long days of serving as my brother’s advocate and medical liaison to a highly trained team of doctors and surgeons in Indianapolis, finality came from one of them in just three swift sentences, “Your brother has been committing suicide for a very long time. If he didn’t want to die, he wouldn’t be in this position. There’s nothing more we can do.”
Grieving the sudden death of someone you already lost long ago isn’t easy because it means grieving again. After dealing with the business side of things at the hospital and with my family, numbness ensued. That welcomed absence of feeling suffocated my grief on my flight back to California, and I felt, if only for a spell, better. But, feeling better is not the point of grief. You have to reckon with grief through its stages or you will never be free from it. Grief is like a book that simply must have a beginning, a middle, and the part that reaches you to “The End.”
Days passed, and I still wanted nothing more than to remain in the place where I thought I had swallowed my grief whole. But, I knew I had to confront it head on; there was a lump at the bottom of my throat and a literal heartache in my chest that was so prevalent, I considered checking myself into the hospital. I knew I had to turn the key to my grief, unlock it, open the door, and let it out. I finally forced myself to do what I always did, back when I was child growing up in rural Indiana…a child in need of services…a ward of the court…an eventual fifteen-year-old foster kid.
I wrote to unlock those feelings rooted inside the core of my being. I wrote to find that creative outlet that once saved me from irreparable damage when I was a child. I wrote to move past the beginning and to search for the middle of my grief.
I wrote. I wrote. I wrote.
Until I broke.
From all that teeth gritting and soul baring composition came, amongst other things, a heart-wrenching story, composed with a tragically beautiful melody, sung and produced by a man whom I am now honored to call a friend. Our friendship is, at the very least, now bound to perpetuity by a singular song titled, “Little Rose.”
Fred “Doc” Gortner is the founder and lead singer/songwriter of a local, Southern California rock/blues band called “The Pits” (Find them on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @ReallyThePits). Doc and I have been loosely connected for years, and it was only a matter of time before our chance meeting when we’d become friends.
By day, Doc works in private equity. By night, he ditches his suit, dons one of his collectible guitars, bypasses the status-quo garage, and riffs from his backyard guest house with his band from his custom studio built with help from legendary studio designer, Charlie Bolois. “The Pits” aren’t your average run-of-the-mill “Dad Band,” nor is Doc your average dad. But, Doc is humble with his own description of himself along with his not-so-misfit-band-of-melody-makers, “We’re just a bunch of dads with day jobs who love writing, jamming and sharing our music.”
Recently, Doc and his band released a song on Spotify, and he asked me to check it out. I tuned in, and I was impressed. I told him I always wanted to “Try my hand at songwriting, particularly since I fancied myself as a bit of a poet,” and he simply replied, “Would love to see what you’ve written.”
My concussed brain and my heavy-laden heart was in the perfect place to try something new with the written word. And, I was writing.
I dug up an old poem I wrote years ago called, “Little Rose.” Somewhere in the bowels of my prose, I knew there was a path that would lead to the story I ultimately wanted to tell…one that wouldn’t underscore the finality of my brother’s death, only its inevitability. In my original handwriting, on a lined sheet of paper, I had written beneath its title, “A song.” So, I typed it up, poured new, open-wound grief into an old, closed-wound story, and sent the newer interpretation of my poem/song to Doc. And, while his feedback didn’t come swiftly, it came remarkably back in paragraphs that not only commended the lyrics, but with a thorough education in songwriting. (By then, I was beginning to figure out how Fred earned his moniker, “Doc.”)
Turns out, Doc couldn’t put the initial lyrics to “Little Rose” down, and he began composing the melody at first in his head, and then with his voice and his guitars. Over the next few weeks, after our workdays wrapped, Doc taught me everything he knew about songwriting, and I soaked up the education. I wrote some more and added additional stanzas at his prompting, although he educated me earlier about word choice, concise lines, and shorter song length. Somewhere along the way, Doc deviated, and asked me to add stanzas, and “Little Rose” grew bigger and bigger…like almost “American Pie” by Don McLean BIGGER. He asked me to dig deeper, and I did. After all, this wasn’t a short story or a novel that could take you on a journey across multiple pages. We had minutes to tell, through a song, the burning story that would rid myself of the lump in my throat and the pain in my chest that wouldn’t go away.
Through Doc, I learned how single words could impact the “sing-ability” of the song, and how certain words in poetry can be pure magic, but be tragic when they are sung. I learned how to scratch words Doc didn’t like, and to defend the ones I loved. I learned that certain poetic devices may not work in songwriting, and how rhyming can be imperfect and flexible, along with length of lines and stanza. But, ultimately I learned that songwriting is similar to writing poetry because the overall musicality is found within a strong voice. I learned how to accept his single word changes along the way, because another word of his choosing might sound better flowing from his mouth to his fingers strumming on his guitar. Towards the end, when we almost had the final lyrics in front of us, Doc and I were having long discussions about single words. Yes, single, solitary words can impact the direction and gravity of the whole song. I learned how to really listen to each and every word that came out of a singer’s mouth when I got each of his rough cuts by email. And, I was asked to critique the cuts as if I were an actual living and breathing songwriter in real life.
And while I call myself a creative, this particular creative process was especially cathartic for me, because I was struggling with grief. I was engrossed and learning under Doc’s tutelage, and once I finally got the words out, the healing process began for me. But, Doc absorbed them. He told me he couldn’t get through singing the song without breaking down. If music is meant to evoke feeling then I had, at least to that point, done a pretty good job with writing the lyrics. “Little Rose” could quite possibly be one of the saddest songs you’ve ever heard, and I’m truly sorry about that.
I simply cannot express enough thanks to Doc for taking me, and this song, under his wing. “Little Rose” went live across various music outlets this week. While all this technically makes me now a bonafide lyricist, I remain a frustrated songwriter that doesn’t know how to read music or play an instrument. But, I do have two brand new Taylor guitars arriving this week. What can I say, I’m now addicted to the process of songwriting, and I hear that learning an instrument is good for my brain as I age.
I still have so much to say on the subject of alcoholism, and its long-term and lasting impact on family and friends, but my brother didn’t die from alcoholism. He died from early childhood trauma at the hands of another alcoholic who likely also suffered through early childhood trauma, and that likely continued “on down the line” as they say in country music. But, I will talk about that more in another blog post. But, first you have to listen to our song because, like with all stories, you’ll need a beginning before the writer gets you to the middle, and then finally moves you on to “The End.”
Introducing, “Little Rose.”