Last week, in celebration of James Taylor’s audio memoir Break Shot, I mentioned how excited I was about the release of his memoir and how much his music has meant to me over the years. This week, I thought I would delve deeper into my personal connection with his music and show all of my readers why exactly he is such an important artist to me.
I was amazed to learn that James Taylor was admitted to the famous McLean Psychiatrist Hospital on the east coast and I was admitted to the famous Menninger Psychiatrist Clinic in Topeka, Kansas about the same time. I was also surprised that he was younger than me and I was not much older than he.
Chapter 17, “Come Be With Us”, from Where the Water Meets the Sand tells the story of my introduction to James Taylor and the kindness of my fellow patients when the staff had told them that my husband had been killed in Vietnam. Here is the chapter in its entirety:
Later that evening, a loud knock on my door startled me. When I opened it, I was stunned to see all five feet eleven inches of Emily, the patient I’d met in the lounge the day I arrived, towering over me. Emily lived in a spaceship and traveled to faraway places. On two previous occasions, she had invited me to travel with her. I had been flattered that she trusted me enough to ask me along but had felt fearful about playing make-believe with her. For Emily, her outer space world was real. In space, she was protected from the fears, hurts, and abandonments the rest of us experienced on Earth. I feared that if I traveled with her, I might find her fantasy world too enticing and be unable to find my way back to reality.
I’m five feet five inches tall. It was typical for Emily to stare, trancelike, way above my head. But tonight, her blue eyes met my own. Missing was the clump of yarn tangled between two knitting needles she usually carried around. Instead, her long arms hung limply at her sides, her only movement the compulsive pressing of her fingers to the thumb on each hand.
“Tyra, I am sorry to hear about your husband’s death.” A tortuous silence passed. Emily rocked back and forth in her Scandinavian clogs. Her lucidity caught me by surprise. Fearing I might say the wrong thing, I kept quiet.
“I said, I’m sorry about the death of your husband in Vietnam today.” She repeated herself, as if I hadn’t heard her. Tears filled my eyes. Emily’s pain and fear of reality were real, and I knew it. Yet she had come back from her spaceship to comfort me. Compassion engulfed me, but I had no words for Emily. Sobs erupted from my throat.
Still staring into my eyes, she said, “You know I have to go. Come with me. You can come with me.”
I was so tempted to leave my pain behind and travel with her that it forced hateful words out of my mouth: “Your spaceship’s not real!”
Hurt and anger clouded Emily’s face. Her eyes shifted to their usual place above my head. “I have to go,” she mumbled. She turned her huge frame around, then shuffled robotically down the hall.
Emily’s compassion for me had been stronger than her fear of reality. The courage it took for her to come to my room and look into my eyes was hard for me to fathom. It was enormous; I was sure of that. If you step on a crack, you break your mother’s back. The old childhood chant echoed through my throbbing head. Had I broken Emily’s spirit? How could I have been so cruel? She had come to comfort me, and I had scared her back into outer space. Shit. I was just plain shit.
Soon there was another knock on the door. It cracked open a few inches. “Tyra, I’m coming in, okay? Tyra, I’m coming in. It’s Penny.”
She stepped into my room and without waiting for permission, Penny continued, “I’ve got a brand new record. Everyone’s down in the patient lounge. Everyone’s there. We want you to come down. Tyra, come be with us. Be with people. Everyone wants you to come. Don’t be alone in your room. See my new record? Look, it’s this new guy, James Taylor. It’s called Sweet Baby James.”
“Just give me a few minutes,” I replied, intent on acting right this time. “You go on back and tell them I’m coming. I need to wash my face.”
As Penny left, she touched my shoulder. “I’m so sorry,” she said.
When I got to the patient’s lounge, every seat was occupied except for the large lumpy armchair upholstered in rust and chocolate brown tweed, which sat empty against the wall across from the three-seat sofa. As I stepped into the lounge, Penny met me at the door. She took my hand and led me to my seat of honor.
“See, we’re all here,” she gently coaxed.
I had hardly sat down when George thrust a Styrofoam cup of coffee into my hand. “I’m not sure it’s mixed right. I wasn’t sure how much coffee, how much water. It has sugar and that white powdered cream stuff. Water’s not too hot . . . hope it’s okay.”
“George, it’s fine. Really, it is,” I assured him, scooting deeper into the soft cushioned seat. I loved these people. They were family now. I leaned my shoulders against the chair back and gazed over the crowd. George sat to my left. The weller-than-well group— Forbes, Deborah, and Lainey—turned their sorrowful eyes toward me like three wise guardians of some semblance of sanity. I wondered whether I’d fit in the weller-than-well group now that Larry was dead. I didn’t want to lose all the progress I had made in the nearly five months I’d been at Menninger, and I vowed to do my best to stay in a good place emotionally.
We would not play the piano and sing “The Old Lamplighter” tonight, like we usually did.
The minister’s wife knitted in the rocking chair on the far side of the room next to the kitchenette. Cassandra sat across the room in her usual cross-legged pose on the floor in front of the love seat, rocking her body back and forth and muttering, “Jesus in my mind’s eye, Jesus in my mind’s eye.” Skylar sat near Cassandra. Her blond hair was combed, and bright red lipstick outlined the place she thought her mouth belonged. Her painted cherry red lips plunged downward into a frown, a testament to her ability to comprehend the sadness of the occasion.
I caught a glimpse of my nine-year-old self in the far corner of the room, bare feet dangling off the piano bench. She was my secret confidant, wise and sure of herself. Her petite frame, adorned with blond pigtails, sat erect and invisible to everyone but me. I called her “T,” short for T-Texas Tyra—the nickname my Uncle Leonard had given me when I was little.
Our blue eyes met across the room. We’ve been in a group like this before, T said. Remember when Daddy died and the minister came with all those church people?
There’s no minister tonight, but we’ve got a minister’s wife, I acknowledged silently to my younger self.
T agreed. I like her better. She doesn’t act like she’s the boss of everybody. Why did he act like he was the boss when Daddy died? Daddy was dead! No one was in charge!
I heard her loud and clear in my mind and responded in kind. Larry is dead. No one’s in charge.
Yep, this time we know what’s coming, she said.
I offered my consensus: Larry is dead. No one here pretends to know anything. No one’s in charge. We’re just here. Together. Nothing to be done. Sorry. We’re so sorry. Nothing but sorry. Sad. Just sad. That’s okay. No need to say anything. I trusted the intentions of this group of mourners more than I had trusted those bearing sympathy when my daddy died in 1956.
Arms crossed in front of her chest, blue-eyed T confronted me. You know Larry’s dead like Daddy was dead.
Larry is dead like Daddy is dead, I confirmed.
Both dead, we chimed in unison.
Daddy finally got sick enough to die.
Larry’s plane finally crashed.
“You’re supposed to have food.” Skylar interrupted my silent conversation with my younger self. Clad in short shorts as short as the staff would allow and her skin-tight, white patent go-go boots, she narrowly avoided a mishap as she threw her long legs over Cassandra’s head, then bounded over to the small refrigerator underneath the kitchenette counter.
“There’s no good food,” Skylar announced. Penny moved to the refrigerator to help soothe Skylar’s preoccupation with offering edibles as tranquilizers. She convinced Skylar that moldy blueberry yogurt was not the thing to serve on this occasion. She said the group could invite me to join them in the dining room to have a meal in memory of my dead husband tomorrow.
Trudi walked in. “What, a party? Where should I sit? Whose party? Where’s my seat? A birthday? Who invited me?’’
Penny moved to Trudi’s side. I heard her whisper, “Tyra’s husband was killed.”
“He’s dead? Tyra’s husband is dead? In the war? A party for Tyra’s dead husband?” Trudi’s shrill words pierced the room.
Penny told Trudi she was welcome to stay, but she’d have to lower her voice. Trudi shuffled over to me. “Egg salad.” She demanded. “Where’s my sandwich?”
Tonight, the night of Larry’s death, the night a party was being held without her, Trudi wanted her egg salad sandwich as usual. A part of me wanted to give it to her. It was our nightly ritual before bedtime, a routine comfort.
But Penny insisted there would be no egg salad tonight.
“It’s a hell of a country club,” Trudi griped. “A hell of a hospital. No invitation for Trudi.” She shuffled back out of the lounge.
Penny placed James Taylor’s new album on the record player and eased into the chair next to me. Everyone quieted as Taylor’s soothing voice wafted over the group. Cassandra’s mantra softened until it was barely audible as she chanted, “Jesus in my mind’s eye,” to the beat of the music. A hypnotic fog settled over the group.
On the other side of the room, T’s bare feet swung back and forth in time with the music. This is better than before, we both thought as our eyes met. It was as if this family knew how we felt and what we needed.
I loved it when Skylar tried to get us some food. She knows what you’re supposed to do when someone dies I chuckled to myself.
Remember when Daddy died and all those church people kept bringing all that food? T continued my train of thought.
And then Pa Decker died. And Uncle Frank died. And then PaPa died. I finished the memory.
The church people and relatives always brought food! Flowers and food! Why did they always bring the best food when someone died? Why do you think they saved the best food for then? T asked.
Why never the best roses until someone died? I threw back.
Our assessment of then and now was the same. The other patients’ confusion and anxiety at this special gathering matched the commotion and chaos I’d felt when Daddy died.
Did you hear Trudi? T continued.
She felt so bad because she thought everyone but her got invited to the party for Larry. I felt sorry for her. Did you? I asked. She knows the truth. No one remembers her ‘cause they don’t like her.
Let me talk, T admonished. I don’t like her some days, either. But I loved her tonight when she yelled out ‘cause she thought she wasn’t invited! Did you see their faces? They got caught. She caught them having a party without her. Caught ‘em red-handed!
Seated in my appointed chair just as my mother had been to welcome those bearing sympathy when Daddy died, I smiled at T as she slipped off the piano bench and tiptoed barefoot across the room, unseen by the others. She approached the brown and rust chair, and I opened my arms and lifted her to my lap. I assured her I could and would bring home the bacon. I lacked one more year of college, then I’d become a teacher. She was not to worry; she could count on me to act like a grown-up and get well.
As she laid her pigtailed head against my bosom, we crossed over some sort of divide. We weren’t running from or drowning in the pain. We were mourning Daddy and Larry, and all the losses we had endured over the years. The chaos in the room soothed us. It matched the chaos we felt.
James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” began to play. When James Taylor sang, “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground,” George jumped to his feet. “Stop!” he screamed. “This is not good music! Get it off!”
Penny raced to the record player and removed the record as Skylar anxiously shook the leg she had draped over the arm of the couch. “Bad. It’s bad,” she declared.
My eyes met T’s as she looked up from my lap. She reminded me of Laura. T smiled at me. Daddy is dead. Larry is dead.
© 2016 Tyra Manning
Even after 50 years, “Fire and Rain” remains one of my favorite songs of all-time, and James Taylor one of my favorite songwriters and vocalists.
What songs or artists hold deep symbolic meaning in your life? How have they shaped your most important moments?