The Head and the Heart, a night to let music hold onto us

  • Published in MyView

By Colleen Ovelman

Sometimes words cannot say, hugs cannot comfort and the passage of time cannot ease. Not in the way that music can.

March 5 was my son Eli’s 17th birthday. We were seeing one of his favorite bands, The Head and the Heart, up close and personal, at the Flynn. It was a spring day last year, when Eli came home from school and played “Rivers and Roads” for me for the first time. The haunting harmonies, the almost symphonic ride of the song – indeed it felt like we had gone somewhere by the end. Then we listened again.

We should have been dancing and singing along from the orchestra section with Eli, on his birthday, but instead we listened for the memory of his voice on the tail end of lyrics. ... I miss your face like hell. We listened for his still squeaky voice that could magically sing notes I was nowhere near hitting. We listened for the subtle slide of his fingers up guitar strings, landing on a new chord.

Music can be many things. On this night for us, it was celebration and mourning.

One night in October, I stood in the bathroom and lathered Eli's face. I drew a razor carefully over his sharp jaw line. His electric razor had broken, he was headed to a concert with his friends and he was afraid to use a conventional razor. This was the closest and most tenderly I had touched my teenage son in so long. And it would be the last. He and four of his friends listened together to one final night of music before their fatal highway accident.

It seems not coincidental that Eli brought us the music of The Head and the Heart. It’s poignant and poetic and tender, just when we need it to be. Time keeps moving, a little too fast, if we don't slow down soon, we might not last, just for a moment let's be still.

Every day arrives and demands us to claw our way through. Again. The exhaustion of grief migrates into every cell of our bodies. As a mother, maybe my cells are the most permeable. Still the passing of time in no way means the grief is ebbing, that the marathon might end at some point. It's been five months. Eli's friends go on. They start looking at colleges, they go on ski trips, their beards grow out, they turn 17. But Eli, he is frozen. Forever 16.

One of my favorite poems about grief is by Lydia Davis:

Head, heart

Heart weeps.
Head tries to help heart.
Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go, someday.
Heart feels better, then.
But the words of head do not remain long in the ears of heart.
Heart is so new to this.
I want them back, says heart.
Head is all heart has.
Help, head. Help heart.

I don't know if this poem is where The Head and the Heart derived their name, but I can't imagine a better description of the kind of emotional/intellectual pull and release that The Head and the Heart beautifully embody in their music.

On Sunday night, March 5, at the Flynn, my three other children and I had a chance to feel both Eli's absence and his presence. We sang and cried and danced in a way that only music could give us the space to do.

Somewhere close to the end of the night, my daughter sighed and wrapped her arm around me, as the band played her favorite, “Winter Song”:

Tell me somethin', give me hope for the night
We don't know how we feel
We're just prayin' that we're doin' this right
Though that's not the way it seems

Summer gone, now winter's on its way
I will miss the days we had
The days we had
I will miss the days we had
The days we had
Oh, I'll miss the days we had

Loving, leaving, it's too late for this now
Such esteem for each has gone
Has time driven our season away?
'Cause that's the way it seems

In the world of the speech that is new
I'll be back again to stay
Again to stay
I'll be back again to stay
Again to stay
I'll be back again to stay

There is a promise there. And we grabbed onto it. And we grabbed onto each other.

Ovelman, Waterbury, is the mother of Eli Brookens, who passed away on October 8, 2016, along with his classmates, Janie Chase, Liam Hale, Mary Harris and Cyrus Zschau.