I guess our love of music started young. From my earliest days, I can remember singing and performing with Kass. When we lived in upstate New York when we were growing up, our house had a huge wrap-around porch. I have vivid memories of Kass and me “performing” in front of no one in particular on that “stage”. We sang and we sang and we sang. Usually, we sang into our hairbrush while the music played from the living room speakers through the open windows. As our confidence increased, so did our desire to dance as we sang. Pretty soon, we were a full-fledged, rocking-out, sisterly duo! With no desire to ever actually sing on stage, and without the talent to back it up (at least speaking for myself…), we just sang for the pure joy of singing.Over the years, even as we grew older, we shared many moments of spontaneously breaking into song together. In one such moment from about 20 years ago, I recall Kass and I singing every song on the John Denver – The Rocky Mountain Collection album for hours as we painted our bedrooms in our family’s new house in Unityville, where my parents still live. It was listening to John Denver’s music during that time (I was 22, Kass was 20) that the lyrics actually started to resonate. Kass, my Mom and I saw John Denver several times over the years and each time, I could always see this glimmer of light in Kass’s eyes as she watched him sing. He was, and will always be, a special part of our childhood memories. It was Rocky Mountain High that was Kass’s favorite: “Now he walks in quiet solitude, the forest and the streams, seeking grace in every step he takes. His sight has turned inside himself to try and understand the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake.” And, “Now his life is full of wonder but his heart still knows some fear of a simple thing he cannot comprehend.”
Oh, how she loved John Denver! In the summer of 1998, only months after he was killed in an airplane crash, Kass and I flew to Denver and then drove to Aspen during a summer vacation. Part of the itinerary was a visit to the Windstar Foundation, which Denver founded in 1976. During our visit, Kass walked teary-eyed through each exhibit room and wrote a sweet tribute in the guest book. Looking back, I wish I would have taken a picture of the entry she made. But, even without the picture, I know that it meant a lot to her. A few months before she left us for Heaven, we were having one of our beautiful talks at her house. She was telling me about all of the people she wanted to see in Heaven. John Denver was high up on her list.
More recently, Kass had passed her love of singing onto Josie. Every day on their way to pre-school, Kass would sing songs with Josie in the car. Whenever Kass forgot to turn the music on, Josie would yell from the back seat, “Mommy, let’s sing Fake Hill (her name for Faith Hill).” And, they would sing with passion and conviction. At three years old, even Josie knew every word: “Hey, that’s the way we do it. New friends and blue skies that never end. Hey, that’s the way we like it. Good times, sunshine and summertime.” Sunshine and Summertime was a definite favorite. I have one of these special moments on video and cannot wait to show Josie someday.
When Josie was born, Kass actually made up the words to her own lullaby and each night she would sing to her. The first time I heard her sing it, I asked her about it. “I made it up one night as I was putting her to bed when she was a tiny baby,” she said. “I have been singing it to her every night since.” And each night she continued to sing, even on those nights when she was away for treatment, it was always the last part of each phone call. And always in the same sweet and tender voice, “Lullaby and good night, oh my sweet baby Josie…..” it began. Mom and I would just look at each other and our tears would begin as we listened to her softly sing into that phone each night from the road. Those were the hardest of nights. Just knowing. Knowing and watching Kass as she tried to hold on to that song and to that moment with Josie, wishing so much that she was not in this place, but accepting everything that came her way with incredible guts and inspiring courage.
I share these memories so that there is understanding as to why music has been so important in our lives. We still hear the music, and the sounds are so sweet. Several moments throughout Kass’s battle are directly tied to music and the songs and inspirational lyrics that helped all of us, but especially Kass, to pause and reflect. To someone facing what Kass faced, each word inspired, gave hope, and took on new meaning as she looked at her life through her new eyes: the eyes of gratitude and love. I have included a few of the songs that meant so much to Kass, and will always have a permanent place in our hearts. I have also included a few that she may have never heard, but that I discovered after she left us last July. For each song, I provide the story of its significance and some of our favorite lyrics.
Today Is Your Day – Shania Twain
There are so many reasons why this song was meaningful for Kass. She loved Shania Twain’s music, but it was the lyrics with this song that resonated with her. She said it was her inspiration to fight. One day, we were driving in my car to meet our parents and brothers for lunch. She had her iPod on and I noticed she was crying as I drove. I reached over to grab her hand and I asked her what was wrong. She said, “I just really love this song.”
Favorite Lyrics: “You’ve got what it takes you can win. Today is your day to begin. Don’t give up here, don’t you quit. The moment is now, this is it.”
My Mom and I introduced Kass to this song while she was in treatment at UPENN. When we saw the profile on Good Morning America, we just knew that we had to make a video using this song. Kass loved the video and especially loved the song. As you might have guessed, Kass was a country music fan and loved Martina McBride. This song was called upon many times throughout Kass’s fight. In many ways, it was homage from our whole family to Kass. Words to live by when unconditional love is involved….
Favorite Lyrics: “When you’re weak, I’ll be strong. When you let go, I’ll hold on. When you need to cry, I swear that I’ll be there to dry your eyes. When you feel lost and scared to death, like you can’t take one more step, just take my hand, together we can do it. I’m gonna love you through it.”
Chances – Five for Fighting
In September 2011, Kass had finished 7 weeks of chemotherapy and radiation and was ready to go home. She was so happy. We were so happy. On the last day of radiation at UPENN, there is a tradition for patients to ring a big bell in the waiting room to signify your last day. Kass rang that bell four times on that September day (for Josie), and the waiting room applauded and Mom and I were laughing, and crying, and hugging everyone. We went to lunch and then Kass said to me, “Let’s go. Let’s go to the Liberty Bell and then to the Art Museum and run those steps.” I looked at Mom and then back at Kass. “Okay, let’s do it!” And, off we went. I took lots of pictures that day and made a video to capture it all. For the overlay song I chose Chances by Five for Fighting. I think you will agree it was so fitting for what we were feeling. Looking back, I remember on this day feeling so much hope and so much love. One of my favorite days of my life, hands-down. Please check out the video link below.
Favorite Lyrics: “Chances are we´ll find two destinations. Chances roll away from me. Still chances are more than expectations….the possibilities. Over me. Eight to five, two to one, lay your money on the sun. Until you crash what have you done? Is there a better bet than love? What you are is what you breathe. You gotta cry before you sing. Chances. Chances.”
(Please watch the video here: An Awesome Day!!)
Where the Streets Have No Name – U2
That day in October 2011 I will never forget. It was a Monday. The 24th. Kass was starting her second chemotherapy drug at UPENN. I was not able to drive down with my Mom and Kass. A few days before, I had moved into my new house and boxes were everywhere and my calendar was filled with appointments. Anyway, Kass called me on the drive down. She told me she was listening to music and she said, “Did you ever really hear the lyrics to Where the Streets Have No Name by U2?” “I think so,” I replied. Then, there was only silence on the phone and I knew she was crying. In an excerpt from my journal of that day I wrote: I wasn’t sure what to say, but I told her that we all loved her so much. I told her that this drug was going to work and that she would battle through this round and that we would never leave her side. And then she said, “I know. I feel okay with everything. It’s just that song….the lyrics are just so powerful.” And then, “Will you listen to it for me?” “Of course I will,” was all that I could say.
Favorite Lyrics: “I wanna run, I want to hide. I wanna tear down the walls that hold me inside. I wanna reach out and touch the flame. Where the streets have no name. I wanna feel sunlight on my face. I see the dust cloud disappear without a trace. I want to take shelter from the poison rain. Where the streets have no name.”
A 40th birthday bash for Kass would not be missed last May! We gathered as a family, along with a few special friends, for a lovely evening (pouring rain notwithstanding) to welcome Kass to 40. As the crowd gathered in my living room, I felt the need to say a few words. From my journal entry from that day: Before we blew out the candles, I offered a few welcome remarks and introduced everyone. I then relayed the story of our recent trip back from NIH. “I was driving, Mom in the front seat and Kass in the back. A great song from the 80s came on the radio and I began to sing out loud. From the backseat I hear, “Oh good God, are you really going to sing?” A pause. Then me with a smile: “Why yes, I am”. A few seconds later, I heard Mom join in. And, then right after that from the back seat, I hear Kass singing, too. It was a special moment. We laughed and just continued to sing. Then, I said, “It is in that same vein, that I offer this song for Kass tonight, and invite each of you to stand up and dance. For Kass.” I then played the Bellamy Brothers, Let Your Love Flow. No one really knew what to do. So, I just started to dance. Right there in the living room. It was not long until everyone was dancing around Kass. The tears in Kass’s eyes told me that she not only understood this moment, but appreciated it very much. This is such a happy memory for me. There was such love in that room that night.
Favorite Lyrics: “There’s a reason for the sunshine skies. There’s a reason why I’m feeling so high. Must be the season when that love light shines all around us. So, let that feeling grab you deep inside and send you reeling where your love can’t hide. And then go stealing through the moonlit night with your lover….”
Best Days – Graham Colton
During our final trip together just a few weeks before we lost Kass, we sang a lot during that drive to Chicago. We talked about a lot of things, but we also sang. This song had been on my radar since 2008 when I first heard it while I was living in Pittsburgh. And, it was on my iPod that we were playing in my car during that trip. Kass loved it and together we sat in silence as we listened to the lyrics. It is a beautiful song for those who have never heard it; I encourage you to really listen to it. Again, I believe the lyrics meant something very deep and profound to Kass. At some level, though, I think I understood. I can hardly bring myself to listen to this song these days.
Favorite Lyrics: “With everything I’ve ever done, I’d give it all to everyone for one more day. Another night I’m waking through, another door I walk into. I can’t break. It’s a winding road. It’s a long way home. So don’t wait for someone to tell you it’s too late. Because these are the best days. There’s always something tomorrow, so I say let’s make the best of tonight….”
And, now I share two of my favorites songs that continue to mean so much to me. The first, I discovered during Kass’s journey, the second came into my life from my uncle. Like the moon and the stars, both will be forever linked to beautiful Kass.
You Can Close Your Eyes – James Taylor
I first heard this song during a tribute to the 10th anniversary of 9.11 in September 2011. James Taylor has been a family favorite forever. He sang this song so beautifully that day. I never had the guts to actually play it for Kass, but I remember listening to it during my drives back and forth between Alexandria, Philadelphia and here over that fall. I must have listened to it thousands of times. Every time I heard it (even now) I can hardly get through the first verse. I guess I include it here because there is something so very peaceful about the lyrics.
Favorite Lyrics: “Well the sun is surely sinking down. But, the moon is slowly rising. So this old world must still be spinning ’round. And, I still love you. So close your eyes. You can close your eyes, it’s all right. I don’t know no love songs. And I can’t sing the blues anymore. But I can sing this song. And you can sing this song when I’m gone.”
Love and Happiness – Emmylou Harris
On the night of Kass’s funeral mass, I received an unexpected email from my Uncle Bob. He had been with us earlier in the day and had been a part of our family’s pain and sadness. In fact, he and his entire family had been very supportive of Kass throughout her fight. Visits, support, cards, letters, pictures, hugs….there was no end to their commitment. But, it may have been this email and bringing this song into our lives that stands to have the greatest impact. I believe he intended it for me as an inspiration for my life moving forward, but I also saw it as a gift for Josie….a message from Kass in Heaven and a prayer for her baby girl’s life. So, shortly after hearing it for the first time, I introduced it to her. One day last July, I saw her singing along to it in my rearview mirror. It still tears me up whenever I hear it, but it also brings me such peace.
Favorite Lyrics: “You will always have a lucky star. That shines because of what you are. Even in the deepest dark, because your aim is true. And, if I could only have one wish, darling then I would be this: love and happiness for you.”
As you can imagine, every time I hear one of these songs I smile. Just like a photograph, these lyrics will be forever linked to these special moments with Kass. The moments that help us to remember, and help us to find peace, and help us to heal from the heartache. I have found over the past seven months that not even an hour can pass without some thought, some memory, or some moment with Kass washing over me. In the most unusual places and spaces, while everyone else is focused on the conversation, I am sometimes withdrawn quietly thinking about Kass: about how she would have loved this moment; or about what she would be saying or doing right now; or how I remember a story about her that relates to this moment. I never want this to go away. I want these thoughts and memories to keep flooding my heart always. Always. In some crazy way, it keeps me close to Kass. And, even though I know we will be connected forever, music will always be a special bond that we shared. Music and lyrics truly capture our universal truths about life, love, happiness, hope and sorrow. From the time we were little girls singing on that porch, music has been a fundamental part of our lives. And even now, I still hear the music and the sounds are so sweet.