How Singer/Songwriter Chris Garneau Helped Me Through My Mom’s Battle With Cancer
I vividly remember the best and worst night of my year. As Barack Obama cheered “Yes, We Can,” my mother was absent-mindedly thumbing what we all agreed was a lump on her chest. I took comfort in the fact that she said it hurt—cancer doesn’t hurt. She’ll be fine, I thought. But as we toasted champagne and hugged each other for Obama’s victory, with brows slightly furrowed, I prayed for my mother, my strong and stubborn mother. I didn’t go with her to the doctor—my father did. I probably slept until noon, which was a common occurrence since I’d just driven all my belongings and my cat 1,991 miles from New York City to Santa Fe in three days. I was jobless, tentatively moving to Los Angeles in a few months and had no idea what I was doing with my future. And it turned out that my 58-year-old mother, my best friend and deepest confidant, had breast cancer. My mother fought hard, not once feeling sorry for herself, using her weakened energy to write disheartening newsletters about what she was going through. After a double mastectomy, she came home and I cooked pumpkin ravioli and roasted chickens. I kept shutting down the voice in the back of my head, that tiny voice warning me that the cancer could come back. Even though my lovable, inscrutably honest mother was here now, it didn’t mean she would always be here. What right did I have to keep two parents who’d both survived cancer?
I tried to play it off like I always do in awkward situations, making jokes to keep up her spirit, lovingly calling her “Cancer Momma,” using all my strength to hold back tears every time I saw her, and refusing to admit that she could ever be in any real danger. I secluded myself to the guesthouse and did what I always do when I need to silence my brain; I put on music. That winter, the only record I cared to listen to was Chris Garneau’s achingly beautiful Music for Tourists. I like to think of it as a more morose, less Jesus-loving Sufjan Stevens combined with something gypsy-like and Dresden Dolls-esque. I played that record on repeat for three months straight. I listened to it drinking alone in the guesthouse and driving around windy dirt roads lined with squat salmon adobe houses. “Looking for an exit signs, looking for a lucky nights, and my darkened and boring rhymes, face it we’re living in war times.” It resonated with me—every New York anxiety, every self-conscious/self-absorbed meandering, even in what seemed to be the most rural hippie-art colony in America. Every lyric hit the bruise in my heart.
I listened to the record, and it kept me in this magical sphere, bringing me just to the point where my eyelids filled with tears, but then keeping them there just before the saline spilled and forced me to smile at the cheeky, conflicted lyrics and painfully gorgeous melodies. “Men doing men thing times, chewing candy and tobacco lines, drinking heart pruned pints, tossing nickels and dimes.” I listened to it in the waiting room at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, while my mother received radiation. It kept me incubated in the world Chris had created, which was just like my world but more eloquent, less pathetic, and prettier. Afterward, I went wig shopping with her, trying on the most ridiculous and then scouring the store and finding the only one that looked like her. Feeling glowingly proud about winning each trial.
She survived the cancer, the double mastectomy, the radiation, and the chemotherapy. She survived the hair loss, traveling back and forth to the Mayo Clinic, and being tired all the time. In the spring, I moved to Los Angeles, because as hard as I tried to stay by my mother’s side while she healed, she refused to let me put my life on pause any longer. I retired Music for Tourists in the move, as it only reminded me of the winter I spent crying and self-medicating.
But one day, Ben, the drummer I’d loved all four years of college, came to town on tour. When I went to Melrose to pick him up, he was standing with an adorable, diminutive boy who said, “Hi, I’m Chris.” My heart sped up. Chris. Chris Garneau. The boy I worshiped in college was playing in Chris Garneau’s band. The boy I made matzo ball soup for when he was sick, and for whom I pretended I’d always liked Modest Mouse, was drumming in Chris Garneau’s band. He was playing with the beautiful man-child who kept me sane all winter. And so I watched this gorgeous man I still harbor an ocean of feelings for accompany this man I’d silently worshiped for months play one of the most powerful sets in my life. I felt like it had all come full circle. Of course this was how it would end, my lover and my musician savior, who had kept me safe while the woman who’d made me exactly who I am fought that bastard cancer to the ground, were performing right in front of my eyes. And while I watched Chris manipulate something that resembled an accordion and Ben seduce the drums, I thought about my proud mother and how she came out of the dark side of her tunnel, glowing and free of cancer. I cried in front of 40 strangers, and I thought about how much I idolize her, my dear mother, and I couldn’t have been more in the present, taking every breath in, for once in my life.