I’m going to overshare here. My older sister and I were close. My dad died when I was eight. My mom worked a lot to make sure her four kids were provided for. I was the youngest and the one that still needed someone to watch them. My two oldest brothers were ﬁnishing high school and going away to college. They were setting up their own lives. The job of caretaker fell to my sister. She drove me everywhere in a 1955 Ford truck that ran like a tank. The truck only played tapes. My sister’s solution was to create mix tapes from her CDs to play in the car. She would pick me up from school with the sounds of her music rattling through this old truck. She’d let me hang out with her and her friends. I wasn’t massively interested in hanging out with high school girls, but it was better than being home alone. She had various high school jobs, so she had a source of money. She would often spend it on taking me for ice cream or to the newest movie. I know she sat through Batman Returns at least twice when I’m pretty sure she had zero interest in watching the movie even once.
In a sense, she was my second mother. So much so that when the time came, I went to college because I was afraid to disappoint my sister, not my mom. I came of age in the grunge era of the 90’s, but my sister was six years older. She came of age in the indie rock and post punk of the late 80’s. As any youth of the time, U2 managed to make an impression on my sister. I honestly can’t even fathom the number of times I heard The Joshua Tree as a kid riding around in her truck. I honestly like U2, but I can’t tell you if it’s because I genuinely like them or because I looked up to my sister, and she liked U2. Those two feelings have become so intertwined in my mind that I can’t separate them out.
Life progressed as it was supposed to. My sister went to college, got a job, and got married. I went to high school. I immersed myself in punk and grunge. I had a hand me down Joshua Tree tape from my sister, but it sat on the shelf. I honestly don’t think I listened to U2 for at least six years of my life. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. I was uninterested though. I was a young male with pent up energy. I listened to music with anger and edge. Eventually, I started college. I branched out into indie rock. Again, it wasn’t U2. I knew that Zooropa, Pop, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind had come out. I had heard them when I was with my sister, but I didn’t own them.
Again, life progressed, but this time, it didn’t go the way it was supposed to. She died. Two words don’t even do justice to how sudden it was. From the time she was diagnosed with cancer to the time she passed, it was less than a month. It was jarring. I was in my last semester of college. I couldn’t process what was happening. I almost quit school. I’m not even sure what propelled me forward. My brother in law (who had only been my brother in law for a few months) left town to be with his family. Their apartment sat empty for a month or so. I was sent to pick up some family mementos. I walked around this apartment ﬁlled with things looking for something that helped me reconnect with my sister. No matter how much I wanted to hold one of her belongs and feel something, I couldn’t. They were things, and she was gone.
I collected the things on the list that I was supposed to pick up. On my way out, I saw her CD collection. I stopped and looked through them. I grabbed all of her U2 CDs. I thought I would play them on the four hour drive back home, but I never did. I tried. I got as far as pulling the other CD out of my player and opening the U2 case, but I could already feel my chest tightening, my throat closing, and tears pushing at the back of my eyes. I didn’t try to listen to U2 again after that.
Two years later, U2 came out with the album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. I bought the CD almost out of a sense of obligation. I felt I owed it to her to listen to the album. It’s dumb I know, but after a loss, you look for any way to connect. I put the CD in the player in the car as soon as I got in and started driving. I made it midway through the third song, “Sometimes You Can’t Make it On Your Own,” before I lost it. I’m a big guy whose arms are covered in tattoos. I’m bearded and generally unkempt. I can only imagine what other motorist must have thought as I pulled my car to the side of the road and cried. The weird thing is that this is probably the most authentic I had been around other people with the way I was feeling. Hundreds of passing people saw my pain.
The album hit me in a way no U2 album ever had. It’s a good album, but it’s not Achtung Baby or Joshua Tree. It spoke to me though. The line, “Love makes nonsense of space and time,” still chokes me up today. In fact, no other U2 album moves me the way this one does. My sister never heard this album. I have no shared memories of listening to it with her. I have vivid memories of riding in her truck and listening to “With or Without You,” and “One” which are both emotional songs on their own, but paired with the memories, should turn me into a blubbering mass, but they don’t. It’s the songs she’s never heard. It’s the connection I was able to make with someone who was gone through music they’d never heard. Even though there was no real joint experience, I was able to construct one. It was the most meaningful joint experience ever made up out of one mind.
This is the thing about music. It, “makes nonsense of space and time.” My memories are written out in my mind like the soundtrack to a movie. My relationships to people are made through music. My love is written in song, my heartbreak is written in song, my friendships are written in song, and my loneliness is written in song. What matters to me though, is that I was able to feel something, through space, through time, through the divide of whatever comes after life, with my sister.
I was in one of my local record stores a few days before Mother’s Day this year. I was shocked to ﬁnd that How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb had been repressed on vinyl. I had to buy it. It sat in my pile of new records for a few days. Then on Mother’s Day, I made my way to the album. I hadn’t listened to that album in at least ten years. I am writing this on Mother’s Day of 2017. My sister died in 2002. I am 34. I have almost lived more of my life without my sister than I did with her. When I think of her, I think of how she was. In my memories, she is younger than me. She never met my wife. She never met my daughter. I was the closest thing she ever had to a child. She would have been a great mother.
I am ﬁlled with all of these random thoughts, that feel tied together in my head because of a U2 album. If you need a reason to listen to music, there is no other reason. The world is a sadder place for me, but I it’s nice to know through music, I can still feel connected to her.