John Prine died from corona.
I awoke to this message, a single line streaked across a gray bubble on the home screen of my cell phone. Caleb, my oldest son, had texted me the news a little after ten the night before. He was probably in his bedroom down the hall from me, or next door streaming Netflix with his girlfriend, a laptop lying crooked on a stack of down pillows. I had already fallen asleep, but even if I were awake I likely would have received an electronic condolence. That’s just how things are now. Probably always were. Even in my nostalgic rendering of the past — one in which I remember our words as spoken, and the sentimental images we receive not as memes but as the sorrowful, joyful lines we read upon one another’s faces — I never would have wanted to confront my own father and his emotions. There would’ve been no hug, not in a million years, and my father wouldn’t have known what to do with one had I offered it. Better to send a card. Or say nothing at all. So it’s the thought that counts, and somewhere along the line I must have shared with Caleb my feelings about the folk singer. I had listened to Prine’s music during college and treated the songwriter like a curious relic. I then rediscovered him in my middle age, following the release of what would be his last album, The Tree of Forgiveness, two years earlier. Prine was contemplating the end of his life on those recordings, and I was just realizing that I probably had more behind me than ahead. I guess Caleb got notification of Prine’s passing from Apple News, or some Instagram feed, and he suspected that his old man might be hurting. So he texted me: distant empathy, though empathy nonetheless. He’s a good kid that way, Caleb is, even if we have grown apart in our mutual attachments, and our opinions now only occasionally align.
At first I didn’t want to believe the news, though I knew it to be true. I had read a few weeks earlier that Prine, a cancer survivor at least a couple times over, had been fighting off Covid-19 in some faraway ICU, attached to a ventilator. I let the cell phone sit on the desk in front of me, refusing to touch it, as if unlocking the text message with my passcode might unleash its actuality. Perhaps leaving the phone alone might preserve the truth I preferred. I didn’t even want to read the New York Times, for fear I might come across an obituary that would verify his death. So I sat in a chair, alone in my office, rubbing my Adam’s apple and checking at the dry searing in my throat. It was the same sensation I had as a little kid on that afternoon I learned Thurman Munson died: my mouth as dry as the flat rectangle of pink chewing gum sitting at the bottom of the baseball card pack, my teeth cracking through its cardboard blandness; and my throat, a crinkled parchment so desiccated its ignition could set off a forest fire. Four decades on, I suppose I was relieved to learn I’m still capable of having intimacy with a myth, of having heroes and losing them, of loving someone I’ve never met — of worshiping a Midwest poet with a guitar pick, or a pudgy disheveled catcher squatting in his shin guards.
Hillary told me last night that she is finally ready to make a schedule for the boys, my friend Jono texted me that same morning. His two school-age children had been sitting inside for weeks, incapable of navigating a digital classroom on their own. It was as if the two young boys were sheltering inside on a permanent snow day, albeit one with no chance of meeting up with friends on a frozen golf course and sledding down to the hot chocolate waiting for them at the bottom of a hill. Kubler-Ross final stage . . . acceptance.
I feel like I started with acceptance and now I’m heading into denial, I wrote back — which, I thought as I read the message back to myself, is something John Prine would’ve sung.
Grief can be thrilling, weirdly euphoric, as long as it’s second hand. With sufficient distance, grief crystallizes as a morbid and exhilarating urge to share, immediately, the news of someone’s demise. And so I texted Jesse: It had been an August day thirty years ago, filled with beer drinking and water skiing and swimming naked at night in Lake Waccabuc. After listening to Jesse strum his own guitar, a friend of Jesse’s father introduced us to John Prine, or at least suggested that we start listening to him. Bruised Orange was the album he told us we needed to get, but Jesse eventually picked up the self-titled debut album, the one with “Angel From Montgomery”, and we listened to that a bunch of times after we got back to Ithaca a few weeks later. (Back then, listening to music almost two decades old was like archaeology, our ears sifting through ruinous rocks to find some old civilization’s craft, perhaps a hand-made awl, or the curvilinear fragment of an amphora’s handle. Today my skin bears the wrinkles of the sun that stung my face that summer, and when I listen to 18-year-old music it feels contemporary, like I’m only a few minutes late to a party whose time is measured with an hourglass.) First, however, we would have to wait for the weekend to end, to get back to the Tower Records on the Upper West Side, before we could get our first fix of John Prine. But while we were still up at Lake Waccabuc, we swam in moonlit waters and listened to Donald Fagen on a Panasonic tape deck: Anybody on the street has murder in his eyes . . . You f-ee-ee-l no pain, and you’re younger than you re-a-lize . . .
That’s how the dominoes which form my memory knock one another over: I think of John Prine; and my bare feet are sinking into the lawn of a summer home in South Salem; and above the water there is a tall cliff we were crazy to jump off, but we swam to shore safely after and so we did it again; and a bald man with a ponytail and a beard excitedly recalls his own memories of playing a Hammond B3 and listening to John Prine; and then my body is wet and tired (despite the weights I was lifting that summer) and I feel emotionally unified with Steely Dan’s cryptic lyrics, though I don’t know why; and then my mind drifts to the more temporal sounds of that summer (“Can I Kick It?”, “But Anyway”, “Bouncing Around the Room”), which made me feel like I was in the center of something important; and months later I am in a room above Lake Cayuga, the wooden floors smell of stale beer, and I hear Bonnie Raitt’s cover of “Angel From Montgomery” and it feels familiar and I feel sophisticated; and I remember the man who rented that summer home, who welcomed me as his guest, tall and commanding in his silent observations and the same age then as I am now, and the shiva call I would pay less than twenty years later, to greet his mourning widow and children; and my friend, his son, whom I hardly even know anymore, though the memories of Lyle Lovett playing from his old cassette player on the fake leather seat of a 1976 Pontiac Le Mans and the cheap beer purchased at a D’Agostino’s with my real I.D. and the sublime joys of cliff-jumping and John Prine all preserve him as if a present companion.
The next person I texted after learning the news was my friend Dan. We were at The Beacon sixteen months earlier, watching Prine play his last show there. Months before, I had been feeling lonely in my present, so I looked for company in the past and bought two tickets for me and Jesse to see him play. When a chanteuse Jesse had met in Paris unexpectedly texted him that she’d be visiting Manhattan, I found myself with an extra ticket a few days before the show. So I asked Dan to join me. He loves Townes Van Zandt, and I figured he’d like Prine, too. Despite the size of the venue, the performance was intimate: Prine’s voice cracked, and we couldn’t tell which of his craft’s vulnerabilities — emotion, or technique — was the culprit. He sounded like he was holding back his own tears when he sang the prettiest lyrics, or talked his way through a narrative that described the heaven he imagined to be waiting for him. As if rising above his deathbed in a heavenly ascension, he ended the show with some sort of rain dance around his guitar, laid upon the floor like a mystical interment, his band playing “Lake Marie” (Whoa, why-oh, why-oh . . .). And as big as the crowd was, and as far away as Dan and I were up in the balcony, we nevertheless left the theater agreeing that we’d just had a private moment with an old man saying good-bye and thank-you.
Confined to my home, I haven’t seen much of Dan lately. Quarantine or no, that night at The Beacon may stand as a final good-bye to him, too: I struggle maintaining ties with anyone who’s not a husband of my wife’s friend, and he is separated from Jodi now. In a cruel pandemic twist, they were locked down in the same house for months, even as they tried to move on. I could imagine Prine concocting such a tale: of old lovers taking turns eating alone at the same dinner table, looking to move on but the front door is locked from the outside, and it makes no difference — a tree has fallen at the end of the driveway, the victim of a heavy April rain, and the Suburban is stuck beneath a rusty basketball hoop.
I’m glad we got the chance to see him play, I texted Dan, with a hint of finality. He was still at the top of his game. Stay well.
It’s deeply meaningful to me that I saw him with you, he texted back.
This sounded to me like a good-bye. Subsequent events fortified my hunch. Within months Dan would move into a Manhattan apartment with a woman he knew from college, thirty years earlier. They reconnected when they crossed paths on campus, each of them now a parent with a child enrolled at their alma mater. Feeling lonely in their present, I suppose, they found company in their past. For the time being, a pandemic provides them protective cover from the rest of the world: they are shielded, oddly enough, by global torment, but they’ll have to leave the apartment soon enough.
When I walked down to the kitchen to get my coffee that morning — the morning I awoke to Caleb’s text, and John Prine’s absence — Kirsten was on the phone with her mother. She was in a tight spot, my mother-in-law: widowed and over eighty, in the middle of an eight-week isolation in an apartment that overlooked a park she could not enter, unable to see her children or grandchildren. It was an unpleasant isolation, but she handled it gracefully. As a child Renee had been a refugee, in flight from Vienna, her toddler years spent under cover or on the run, learning one language after another, hiding with her parents in some apartment in Brussels or Lisbon. As an elder she had struggled through the slow decline, and loss of life’s grasp, that comes when a spouse has dementia; it seemed to leave her with memories just as it depleted Stan of his own. I believe that surviving these experiences equipped her for a tough fight, though, and girded her for an uncomfortable quarantine. Indeed, she’d been through worse.
My wife spoke to Renee every morning, sometimes while it was still dark outside, devoting that first part of every day to her mother’s voice, and its need to be heard. But when I came downstairs on this particular morning, saddled in my own grief, I rattled deliberately through the cabinet, ostensibly looking for a mug in which to pour my coffee. When the ceramic clanking didn’t catch Kirsten’s attention, I paced back and forth in front of her, hoping she’d somehow detect my invisible tears, or at least acknowledge my existence. But she kept the phone pressed to her right ear, talking and leaning forward while her left hand scratched the belly of our Aussie-doodle, seemingly unaware of my pacing. She continued looking off into the distance, squinting at a spider she imagined to be crawling on the kitchen wall, but only peripherally aware of me. Finally, I stood over her and engaged her eyes directly — at which point she told her mother she’d call her back.
“John Prine died,” I said.
My wife relaxed the tension in her forehead. She appeared somewhat relieved. At least it’s someone I don’t know, her eyes seemed to say, though I saw the gears turning in her head, figuring out how to validate my feelings without mustering a phony empathy.
“Honey,” she admitted to me, softly, “I thought he’d already died.”
I stood silently, looking Kirsten up and down, trying to think of something to say. So that’s how it’s going to be, I thought. I’ll have to go at this alone. Time and a pandemic had whittled the intimate attachments around me. I had no one with whom to share, absolutely, my sense of loss. And so, like a body worn by time, like the soul of the surviving lover in a private bond, John Prine’s death had left me with nothing but memories: Memories of a college friend I no longer had, not in any real sense, though fired into my present by neurons tickled by a nostalgic trigger. Memories of my friend’s marriage, a relationship of which I knew almost nothing, nor cared all that much about, but one which seemed suddenly important now that time had dissolved it. Memories of a future I had planned on having, listening to more and more John Prine, perhaps seeing him again at The Beacon upon the release of his next album — though such illusions developed only after I learned of his death, and were but a posthumous fantasy.
These memories are mine, and mine alone. Nobody else shares them with me: Not my wife — who knows all the words to “Angel from Montgomery”, but has no idea who wrote them. Not my son, a pop music impresario — who can’t be there for me any more than I was there for him when Mac Miller passed. And not any of the old friends I might have — who might understand my grief, even share a thin slice of its shadow, but are for the time being unable to get within six feet of me, and our arms just ain’t that long.
So I got into the car and drove off to work, where I would sit in an empty office waiting for patients that might never show. This was still early on in the pandemic, when we feared catching our death from a tabletop, or the handle of a gas pump. I sat in the driver’s seat and attached my phone to the car’s auxiliary port, so I could stream Spotify through its sound system. I scrolled down to a playlist called “This is John Prine”. The drive along the Bronx River wrapped around the Kensico Dam, herring gulls flying above its reservoir, the western side of the parkway rolling with green cemetery hills and their gray tombstones. Prine’s music filled my cabin, and through my window I watched an egret soar purposefully above the unnamed estuaries and marshes that lay between the commuter railway and the road. This was my memorial service, one attended in isolation, surrounded by nature and death, traveling at once through spring and winter. I don’t remember, exactly, which of Prine’s songs the speakers played. “Clay Pigeons”, I think, probably “Summer’s End” — over a fourteen-mile drive there must’ve been a half dozen of them. This was not enough, of course, not for me in my moment of mourning, and I was tempted to drive all the way up to Austerlitz and keep the ceremony going. But when I came to the exit for Route 9A, I took it, as is my habit.
Turning off the ignition, I saw that Jono had texted me while I was driving. It was a simple message — one lyrical line from “Sam Stone”, which, in a cosmic coincidence, had been playing as I pulled my car between the white lines of the parking lot and inched up to the dumpster at my bumper: Sweet songs never last too long on broken radios.
I read it and smiled. Turns out I was wrong. I wasn’t alone.
Douglas Krohn is a physician in private practice outside of New York City and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at New York Medical College. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The Intima, Crossroads, The Westchester Review and The Einstein Quarterly Journal of Biology and Medicine.