The Cancer Song

In late 1970, a man named Phil Lesh was locked into a difficult routine: at the end of each day, he had to drive from a San Francisco recording studio to the nursing home where his father was dying of cancer.

Lesh played bass in a band named The Grateful Dead. As he drove, he practised singing lyrics a man named Robert Hunter had penned to accompany a piece of music Lesh had written for the band’s ‘American Beauty’ album. The song was entitled ‘Box of Rain’ and Lesh had requested the lyrics be “a song to sing to his dying father”.American Beauty cover

The song  is an exquisite piece of music: its chordal structure and instrumentation are perfect, as is Lesh’s vocal performance. Lesh rarely sang lead on The Dead’s songs, but his hesitant delivery lends the lyrics a heart-aching honesty and emotional depth that a more accomplished singer could not have achieved.

The song is filled with wonderful imagery, but one line stands out to me at this juncture in my life: ‘Such a long, long time to be gone, and a short time to be there . . .

Few words have better or more succinctly captured the overwhelming immensity of death and its aftereffects. My father was 72 when he died of cancer and yet, given his vast knowledge on books and militaria, his infectious zest for life, and his love for his family and friends, it now feels a criminally brief period.

IMG_2985Three months and nine days have passed since he died at home. The initial period of grief was like a huge ragged-edged vortex which sucked everything into it. Now, however, the outlines of the hole my father’s absence will form in my life have become clearer and less intimidating. I can put my arms around the grief now, can look down into it and see not what I have lost, but what I have loved.

Life is a short and fragile thing, while death is endless and immane. From dust we come, to dust we return. Yet there is comfort in reflecting upon the achievements and positive aspects of a lost loved one. Like a box of rain, my father chose to fill himself with all that was clear, clean and fresh in the world.

It is an example I strive to emulate.

For those who wish to listen to ‘Box of Rain’, here is a link:

The Grateful Dead – Box of Rain

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