Every Mistake

A couple of weeks ago my sister and I were driving back to our parents’ house from the nursing home where my father has been slowly preparing to leave us. It was late in the evening and he had fallen asleep. We surrendered him to the keeping of the night staff at the nurse’s station, the rhythmic hum of his oxygen machine, and a CD of some of his favorite songs.

I also felt like listening to some music on the ride home, so I plugged my iPhone into the car stereo and queued up one of my new favorite songs, “Every Mistake” by Jonah Matranga. (If you haven’t heard it, go RIGHT NOW to iTunes and buy it). My choice was driven in part by an ulterior motive. I thought my sister might appreciate it. The youngest in the family, she hasn’t had an easy road, and she sometimes frets over decisions and potential mistakes. The lyrics, addressed to Jonah’s young daughter, tenderly counsel compassion toward yourself:

Oh my love
How can I say
The things that you’ll see
Some perfect way?
I could tell stories
Of infinite roads
Fountains of youth
Romantic fables
Instead I’ll just say…

You’re gonna make
Every mistake
Sometimes you’re gonna fall
Flat on your face
Just do it with grace
Know that I’ll be there
And love you while you make
Every mistake

[Disclaimer: Yes, I know there are No Mistakes, Only Lessons. Yes, I know it’s all in our interpretation.  But there’s something so beautiful in the way he acknowledges that shit doesn’t always work out the way we want it to, and we often experience a pang of letdown and self-criticism.  Even that moment—especially that moment—is not beyond the reach of gentleness, grace, and love. But I digress.]

I had forgotten about the second verse. It’s about death. My sister was having the hardest time of any of us dealing with Dad’s impending departure. As his 86-year-old body progressively succumbed to myriad infirmities, including congestive heart failure and renal failure, she kept looking for miracles to put it back together. She took any good day as a sign that maybe his trajectory was changing, even questioning after a positive turn of several days whether we should shift from the palliative care of hospice to more aggressive medical interventions.

I wondered how the upcoming words would impact her. She’s a sensitive soul. I thought fleetingly about a preemptive switch to another song. No. Instead, I braced myself and decided to let it play out. Here’s the second verse, again addressed to the singer’s daughter:

You’re climbing and trying
Without even trying
Without even knowing
What I can’t explain.
Like when did I
Get so scared of dying?
It never seemed real—
We really leave here
And stranger still
Although it seems sad
I’m trying to show you
That something is here
Something so sweet….

There was a heavy pause. I felt something rising in my own throat. Wow, here it comes, I thought. I silently glanced over at her. Finally, she spoke into the darkness as she gazed out the window.

We don’t have a good German restaurant in our town anymore.  We used to, but it closed.  I liked their potato salad.”


Whhhaaa—That’s it?  Here I was all amped up for a heavy emotional catharsis and deep bonding experience on the threshold of our father’s departure from this world, and instead I get what? Potato salad? Really. It was like she hadn’t even been paying any attention to the song (not that I had asked her to). She probably didn’t even hear the words—just the soft strum of Jonah’s guitar and muffled voice as a backdrop to her own preoccupations.

But then I smiled. In the past I might have gotten exasperated that she had departed from the script and thwarted my poignant scenario. However, as much as I love a hearty catharsis, I also enjoy being subverted in this rug-pulling-out way—being reminded that I don’t need to be so serious, that I don’t have it all figured out. Frankly, it takes the pressure off. She was doing the best she could, carrying a heavy burden down thought trails that led her to comfort in this difficult time. I had nothing to be indignant or critical about with her—it was my “mistake,” not hers. So, I resolved to handle it with as much love and grace as I could, to meet her where she was at that moment.

So, after a moment, I replied, with all the compassion I could muster,
Huh. Like, with mayonnaise or vinegar?

*Lyrics ©Jonah Matranga 2007, “Every Mistake” on the album And.