Critics often describe Springsteen’s model for arranging albums as a “four corners approach” in which each side of the record begins jubilantly, only to end somewhat emotionally unraveled.
I know that most listeners don’t still play an album through start to finish. Forms change. Songs get shuffled, emotions muddled. The good and bad intermingle, as they always have.
I don’t want to wax too nostalgic for the old days: the needle skipping across the grooves or how dubbing album cuts for mix tapes inevitably meant imprinting the recording with a vestige of its creation. I know that in those moments, I didn’t want the scratches, the background noise of everyday life. I wanted a seamless progression from track to track, no sound or blip, no marker of transition.
But I know this, too: in one of his last voice mails to me, my brother ends his message, then fails to hang up immediately, because he has to sneeze. Now, nearly five years after his death, his recorded voice rarely makes me cry anymore. But that sneeze—the most quotidian and messy part—evokes tears every time.
Upon its release, The Rising was hailed as a 9/11 album. Writing in Rolling Stone, Kurt Loder described it as “a requiem for those who perished in that sudden inferno, and those who died trying to save them.”
Some of the songs on the album were written before 9/11.
Before my brother’s death, I didn’t hear the sneeze in his voice mail. I’d listened only to the words, then disconnected. Only afterward, scouring each possible source for him, did I notice the rest.
Before boarding the BWI—BHM flight I booked last-minute after learning of my brother’s addiction, I sent my mother a text. We hadn’t spoken in months, for reasons she’d surely describe differently than I would.
We obviously still have things to sort out, I wrote. But we can set those aside for now to focus on helping Austin. I’ll be there tonight.
I spent the next four days at my brother’s. We shivered together, him from withdrawal, me from the temperatures to which he’d dropped his air conditioning as he detoxed.
My mother and I have never spoken of that message or the issues preceding it again.
Airplanes stay aloft from the precisely calibrated intersection of what NASA calls “the four forces.”
The elderly woman on BOS—RIC has been talking for hours, though not to me. She’s loud, though, and I’ve heard plenty, first in the terminal and now as the flight taxis out to the runway.
She’s cycling through what I now understand to be her accustomed terrain life in Manhattan, relocation to Richmond, children on Cape Cod. I know her politics, birth year, and medical history. I know that she is widowed, and I learn that she selected two readings for her husband’s funeral: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee” and the lines Horatio speaks upon Hamlet’s death.
I listen over the plane’s engine as she recites them: Goodnight, sweet prince, and legions of angels fly you to your rest.
Because I have turned to those words, too, I know that she has misquoted them, that legions is really flights; fly, really sing. The man next to her tells her how beautiful the funeral must have been, how perfect the words, and I think how she’s disrupted the meter, amended the string of gs that curl through Shakespeare’s original line.
I know that you cannot tell an elderly woman that she’s misquoted a text at her husband’s funeral, that the phrasing isn’t the point.
Years ago my parents’ house caught fire. Not all of it was destroyed, though they had to move out for rebuilding. On the first night in the rental house, my mother grew agitated over the fact that she couldn’t find a remote control for her television.
She had not been harmed in the fire; she was perfectly capable of walking to the television and changing the channel. But she harped on that remote for days, as if it were the most crucial aspect of her existence.
We knew it was a talisman, a clear metaphor for her lack of control over her life and circumstances. So we bought a universal remote, then, when she disliked it, we bought every brand available. None worked—not the same features, not the same arrangement of buttons. Finally, we slipped back into the scorched house, entered the rooms the fire marshal hadn’t yet deemed safe enough for passage, hunted until we found it, returned it to her waiting hand.
In my brother’s final days, which we knew were his final days (he overdosed; doctors declared him brain dead; we took him off life support two days later), I worried about how I would announce his death. I knew that was not the point, not the real problem before me. But I knew, too, that I couldn’t control the fact that his life was ending, could only control what I said about it.
He was the youngest, the baby, the unambiguous favorite. We believed him the most talented, the most charming, the most likely to become widely known. I, the most academic child, knew he was actually the most innately intelligent child. I knew, too, that his death was tragic, not the inevitable and natural end to a full and long-lived life but an all-too abrupt and dissonant rending of our family.
Afterwards, from the hospital waiting room, I typed the words on which I’d settled, the words I’d claimed from another who’d witnessed the death of a young man destined for more than he’d actually become: Goodnight sweet prince, and flights of angels sing you to your rest.
Two months after my brother died, I published an essay about the experience. Titled “Watching Your Brother Die,” it described just that.
On the morning it went live, I didn’t know what to do, so I drove thirty minutes to the nearest real shopping center to buy cowboy boots. It marked a new approach to grief for me; after two months of seclusion, I decided to run after things I wanted.
I hadn’t listened to Springsteen since my brother died. I picked The Rising, which I’d only encountered briefly before, because I thought it was about 9/11.
It is, of course. And of course it’s not.
They don’t make Mother’s Day cards that say I’m sorry this isn’t from him. Each year, I think they should.
At first, this was from resentment. Over time it shifted, a genuine desire to acknowledge my mother’s sadness, a wish to restore to her what she most loved.
Released less than a year post-9/11, The Rising marked a dramatic return for Springsteen, his first number-one album in over fifteen years.
Some critics bemoan what they perceive as his exploitation of tragedy. Others, such as one presenter at the 2005 “Glory Days: A Bruce Springsteen Symposium,” see the inverse, claiming, “Healing also came in the form of Bruce Springsteen’s album The Rising.”
Despite grief, my life after my brother’s death is really quite lovely. Upon realizing that few things can be harder than witnessing and surviving my brother’s death, I grew less timid. I’ve pursued work I believe in, visited places I’ve always wanted to see, eaten lavishly. I believe that nothing can stop me from seeing, doing, experiencing, tasting.
I often feel guilty for this.
My mother softens.
We still avoid phone calls, text infrequently. But we see each other two or three times a year, and sometimes she asks me questions about my life, listens to some of my replies. She hugs me goodbye when I leave town; every now and then she says she loves me.
As if in a bad sitcom, I stutter out a response. Okay, I say, or Thank you.
With The Rising, for the first time in nearly two decades, Springsteen recorded an album with the E-Street Band.
The album’s title song begins with a focus on self—the speaker references his blindness (“can’t see nothing in front of me, can’t see nothing coming up behind”), his own journey (“make my way through this darkness”; “lost track of how far I’ve gone and how high I’ve climbed”) and the burden (“stone”) he carries on it.
In time, though, other lyrics surface, gain prominence in my listening. Perhaps this is linked to the different contexts in which the song appears, moving from elegy to exhortation, 9/11 to inaugural celebration.
At some point I’m struck by a shift in perspective; near the end of the song, I hear something I’ve never noticed before. The focus changes from the speaker to the recipient: May you feel your arms around me. I spend a lot of time thinking about this shift, the idea that instead of looking inward the whole time, the song eventually moves to a broader view—a lament becomes a benediction.
Years pass. I stiffen less at Mother’s hugs. I visit for her birthday, trying to act on a belief that perhaps my presence can be a balm.
During the visit, Mother offers a gift of her own—my brother’s professional-grade camera and accessories. He’d love for you to use it, she tells me, referencing my upcoming trip to Borneo. I should have given it to someone a long time ago, but I just couldn’t get rid of his things.
I do not know how to transport this home, as I’m nervous about checking it, and it’s too large to fit in the overhead of the small commuter plane.
She keeps talking, telling me about the trips she and my brother planned to take together.
My mother has flown only three times in the last three decades. My brother was scared of cities and foreign places, refused even to join me in Europe.
But I don’t argue anymore. I simply nod, say Thank you.
One night I hear a live version of the song “The Rising” and notice a different lyric than I’ve heard before. Convinced that it’s a variation only for concert, I return to the album, only to realize I’ve been hearing it wrong for months: May I feel your arms around me, the song proceeds. I listen repeatedly, then confirm it on Springsteen’s official website. There was never a grand wish, no benediction, no shift in the speaker’s perspective.
Grief isn’t linear. Like flight, it’s the product of a number of competing forces. I becomes you, then reverts. Legions and flights intermingle. Yet still we make our way through the darkness; we find a way to move through it.