On the Death of John Prine and Other People I Never Knew in a Pandemic
My mother died on 21st August 2016. Her father died a few months after. My best friend had died 11 months before. John Prine died yesterday.
Life killed my mother. Dementia her father. Cancer my friend. COVID one-nine John Prine.
I never knew John Prine. The only song of his that I know I knew was his was Angel from Montgomery. The news I knew was no news I wanted to know. In the new fashion, it greeted me on my phone as I woke up. That was the same for my best friend, and a scant few hours displaced from my mother, news of whose passing reached me in an almost unintelligible Facebook message. My reluctance to believe what I read online prepared me to doubt what I read because who can imagine learning that their mother died or their best friend died in a meme-adjacent stream?
But I knew John Prine had died, because I had hoped so fervently that he would live, even though I never knew him. When news breaks you in the morning, as it always is in this timezone because the catastrophes come while you sleep, there’s a sense of igneous ground underfoot where irresistible lava flowed, scorching the earth on which you lived out the dreams you don’t remember now. The world is changed and you’ve no alternative but to accept the new terms of reference, passed by silent committee in your absence, and really what could have been done about it anyway because the things that were coming would come and who are you to think that in the hours between you could have bargained with the fire of time and fate to secure a different morning?
John Prine was one I knew I was supposed to know. When I was much younger than I am now, and first in love with the intoxicating fantasy of being a songwriter, John Prine and some or another of his songs kept appearing in the books I read as a passed through 30th Street Station in Philadelphia, the inter-suburbial fulcrum of my daily commute. Only words, because in those days there was no instant hit of whatever you fancied listening to. But the words were the essence of the bustling world around me; the white collar workers importantly talking on their mobile phones; the blue collar workers who moved about the station unseen, meeting their needs and cleaning their mess; the hum of the escalator and the grinding churn of the trains on the rails; the meditative possibility that dances in the fractional moments from source to reflection off the impossibly high roof. I knew reading them that no matter how I might strive, I would never be able to work language to such great effect that it would be plausible that I had lived a thousand lives and could articulate the unspoken pains of each. Even now, in tributes, I read the words and the music (which I still don’t know) seems superfluous, though I’m sure it’s equally perfect.
I never knew John Prine. I knew my mom, my grandfather, and my best friend. At least, I thought I did. In losing them, as I have tried to reconcile memory and truth in a way that they’re hopelessly incompatible, I have discovered that I knew nothing. You see, for as much as we know and love someone, and as much as we are allowed to know of them, we’re all vast unfathomable seas. A searching light of friendship or familial bond might reveal far more than a darkened ship passing in the night — but it could never hope to illuminate a person’s whole self, and in grieving we meet the stark expanse of the void where our knowing ends and we long to somehow peer farther into the ache that is left. The gift of John Prine’s words is that they have the power to cast a light on people who we never knew. People who may never have existed except as the essence of the crashing seas of humanity swirling around us which we might never take time to notice.
My mother’s ashes yet unscattered, memorial plans with a new kind of family delayed by the virus that killed John Prine and which will bring many others to the same cycle of waking in an alien world coloured by the grey emptiness of loss, to say nothing of the countless coming dead unnamed and unknown who will be mourned deeply by those who knew them, only to find that they never knew them at all. Not really. Not beyond the revelatory grace that human relationships bestow which allows us to know more of ourselves by the wholeness we find with others.
No, I never knew John Prine, but he never knew me, neither. The beauty of this life is that it doesn’t preclude mourning those we don’t know. The beauty of art and music is that it can make us feel alive in ways that life on its own never could. Someone’s mother. Someone’s grandfather. Someone’s best friend. Over and over again in this pandemic. John Prine just once.
As you shuffle about, singing the song of your life, go softly. Because everyone is someone’s light. Hello in there.