A Life in Six Thousand, Five Hundred and Forty Songs

The small FedEx box arrived in DC bearing an unlikely return address: Peter C. Hulsebosch III, Houston, TX. Surely this wasn’t from my brother, the brother who’d once told me he would never send a card, much less a gift, because then I’d get used to it. True, there had been the occasional scorpion in plexiglass and dried gator feet brought from ventures afar for his nephews, my sons. But Pete wasn’t a giver of gifts. And I hadn’t talked to Pete in months.

Surely this wasn’t from my brother, the brother who’d once told me he would never send a card, much less a gift, because then I’d get used to it.

I tore open the package to find a palm-sized cartridge with a note: “I thought you would like this. Pete.”

Plugging in the hard drive, I stared at the computer screen as an icon labeled Digital Music Library popped up. With quick clicks and steady scrolls, pages and pages showed folders of mostly recognizable names. Alice in Chains to ZZ Top. Opening each file brought song titles—sometimes a solo tune, sometimes an array of albums full of melodies.

I explored the vault as if in a fever dream: grinning, tuning to a few bars of one refrain before jumping to the next. Images flashed through my mind. A tap on Alan Sherman’s Camp Granada took me back to backseat tussles on long summer road trips from our Texas home to Grandma’s up north. Memory of the sting of a whack from Mom’s paddle quickly followed. Though I was nine and Pete four at the time, we battled fiercely while our middle sister sat quietly under the radar.

Another click on this time capsule and I was bobbing to Alvin and the Chipmunks’ Witch Doctor, picturing grassy dunes on long-ago family outings to Padre Island, occasioned by Dad’s rare visits home. We’d roasted hot dogs on open fires and dodged Portuguese Men-of-War as we plunged into crashing waves.

My mind was summoned back as I thought of the parcel’s origins. Six months ago, Pete’s voice came from out of the blue when I answered a mid-day call. Like gifts, phone conversations with Pete were unheard of.

“I have some news. And you know if I’m calling, it’s probably not good news,” he’d said.

“I have cancer, lung cancer,” Pete continued. “I probably won’t be around much longer.”

“What?” I sputtered, stunned. But, then again, not. Although I was a toddler at the time, I could still picture my grandfather fifty-five years ago, lying corpse-like in the downstairs dining room as the illness swept through his body. Pete and I were in our thirties when we’d both witnessed the ravages of the disease on our father.

“Yeah, I always figured lung cancer would do me in,” he slowly continued. “I just didn’t think it would be this soon. I would like to at least make it to fifty,” he added quietly after a pause. “Who knows. Maybe. That’s seven months away.”

“Oh, Pete,” I responded, in my best attempt at sympathy. But I was thinking of how cavalier he’d always been about his health—his life.

In many ways, Pete had begun his untimely death two decades ago. He’d come home unexpectedly from a voyage and found his wife in bed with another woman. Swiftly and decisively, he had sealed his heart off from the possibility of further pain, from anything that hinted at love. Time spent at home, and connections to family, became brief and rare.

Pete continued the phone call, laying down the rules for his final months. He planned to manage this dying business at home, on his own. The only people getting this news were my sister and my mother in Florida, me, and convenient cousins there in Texas who would sell his house (for a percentage) when he was gone. He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him, he sternly emphasized. This would be his last communication. Outraged by the thought of following his rules, I protested, knowing that Pete had never been one to listen to anyone. It was something we had in common.

I later learned that Pete made one important exception to his rules. Each week, he called my mother and gave her blow-by-blow details of his week.

“Why is he calling you?” I’d asked her, annoyed when she told me about the calls, annoyed that he’d broken the rules.

“He says that’s what mothers are for,” she responded matter-of-factly. Although I was indignant at his assumptions about mothers, I was also comforted that he and she had each other in this heart-wrenching time.

In the last few decades, I had become clearer about my own desires for family ties. And so, each week, I’d call my mother for an update on Pete. And each week she’d dutifully give her report.

I heard that he knew he was sick—seriously sick—when he could no longer drink the bottle of ice-cold Bud he pulled from his refrigerator. It was then he’d gone to the doctor who told him there was an ambiguous spot on his lungs. By then, Pete probably knew it was already too late. He knew that spots were the beginning for his father and grandfathers before him, and that the end was non-negotiable.

“Don’t worry about it,” said the doctor. “Come back and we’ll take a look next time you’re in port.”

“No, I think we need to get this checked out now,” Pete responded.

I heard that he’d driven himself to and from chemo treatments for a while, but the treatments didn’t seem to do much good and he stopped. “It could be worse,” he told Mom. “I met a guy who had cancer in his balls. Young guy. Can you imagine!?” he’d told her. I heard that, as the cancer progressed and nausea became his companion, he’d decided TV dinners were the way to go since he could readily toss them out if he couldn’t get them down. I heard that he was napping strategically to allow time to paint his closets, figuring no one else would want that job.

I heard that he’d sold his Harley, his Triumph, and his Indian Head, and gotten good prices for them. I heard he’d sold my father’s most prized possession—a shiny brass sextant from early days at sea. I heard he’d set up a trust to leave whatever he owned after all the sales to my mother. A four-inch thick binder was in the mail to her, complete with multi-colored tabs and detailed instructions. I heard he thought he was getting close to the end. But I hadn’t heard that he had mailed anything to me.

Pushing aside thoughts of recent months, I fast-forwarded past our childhood, lost in the evocative power of music. Body swaying to the beats of Born to Be Wild, I felt the thrill of seeing Steppenwolf at my first rock concert. Plaintive sounds from The Kinks and Janis Joplin carried me into adolescence as I rode the roller-coaster of undercover rule-breaking with love and sex while Pete managed his own balancing act between outlaw and dutiful son.

Pete, the youngest with two older sisters, had raged at the indignity of living in a household of women. Dad’s occasional stops at home from sea were punctuated by a hands-off approach and colored by pervasive disappointment that his long-haired son was not who he would like him to be. There were the songs I’d listened to in silent solidarity with Pete during those years: Hair, and Bob Seger’s Turn the Page—the story of long hair as outcast among the good old boys. This wise-ass boy-child was alien to my stern father who’d been taught that children were to be seen and not heard.

Thumbing through the drive, playing bits of Jefferson Airplane and the many moods of The Beatles, I thought wistfully of the contrasts that kept Pete and me apart. While I, in my early years, had delighted teachers by playing the game of school so well, Pete, in those days, was a conscientious objector to any and all norms. He’d carved out a place of contrasts that fit him, doodling and smart-talking his way through class—star of his peers, bane of teachers. Attempts to direct him to educator norms usually brought on a chain of events ending in the principal’s office. When Pete’s suspensions piled up, the school charade seemed pointless. At sixteen, he dropped out to find his place in gritty hands-on tasks, while I went on and on as student and teacher. Both of us found our niche in places that prized a love of hard work done well.

Music was a constant companion, threading through our lives. As a young mother of two, I found loose-limbed freedom in Blondie and J. Geils. Meanwhile, Pete’s unfilled hours between ship-board watches were spent lounging in barren bunk rooms, free to listen to old favorites and curate new finds in foreign ports.

I stared in fascination as the lineup of songs scrolled, searching for those that marked our adult years. I could see the intersection of our musical Venn diagram with the long list of Southern rockers including Tom Petty and The Allman Brothers. The tunes were laced with harmonica, smooth guitar riffs, and renegade lyrics that helped us remember the untamed lives we had, by this time, both (mostly) left behind. For me, nothing was more cathartic than blasting  these songs on the radio while singing at the top of my lungs. Though there were eighteen Lynyrd Skynyrd albums on the drive, and Pete had marveled at my willingness to look like a fool in my off-key singing, I’d never heard him sing even one. So alike, and yet so different.

Here in this tiny repository sat Pete’s story, our stories. Although he had sold everything of value, he’d kept his most prized possession and passed it along to me.

I was touched realizing he knew to send this tiny package my way. Just when I’d thought the thin line connecting us had been stretched beyond fraying, he’d reknitted the cord. In the midst of painting closets and assuring our mother’s financial future, he’d come up with a plan to share the heartbeat of his spirit in a way that would reverberate forever. His life—in six thousand, five hundred, and forty songs.

Pat Hulsebosch is a queer Pippi Longstocking wanna-be, writing about cultures and identities in a never-boring life of teaching and learning. With roots in the South, Pat lives in the DC Metro area with her wife, Lynda, but is fortunate to have family and friends across the US who give her a convenient excuse to travel. In a past life, her nonfiction was published in the Handbook of Social Justice in Education and Queering Elementary Education. Her nonfiction has appeared in Columbia Journal’s Special Issue on Womxn’s History, Halfway Down the Stairs, and in Furious Gravity, Grace & Gravity, Vo. IX.