“There is a road, no simple highway, between the dawn and the dark of night;
And if you go, no one may follow; that path is for your steps alone…”
- ‘Ripple’ – Grateful Dead
Do you ever ponder death? I don’t just mean your own inevitable demise, but the eventual– and past– keeling over of everyone you’ve ever known, loved, despised, or were completely indifferent towards. It may surprise some people that know this morbid, mumbling mental case, but death is a constant presence in my mind, both from the heavy layer of existential dread under which I live, and the inordinate amount of untimely mortalities myself and my family have experienced. The Grim Reaper seems to loom eternally beside– and within– me, taunting my cursed existence left and right as we await our final chess battle, a la Antonius Block in Ingmar Bergman’s classic, The Seventh Seal.
When I remember my late uncle, Robert Swierk– who passed away three weeks ago from, what else, COVID-19– it only feels appropriate to begin negatively, with a relatively obscure, highfalutin reference thrown in for good measure. My late father’s older brother– the second to die within the past six months, after my Uncle Bubba passed in December— often came across as a man who went about in great pity for himself, despite being an immensely intelligent individual who possessed a variety of talents he was never shy about sharing.
No complaint was too small to express, and no slight was too irrelevant to let slide for the sake of simplicity. He was a man who marched to the beat of his own drum– or, to use a metaphor he’d presumably prefer, to the strum of his own guitar, or bass, since he played both, don’t ya know– even if that tune sounded off key to the rest of the world.
I suppose I could be perceived here as mean, like I’m throwing shade and being excessively harsh towards the latest dead relative in my orbit. But I promise you, for any faults or flaws I may attribute to my late uncle– many of which I possess, for better or worse– I loved him deeply, and miss him dearly.
How should I react? What would be an appropriate way to honor the sudden death of a loved one who, in life, I never hesitated to poke fun of, and vice versa? Everyone grieves differently, and in my extensive experience, my family tends to embrace dark humor and sarcasm bordering on cruelty when tragedy strikes (let me pause to say to my cousin, John, once again: welcome to the Dead Parents Club!).
No one made more inappropriate jokes than Uncle Robert after my father– his younger brother– was taken from us. We may have come across as an inhuman clan of monsters to some nurses, doctors and hospital staff while we seemingly made light of my dad’s situation in the trauma ICU, but who was going to stop us, my unconscious, double-amputee father? He didn’t have a leg to stand on…
Honestly, I don’t know what to say, or how to act right now. There’s no hyperbole in saying the current state of things is beyond unreal, and that this was all completely, utterly unimaginable only a couple months ago. I’m still in shock, and when I stop to ponder the circumstances under which Robert Swierk departed this mortal coil– alone, in an overfilled and understaffed ICU, surrounded by no family or loved ones because the hospital was overrun with coronavirus– it makes my skin crawl.
I really, truly do not want to turn this into a political rant on the current state of the nation and world, largely because it would distract from my efforts to remember my uncle. Yet you can’t entirely separate his death from the surrounding events, and when I read or see the vigorous efforts by some to dismiss the severity of this pandemic– like, for instance, harassing protests occurring about 20 minutes from where he lived on Long Island— a rapid rage rises from the depths of my soul. I won’t go on further for now, but suffice to say that attending a Zoom vigil service– in lieu of a normal wake and funeral, which couldn’t be held safely in any capacity– was a bitter pill that no one should have to swallow.
At least there’s music in the world to help ease the pain, like a spoonful of sugar to help this horrid medicine go down. Anyone who knew Robert Swierk knows: he was as musically inclined as he was mush mouthed, and he avidly pursued the creation of a melodious masterpiece throughout his lifetime. A meticulousness was always evident, whether he was crafting one of the countless songs he wrote, or arranging the order of tracks on his annual Christmas album. He was a showman at heart, a man who adored the spotlight, and if he was going to share his artistic gifts with the world, he only wanted the very best out there representing him.
There’s not a lot of his artistic output available for consumption, unfortunately, so thank goodness for ‘Woodchuck Farm.’ A song my uncle co-wrote forty years ago that, in all honesty, none of my family knew existed, it was recorded and released by his longtime friend, Jeff Hutchins (you can buy the song or album if you’re so inclined), and it’s a catchy tune. I won’t lie that I’ve listened to it more than a dozen times since I learned of its existence, and the song is more than a harmless little ditty about life on a rural homestead, with rodents who can’t actually chuck wood.
It is, in fact, a meditation on living and dying, because Woodchuck Farm IS life, hence the narrator’s insistence that everyone “duck inside” to witness whatever beautiful something is “a-coming” before us. There are joyful moments and events just waiting for us in the future, which you need to be willing to face even when you’re “sort of scared” of the uncertainty of what’s to be seen. There will be hard times on the path forward, undoubtedly, since you can’t “expect nothing, and nothing’s all you ever get for free” in this life, a.k.a. Woodchuck Farm. But since death is always lurking, like a truck outside the farm “humming in a two part harmony,” you just have to keep on keeping on.
Am I overthinking the lyrics of a song my uncle may have completely forgotten he co-wrote? Perhaps. But considering how little could be understood or ascertained about Bob Swierk from the surface level self he presented to the world, digging deeper and overanalyzing the only work of his I have at my disposal felt all too fitting. ‘Woodchuck Farm’ may not be about life and death, but it might as well be.
It’s a peaceful conclusion to consider, that Uncle Robert simply chose, finally, to leave the farm and hop into that truck that awaits us all, driving off into the next plane of existence. Maybe he’s riding down some cosmic highway, jamming with my father, finally able to play those chords, and hit those notes, that eluded him while he lived and breathed. Who knows if that’s true, but either way? It’s a nice thought to consider.