Our parents lied to us.

When one is young, one tends to believe grief, as with any other emotion, is a thing simply dealt with. We are told that emotions arrive and fall away with relative ease, that all things pass in time, that all feelings can be dealt with through catharsis and the channeling of one’s energies.

The truth of the matter becomes apparent to us all in time: those touched by grief’s cold, awful fingers will grapple and wrestle with pain, and nothing about the process is easy.

Grief is an amorphous, unknowable, tentacled beast. It follows no clear rules or guidelines. It is anything but clean and neat. It touches us all in time, swallowing us up, spitting us back out, or perhaps just clinging to us in a slowly constricting veil. We can fight it, rationalize it away, succumb to it, ignore it, bottle it up, but it always seems capable of subtly sneaking up on us in the most unexpected moments and methods.

I lost my friend in February. His name was Mac. He was the father of one of my best friends, and I had the privilege of knowing him for the last five, nearly six years of his life.

Sometimes you encounter someone you just inherently get. Some strange vibration resonates at the same frequency between the two of you, and there’s some kind of unspoken understanding. Mac was one of those people for me.

I think we recognized a deep similarity in one another. That seems to be the prevailing theory among our loved ones anyway. He had this amazing knack for seeing a kind of wonder in just about everything and an ever-present urge to be utilitarian. Those were two facets of his personality that I deeply admired, along with his ability to make himself present, known, and understood by saying very little at all.

Mac tried to avoid all praise, thanks, or even notice. I once told him that he was something of a hero and role model of mine, and he deftly maneuvered his way around the issue. I’m sure this article that I’m writing would make him feel somewhat uncomfortable.

Mac didn’t help people because it was the right thing to do, or even because he wanted to. He just did it because that’s what he did. His friends told story after story of how, more often than not, Mac would pop up out of nowhere, and his first words would be, “How can I help?” He was an artist at heart whose medium was life itself.

touche

Two years ago, Mac was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer despite never having smoked so much as a cigarette in his 72 years on Earth.

What followed, as things often do in these situations, was bouts of chemo, radiation, setbacks, tears, wringing of hands, and a million other things that I was both deeply involved in and distantly detached from, given my position. I watched not only as Mac suffered, but, perhaps even more awfully, as his and my loved ones did as well.

But that is not my story to tell, nor is it one I could ever hope to do justice.

My point is thus: there is no way for me to understand what my friend, Mac’s child, was and is going through. My own feelings of pain and loss are pale shades in comparison to the yawning darkness that she has so gracefully dealt with for two-and-a-half years. My pain is only a mere fraction of what another of my friends, who lost her father to leukemia when she was 15, continues to live through.

There are millions of similar stories that play out all too frequently in this often cruel world of ours. Cancer is a brutal, awful illness that seems to take everything from those we love. It brings with it a unique brand of suffering that is curiously unknowable until we experience it, or its like, ourselves. I can comfort my friends through their pain, I can offer words and gestures, I can hold them through their wracking sobs or vivid flashbacks, I can clean their houses, walk their dogs, make myself useful in whatever small way I can possibly conceive of and love them all while doing it, but I can’t truly understand their pain.

Touche Amore’s lead singer Jeremy Bolm lost his mother to cancer. The band’s fourth album, released nearly two weeks ago, chronicles Mr. Bolm’s emotions and actions coping with his loss and finding a more honest, heartfelt, and heartbreaking album would be frighteningly difficult.

With stories both extremely specific and intimately relatable because of that specificity, Touche Amore give us a window into grief and loss. It puts us that much closer to our loved ones that go through every day surrounded by nothing but fire and brimstone and whirling gales.

“Flowers and You” starts the record off at perhaps its most heartbreaking, setting the tone for the album to come. Bolm touches on the duality of grief — how one must keep up appearances while living through the hell of watching their loved one literally wither away to nothingness in front of them.

The heartsick wonder of taking detached stock of what you miss about a person when they’re gone is an act that seems both cold and despairing, but so familiar. In the song, Bolm speaks about a sense of normalcy in conversation — a “simple conversation about nothing much at all” that, given the circumstances, he couldn’t handle and missed out on forever.

Yet in the face of this overwhelming grief, he persists and goes about his day to day. It’s something I witnessed firsthand. It’s even something I participated in to a degree.

I sat by Mac’s hospice bed, talking to him about nothing much in general, though he’d lost his voice completely weeks prior. I was trying to convey through some small gesture that I didn’t pity him. I didn’t see him as anything other than my friend and conducted myself the same way I would have if he did not have to mouth and mime the words. I saw it on the face of Mac’s daughter, who went to work and then came and held a cup to her father’s mouth so he could eat. I saw it in the quiet dignity of Mac’s wife, who took care of him every day through her own pain without complaint.

It’s an amazingly complex feeling to try to convey — that of ultimate despair but continued existence because it’s simply what you must do — and yet with a single song, Touche Amore nails it and establishes the tone of the entire record.

Time doesn’t halt for any of us, and those dealing with grief frequently find themselves concentrating on routine and distractions to avoid the tidal wave of emotions threatening to sink them. They wear a literal mask of normalcy to hide themselves.

“New Halloween” gives voice to Bolm’s guilt. The song is an apology for not having been as present with his mom during her sickness, at having been literally on stage during her passing, chasing a dream he believed in and one she encouraged. It’s a theme that he revisits in “Eight Seconds” on which he talks about literally receiving the news of her passing.

A week after I saw Mac for the last time, I got the call. I had been on the phone with his daughter, my friend, not an hour before, planning to drive up that night to see him again. I had just gotten off work and wasn’t much relishing the thought of driving up to San Francisco during LA rush hour, so we decided to wait until the morning to head out.

That was at eight o’clock. Two hours later, I felt my phone vibrate and looked down with the same terror I had felt every time that name had unexpectedly appeared on my phone over the past few months. Then the delay. Then “He’s gone.”

That guilt, or something like it, comes to us all in these situations. Guilt for not having spent enough time with someone. Guilt for never saying the right words. Or, as someone told me once, guilt for feeling relief about a loved one’s passing because it meant they were no longer in pain. My friend, smart cookie that she is, I don’t believe will have to go through Bolm’s plague of guilt–she sacrificed a ton to stay home and Mac left in peace, surrounded by his family and his dog, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude similar thoughts occurring to her–how could they not to any of us? Do we not all doubt we spend enough time or “the right time” with our loved ones?

“Eight Seconds,” too, brings up another emotional theme on the record, one that runs through “Rapture.” It’s a kind of strange bewilderment that, despite knowing the end is coming, one never expects it. In “Rapture,” a simple turn of phrase from “Like a wave, like the rapture / Something you love is gone” to “Someone you love is gone” elucidates this strange unexpectedness and the dissonance and distance one’s mind creates to defend itself.

It’s such a sudden, subtle change and so indicative of the thoughtfulness of the record as a whole. “Eight Seconds” ends with the confession that Bolm hasn’t listened to the last message his mother left him, yet there the message is, closing out the record, forever immortalized in his art, both haunting and warm, both comforting and gutting.

The album art — snapshots of the Bolms’ house cut up and rearranged — really reinforces this strange, detached, almost surreal sense that life takes on and that Bolm chronicles through his succinct, earnest writing. Even the record’s name, Stage Four, not only alludes to his mother’s illness and the album’s themes, but even more simply to its existence as the band’s fourth full-length record.

Stage Four is rife with these almost double entendres. “Rapture,” “New Halloween,” “Eight Seconds,” “Benediction,” “Water Damage,” “Skyscraper” — they’re all semi-veiled references told with a bittersweet humor. It’s as warm, telling, haunting, and gutting as Mac’s last words to me: “I’ll just be quiet now.”

My friend possessed a sly but warm wit. He delighted in soft, knowing humor. He hadn’t truly spoken in weeks — his lungs mostly made of cancer — yet still was quietly humorous and aware enough a week before his passing, when so much had been taken from him, to ‘say’ “I’ll just be quiet now,” when he literally could be nothing else. It’s a small, somewhat bitter, somewhat self-aware and humorous moment that is brought streaming back to me by Stage Four.

What is perhaps most present is the sense that this loss is not something that has been dealt with, nor something that will be. The album says something much more mature than that, the secret that our parents never tell us: that sometimes time doesn’t heal all wounds, and that’s ok, too. It says you learn to live with the gaping holes in your life, the rotten, fetid, and raw wounds.

Sometimes you don’t recover; you change. You adapt. You evolve. And every day, every moment is a new opportunity for the tendrils of that grief to threaten and pulse and encroach or recede to a tide of its own doing. Catharsis is an aid. It’s not an end. Screaming and sobbing and ranting and railing does not necessarily translate to an exorcism of all emotion. It’s just another coping mechanism.

This is all to say that over the past two weeks, I have listened to this record, attended its gallery release, and gone to Touche Amore’s album release show, and I haven’t been able to keep my composure for any of it.

For my friends that have lived with the specter of cancer slowly sapping their parents, for my friend Mac, whom I continue to think about every single day, I have broken down every time I have listened to Stage Four. I can never hope to truly understand what it is these people have gone through, not unless I am unfortunate enough to go through it myself, but this album puts me just that little bit closer to understanding (‘When you feel that damage/And it’s extraordinary’ — “Posing Holy”), and I can thus conduct myself that much better by them and by the people coping with grief that I meet in the future.

I believe art is at its finest when it functions as truth. Truth begets empathy. How could it be otherwise? In this way, Stage Four, the new record by LA hardcore heroes Touche Amore, is one of the best, most earnest, heartfelt, and truthful pieces of art that has graced us in some time.

I may never know exactly what my friends, Jeremy Bolm, or millions of other people have gone through, but Stage Four approximates grief in such a way as to make those unfamiliar with this particular brand of pain more familiar. That kind of understanding can only lead to a better world.

Mac made everyone better simply for having ever existed. Stage Four does likewise.

screen-shot-2016-09-29-at-11-37-10-pm

Sheep-dogs rule.
-Lex

P.S. If you have some extra cash, please donate to Free to Breathe for lung cancer research or Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for leukemia research.