What They Play When You’re Gone

It’s “Songs That Shaped a Life” week, that time of year when I get even more self-indulgent than just writing a blog and devote my posts to songs that were instrumental (get it? ha-ha!) in some aspect of my past.

Late in 2014 my Uncle Gary passed away less than a year after being diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. Instead of a formal funeral, we held a memorial service that my parents, aunts and uncles planned. My mother asked me to handle the music, including selecting songs to open and close the service.

This wasn’t an easy task. There are plenty of go-to choices for such an occasion. But this “last dance,” if you will — the final event where everyone gathers to wrap up your life and send your soul along to whatever is next — is one of those times where you don’t get to pick the music. You have to trust that whoever is handling it has the where-with-all to represent you.

Uncle Gary loved his music, and when we were kids, he shared mostly upbeat Motown songs. Those, along with several other of Gary’s favorites, were on a video that played during the visitation. For this, we needed something more reflective, something that honored the sadness we all felt without crushing us under it.

There were two things everyone knew about Uncle Gary. One was that he was a walking Academy Awards encyclopedia all the way back to the Hollywood Golden Age he so loved. The other was that he was one of the best teachers you’d ever meet. His commitment to his students was so strong that you probably don’t even need all ten fingers to count the number of people who match it.

The closing song had to be “Over the Rainbow,” his preferred version from Judy Garland. It was one of his favorite songs and conveyed the right mood for that ceremonial first step of moving on.

About a dozen songs came to mind for the opener, like Warren Zevon’s “Keep My In Your Heart,” Evanescence’s “My Immortal,” The Alarm’s “Walk Forever By My Side,” Elton John’s “Empty Garden.” These were all fitting, but none of them had a particular connection to who my Uncle Gary was.

I don’t know how the opening song came to me, but it was like a muse dropped it onto my head as I was sitting in my office. It represented his love of childhood and mirrored the closer — “Rainbow Connection.” Many of the versions I first found featured odd vocals in the spirit of its most famous performer, Kermit the Frog. After digging, I discovered this one by Peter Cincotti. I knew the moment I heard it that he would be happy with me for choosing it.