It was the end of February and my mom was a week away from dying of cancer when I stopped by Laurie’s Planet of Sound on my way from work and picked up All Hail West Texas. I had moved from my hometown to Chicago that summer and my mom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in November.
My wife and I had been driving back and forth between Michigan and Chicago all winter, watching helplessly as my mom’s body was ravaged by the disease and the treatment.
I was just a few months into a new job and while the people I worked with were very supportive, it puts you in a tough position to be constantly asking for time off that you hadn’t accrued…week after week. My wife was working on her masters degree in an intense program and it was really hard. My life sucked.
My mom had lived in the same small house all my life. She moved in with my dad when they got married. I was their only child. She was widowed at 33 when I was ten years old. From then on, it was just me and my mom. She never dated. She devoted her life to raising me.
And to Jesus, whom she had accepted as her personal lord and savior after my dad got sick. By the time he died, my mom was a full-blown born-again evangelical Christian with everything that came along with that in 1981. Pat Robertson encouraged her to get involved in politics and she became a precinct delegate for the Republican party with the intention of overturning Roe v. Wade.
Not too many years before that she had been pretty hip. A cool 70s chick with a little daisy tattoo (visible in Super 8 home movies from my waterbabies swim lessons where she wore a bikini, because hey, it was the 70s). She and my dad took motorcycle trips across the country. We had a boat on Lake Michigan and a Datsun 280Z. They’d drop me off at my grandma’s so they could have have week-long parties. My parents knew how to live.
Didn’t really know how to die though. Who does? My dad was sick for a few years but they never talked to me about the potential — the fact, really — that he was dying. Chemotherapy, radiation, a macrobiotic diet, they tried everything. When that all failed, they tried Jesus. That failed too obviously but my mom never saw it that way.
Her faith provided her with a peace that passeth understanding. I spent my adolescence in the church. Sunday school, bible study, church retreats, Christian rock concerts, overseas missions, building toilets in rural Bolivia, witnessing to unbelievers, planting seeds of faith, the whole bit. I was still enough of a fundie my freshman year of college that I gave an anti-abortion speech in my poli-sci class.
But as I got older I grew more skeptical. I tried to blend my beliefs into my own goofy brand of Zen Christian Humanism. Or something. This scared the shit out of my poor mom. She knew that if I turned my back on God, she would lose the opportunity to spend eternity with me in heaven. Our family would never be reunited.
I kept her prayer journals after she died so I know full-well the consternation I put her through. And that’s not even getting into the general dickishness of the 20-year-old know-it-all liberal undergrad asshole I had become.
* * *
Four months. That’s the prognosis the doctor gave us in November when my mom was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. Your first reaction to news like that is disbelief. But doctors know what they’re talking about, and my mom’s doctor was cruelly accurate.
Being who I am — or who I was then, anyway — I made her a mix disc. It contained a bunch of Johnny Cash gospel songs as well as some of Woody’s more spiritual lyrics from the Mermaid Avenue albums. I’m told the music comforted her, made her think that I hadn’t lost my faith, that she could die without worrying about where I’d spend eternity.
I wouldn’t have included anything off All Hail West Texas on the mix even if it had been released more than two weeks before she died. She had lightened up a bit over the years, shunning a lot of the hateful rhetoric of the Christian Right. Even so, I don’t think she’d ever be down with Jeff and Cyrus.
All Hail West Texas came out on February 19, 2002. I picked it up that Friday after reading Michael Goldberg’s review in Neumu. I was home alone that evening, doing laundry and getting stoned when I put on my new purchase. It blew my mind.
At the time I wrote, “After dealing with some seriously heavy shit lately, I was turned on to an album that lifted my spirits in a way that only truly great music can.” Before I looked up the release date just now I would’ve sworn I listened to this album the entire time my mom was sick. But she died just eight days after I got it. March 2. In my mind this album has become so wrapped up around this time in my life that the actual dates don’t even need to make sense.
I can’t remember if it was the night after she died or the night after the funeral, but I was at a bar with my friends and I kept going out to my car to play “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” for them. Then “Fall of the Star High School Running Back.” They just stared at me with sympathetic red eyes, uncomfortable and unsure how to interpret what I was trying to communicate to them through these whirring, lo-fi boombox recordings.
I don’t really know either. But there is something in there that I need them to grasp. Something deep and heavy. I try “Source Decay.” Surely this bitter tale of receiving “torture devices from my old best friend” will convey the thing in my soul that I’m trying so hard to share. When I come up empty handed the feeling almost overwhelms me. We go back inside the bar and drink in silence.
* * *
And now it’s eleven and a half years later. That’s a lot of time. I’ve watched the Mountain Goats get signed by 4AD and release a bunch of professionally recorded albums that are widely acclaimed. They’ve recently signed to Merge who have reissued All Hail West Texas with seven bonus tracks. And it’s now even available on vinyl for the first time. I bought it and it sounds perfect.
When I listen to these songs I do not wallow in sadness. This music still lifts my spirits like it did the first time I heard it. I no longer think about my mom dying every time one of these songs comes up on shuffle.
That said, whenever I hear the line, “I want to go home. But I am home,” from “Riches and Wonders” I can conjure up the two opposing emotions that were tearing me apart at the time: Whenever I was in Chicago, I needed to go and be with my mom. And whenever I was at my mother’s deathbed in Michigan, I just wanted to escape back to Chicago.
I spent several years hating God for taking my mom. I’ve got a kid of my own now who will never get to know his paternal grandparents. Every once in a while he asks me if heaven is real. “Some people think so,” I tell him. I try hard not to lie to him. But he’s insistent. “But is it true?”
“I hope so, buddy. I really do.”