So far on this journey, I’ve recorded at the edge of the Snake River Canyon, where I grew up. I’ve recorded at my dad’s mortuary and my best friend’s basement bedroom. I’ve recorded at a lonely cabin in the woods north of Sun Valley, and at the weird Dr Suessy terrain of Craters of the Moon. As much I love Idaho and feel like I belong to it in a way I will never belong to the South, none of those places out west is as special as the one above. This tree in this secret spot in the woods outside of Nashville.
There was a time about five years ago when I came out here almost every day, to write and think and avoid people. It’s a creative place. Under the crookedy branches and the shimmering green canopy, you can stand on seven seasons of dead leaves and almost feel the fecund earth restore itself. I wrote a story here called The Cool Green Hills of Earth are not Enough, which ended up in Medium Hero. It’s one of the highest points in Davidson county, a shady perch set apart and hard to find, where I would come to be alone with the small animals and birds and listen to the way the wind blew through the trees and flick ants off my computer screen with a pocket knife.
For awhile, I got too busy to make the trip. And then about a year ago, there was a new reason to be here. Now I come often. Sometimes empty handed, just to sit on a fallen log for a few minutes. Sometimes I bring a camping chair and a some water and food and I stay all day. Today I brought a recording studio.
Do you ever notice how the big events of your life rarely happen in isolation?
I found out she was pregnant the same night I got my book deal. I was at Dino’s in east Nashville with the publisher’s rep. We were sitting in the booth closest the door, discussing deal points and royalties and stuff I still don’t understand, and she showed up to be with me in my happy moment. She was wearing these pink tennis shoes and a grey floor length skirt that makes her look even longer than she already is. We held hands under the table while I talked to the rep. I remember I couldn’t stop smiling. Between the book deal and this beautiful girl and the perfectly cooked cheeseburger, it was like I was the grand prize winner of the world.
She came home with me that night and that’s when she told me. I was lying in bed, on my side with my knees bent, a bit whiskey drunk, facing her. About to bust a move.
“I’m pregnant,” she said, suddenly.
The lights were off but I could hear the vulnerability in her voice. The question mark in it.
Here is the thing about a moment like this: without knowing it, you’ve been preparing yourself for it your whole life. The question began long ago, maybe even before you were born. The answer has been forming itself inside of you for months and years and decades like a pearl, so that when the question finally arrives, the answer presents itself whole and complete and without qualification.
I thought: how wonderful! I also thought: how frightening! I also thought: not what I would have chosen at this particular moment in time. But, well I participated in the act which has been known to sometimes result in the progenation of the human species, and I did so repeatedly and using a preventive measure that is suspect at best; therefore it was not unreasonable to find myself in this challenging circumstance.
I think I appeared excited and probably even gushy. I remember feeling that way. I told her great! It would be okay. That we could figure out anything. I told her I loved her, because I did love her and was honored that she would be the mother of my child. I think I asked her if she thought we should get married. She hesitated and then there was a long silence.
Into that silence I inserted: wait, you’re not thinking about killing it, right?
She didn’t say anything, and suddenly I was afraid. Then she said she felt that it was maybe a bad time. That she had another year of school, that she had just started to hit her groove. I listened. I had a hard time understanding. We agreed to talk about it in the morning. She rolled over to go to sleep. I lay awake and thought about the little person inside her, just, you know, growing. Did she have hands yet? Was her heart beating? I was so curious, and excited, and alarmed that the future of this person, my little person, was not yet assured. I figured her mother would come around, that I could inspire the confidence she needed. After all, I was her dad. It was my job to protect her. She was a baby. Ha! It was a miracle!
Over the next week, I split my time between privately freaking out about what I was going to do about my career —which let’s be honest, is not very lucrative — and outwardly presenting a vision of confidence and encouragement. I was worried that having a baby would make it hard to write another book and that it would probably mean the end of touring and music. Which would suck in some ways. But, actually, none of that mattered. I mean, it did matter —I wanted to write a pulitzer-prize winning novel, and I did want to play Saturday Night Live, but in light of the situation, namely that a life was on the line, a life I helped bring into existence, it wasn’t even really a question.
I started getting more desperate. She kept saying things like, but I’m not sure I want to be a mother right now, and it would be me taking care of it — I tried to meet her concerns with solutions and optimism. Because what’s important? There is a baby inside you with a personality and fingers and a little heart that is beating and when you get to be an old codger what is going to matter in your life? The fact that you ran a successful business or made a lot of money or found yourself or that there is a person with your genes who loves you who is walking around on planet earth, falling love and eating ice cream? What is so important in this world that it is worth a human life?
Our baby was aborted on March 27th of 2015, at about 10 weeks. It still feels like it happened yesterday.
I so do not want to be writing about this right now. People have such strong feelings about abortion for and against and it tends to bring out such ugliness, whichever side. I don’t have any need to get into the politics of it. I can’t tell you what to do or how to feel. I do, however, love my child. Contrary to what is implied by what happened to her, she mattered. She matters right now. Even if I do not get to see her or hold her or listen to her giggle or cry or tell her I love her, she is still in my life. She’s part of me.
I’m not going to get into some kind of morbid description of what happens in an abortion. But when it became certain that there was nothing more I could do, I read a lot about it. On the planned parenthood website, on the anti-abortion ones. I watched a bunch of videos. Obviously both sides have their perspective, but the part that makes me so angry and heartbroken is that no one is a friend to the baby. The mother counts, the doctor counts. The baby is the person who doesn’t count. The baby has no friends. She is treated like a nothing. Like she never existed. To be erased and forgotten as quickly and as cleanly and pleasantly as possible so everyone else can resume their life unencumbered by the hassle of human obligation.
I dropped her mother off at the clinic. I think about that. Once she had decided and there was no more to say, I agreed to drive her there, to Planned Parenthood. She didn’t want me to wait with her. But I thought I should drive her, to offer something. I still loved her. I felt like she was making a terrible mistake but I also knew I was responsible too and so I should try to do good. At the time I thought it would be better if it was me taking her rather than some friend, but now I feel like an accomplice. Because I am. I helped her do it. I should have been dragging my heels to the very end.
I remember the last night before it happened. Sleeping in bed with them. Thinking that we were a family. At that moment. Mother and Father and baby. Still hoping that she would change her mind. In shock that she felt the way she did. Shocked. And I didn’t see it then, but the beginning of a terrible conviction started forming inside me. I had acted recklessly. I had assumed she felt the same way as me, but I never discussed it with her. I acted as I always act: in good faith that everything would turn out alright. That reckless cavalier attitude was now about to cost someone her life.
When I think back, I wonder if there was something else I could have done. Because I failed her you know? My baby. I was her only friend during those 10 weeks that she was around, and I wasn’t enough. I couldn’t save her. She’s dead now, forever and ever and nothing will ever bring her back not in a million years. I can win a grammy or fall in love or even have other kids, but nothing will ever bring this special little one back to life, so she can have a try. I won’t ever get to know what she looks like, see what her favorite color was, who her friends turn out to be. I won’t get annoyed by her singing the Frozen soundtrack ad nauseum or get mad when the teenage version of her tries to wear shorts that are too short. She won’t help me make chocolate chip cookies or give me a painted rock for Father’s Day. No. What I do get, is a lot of time to fill, doing what I’ve been doing. Making songs, making stories, touring around.
I actually quite love playing music for it’s own sake, but it requires a herculean amount of sustained effort to keep it going. You have to really care. Only now, it’s hard to get that excited about it, you know? All the time I have. To make songs, for what again? So I can play shows, bigger and bigger shows until I play the biggest show in the world and everything is fine after all. No. It doesn’t matter. It matters so little, all the back slaps and the being on tv. Everything that happens to me from here on out is built upon the grave of my dead baby. I know that’s a dark thing to say. But it’s true and I just want to acknowledge it here, one time.
After the abortion, I realized she needed to have a funeral. She deserved that much. Oh what they do to the body is so terrible it makes me cry hard tears! I don’t have her little body. I can’t bear to think of what happened to it, how poorly, irreverently it was treated. But I thought that I could make a memorial. Her mother — who in the wake of the baby’s death also has gone through her own sustained grief — contributed a bracelet, which we engraved with her name and a little message. I had a few things that were special to me that we put in a tiny tin box. Her mother and I went out to this special place in the woods — the place where I used to write and reflect and daydream — and we picked a majestic tree and we buried those little things in the gap between the big toes of its giant trunk. I read some of my favorite bible verses and sobbed into the cold wet earth and then we left her there because there was nothing else to do.
I’ve never gotten a tattoo before because what could I possibly put on myself that would matter 5o years later, but obviously there is something now. When she died, I picked out a name that might be for a boy or a girl. Her mother felt very strongly that she was a girl, so I have continued to think of her that way. I believe she is a girl. Anyway, the day after the funeral I went to a guy and had him put her name on my wrist. It will be the only tattoo I ever get.
A few days later, I went back to the tree and carved a big heart into it and inside the heart I carved the four letters of her name with deep wide strokes. Shay. It gives me a little peace seeing it there, knowing that it will probably be there for as long as I’m alive, and maybe much longer.
The survival strategy going forward has been to create obligations that must be fulfilled, and then fulfill them, and to keep doing that. For the first two months after she died, I mostly just went through the motions of keeping my career going, because I didn’t know what else to do. If there was an email, I would answer it. Not really anything else. But then my book was about to come out and I thought I should honor that opportunity, because shame on me if I didn’t. And then I thought, well, I’ve written that song for Chief Sitting Bull, and I think its a good song. It’s a song that deserves to be heard. So I did a Kickstarter so I could record that song and a few others I think are worth something.
Throughout, I’ve barely spoken of it to anyone. For one, I don’t want someone to try to make it okay. It’s not okay. For another, I didn’t want people who knew us both to judge her, condemn her. She had her hands full condemning herself. So mostly, I’ve been doing that thing where you just smile at everyone and try to think of something funny to say about anything, so people don’t feel uncomfortable around you. It’s an important part of being in the entertainment business. Or maybe it’s just the way I participate in life. Either way, as the months went on, it was getting harder and harder to keep pretending, especially when it all just seemed so stupid and pointless. People straining every nerve, stepping on each other for a shot at playing Fallon or Folk Alliance. Why.
Still, I didn’t want to write about it, because it’s so dark. It's shameful.
But last month, spending all that time alone in the cabin, I would wake up and make coffee and look at the list I made the night before, and just try to get through it. I was doing 15, 17 hours a day recording, just so I could just finish the record and not have to deal with it anymore. I knew that I couldn’t really get through this — losing Shay and witnessing the slow inevitable dissolution of my relationship — without writing about it, but I didn’t feel like I could do that unless I set aside a big chunk of time and really zeroed in.
But then my voice broke. I suddenly, physically, couldn't sing. That happened 24 days ago. Since then, I've kept feeling worse and worse. My whole body aches and I have this constant sob in my chest I can’t get out. I can’t sleep at night unless I drink a heavy shot of Nyquil. And then I still wake up in the middle of the night and think about her. And in the meantime I keep doing all the pretend things you have to do to keep it smooth and positive in the entertainment world. After all, I have shows booked and people are counting on me to hold up my end of the bargain.
But really, I don’t care. I haven’t smiled with all the teeth since I don’t remember when. And the few times I’ve felt light-hearted I immediately remember she’s dead, and that she was innocent, and that she was put in peril and ultimately killed because of my reckless coarse action. And I heap scorn on my frivolous pleasures.
The other thing is that even though my baby is dead, I am not. I’m alive, and I’m kind of obligated to Life to keep it going. I can’t bring her back and I know that. But what I can't figure out is how to move forward without forgetting her. Because that is the one thing I am unwilling to do. The abortion tried to make Shay disappear. I am not about to let that happen. She was a person and she counted and she matters even right now in this moment. In a way, I’m grateful for all the terrible feelings, because that means Shay still matters. She’s making an impact on the world, because she’s affecting me. If I forget or I stop feeling, Shay disappears. And then the abortion wins.
Really I just wish she were here right now. That everything was okay. I would give anything. Also I would like to just go to sleep and not wake up. Being asleep is the only time I feel okay.
A few days after it happened, I wrote a song for her. I’ve played it exactly twice, because it turns out people don’t like to hear songs about dead children. But I came out here this morning to this special place in the woods, to record it with my messed up voice.
Her name is Shay Eden Lenker, and she is my little girl. And she will always be my little girl. I love you sweet Shay.
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I'm probably up too late Trying to write down something that's too big for me to say The funny thing about you gone Is that you're not Just been a few days since But it don't feel like I'm ever gonna get used to this Cause you're on my mind All the time
I don't want you to think that nobody wanted you around
I can only hope that you can hear me Somewhere out there in the stars I know how this world can be But I loved you And I still do Wherever you are
Its crazy how it all began Just a twinkle in my eye You know I never saw it coming Cause I'm just another black hat And you're a magic rabbit And everything else is just a facsimile And nothing I can say or sing Is ever gonna bring you back to me And maybe it's all in vain But I won't accept that
So if I can write you a little song Maybe I can keep you around a little longer well you know I'd do anything
I can only hope that you can hear me Somewhere out there in the stars I know how this world can be But I loved you And I still do Wherever you are Wherever you are Wherever you are Wherever you are