The Day that Lady Gaga Made me Cry

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By Suzanne Leigh

I’m in the toy section of a pet store with my surviving daughter, when that song comes tinkling through the sound system: “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” It’s a very different rendition than the Judy Garland classic. This one is by the late Hawaiian musician Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (“Bruddah IZ”); it’s wistful and whimsical, with hints of underlying pain, and its remarkable vocal range is offset by the delicacy of the ukulele.

Natasha and I would listen to this song in the last months of her life and when her disease started to progress rapidly, a voice inside of me said that that song would be the one, the one we would play at her memorial service. Now when I hear it, I need to walk away.

But here I am in the store with an eager 9-year-old ready to pick out toys for our pets. I contemplate darting out of the store, or finding a quiet corner where I can luxuriate in my grief, but Marissa will have none of it. There are so many exciting toys that she has to show me right this minute. When we eventually leave, my pain at hearing the song with the saddest of connotations is diluted by the optimism and enthusiasm of my younger daughter whose demands can’t be ignored. Not every bereaved parent has a Marissa.

The radio is on as we drive to another store when I’m hit by a second song with strong Natasha associations: Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”

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“Natasha loved this!” I say to her sister as I turn up the volume. But as the song marches on, a chanting carnivalesque no-holds-barred anthem to sexual avarice, I am slipping further and further into a place of blackness. That’s because Lady Gaga’s music represents a time when all was well with my older daughter. She was 10, apparently healthy, definitely happy, vital and triumphant, and fully recovered from treatment.

“Who’s that?” I said the first time that I saw Natasha watching Gaga gyrate on YouTube, wearing jeweled underwear and shoes that would have doubled as lethal weapons. The song would be played continuously; Natasha would mimic Gaga’s dance moves with unabashed outlandishness and shriek the lyrics, red-faced with joy and vigor.

Oh dear, isn’t 10 a bit young to be listening to statements like, “I want your leather-studded kiss,” I thought. But in truth, I didn’t worry about it. Wasn’t worrying about exposing children to sexually explicit lyrics something that parents of healthy kids did? How good it felt to be members of that club of privileged parents.

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When Natasha recurred, her exuberance never returned. She never listened to Gaga again. Never rode her bike, never acted goofily, never did a cartwheel, never even laughed the way that she used to laugh.

That’s right she recurred, I remind myself as I drive along dark streets, the sadness swelling in my heart. And a little more than two years after that, she died. How could that be. Why. (No, those questions don’t require attempts at answers.)

We park. I check my reflection in my mirror. Awful. Red-rimmed eyes, flaming crimson nose and matching blotchy cheeks.

“Let’s go, Mama,” says Marissa, eager for a visit to her beloved Walgreens.

“I think I need a minute or two,” I say to Marissa. “That song made me sad. I am missing Natasha a lot.”

Marissa looks away, frowning. “I don’t like you talking about that,” she retorts.

“I know, Honey.”

Minutes later, I am able to pass for normal. Marissa heads to the candy aisle, I make my way to “dental hygiene” and reflect on that conversation in the car. Had I handled it appropriately — should I have shrugged off the tears and gone into the store with my miserable face, or was it OK to have shared my grief with my surviving child?

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I imagine a dialogue between Marissa and a friend 10 to 20 years from now:
Friend: So do you have any siblings?
Marissa: I have a sister. She died when I was 8.
Friend: How awful. How did your parents deal with it?
Marissa: They were very sad. My mom would cry without warning. I remember her crying in the car and not being able to get out because I had to wait for her to compose herself.

Perhaps my response was OK. I wouldn’t want Marissa to not remember her parents grieving for her beloved older sister.

I’m standing in line at check-out when two small hands are placed around my waist and a face pressed to my lower back.
“Hi Sweetie!”
“Hi Mama. You’re very lucky, do you know why?”
“Well, I’m very lucky to have you.”
“Yes and I’ve found your favorite candy: Wintergreen Tic Tacs!”

I am very lucky to have Marissa. But I’ll always wish that Natasha would have been luckier in beating that brain tumor bullet.

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