What Sarah Said

The American alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie was formed in Bellingham, Washington, USA, in 1997.

The group took their name from a Neil Inness and Vivian Stanshall song, “Death Cab for Cutie,” featured in both the 1960s British TV show Do Not Adjust Your Set and the Beatles’ musical movie Magical Mystery Tour.

I only learned of Death Cab for Cutie’s music when they released their fifth studio album, Plans, in 2005, though I don’t remember where I first heard it. I don’t have their earlier releases (except for the title track from 2003’s Transatlanticism). Because I liked Plans so much, I bought Narrow Stairs when it came out in 2008 but didn’t care for it at all. Maybe I’ll have to give it another listen. I skipped a few releases, then Thank You for Today (2018) redeemed the band for me, though it doesn’t carry anywhere near the vibe, mood or magic of the songs on Plans, particularly the song, “What Sarah Said.”

Twenty years ago today, I stood with family in a hospital room as my dad took his last breaths, a little more than 24 hours after some of us living far away could get there to be at his side with our mum and sister, and not long after the farthest-travelling sibling arrived.

“What Sarah Said” is a most vivid description of the helpless, hopeless feeling of pacing around a hospital, knowing the end is coming, but not knowing how long will be spent in that waiting time; all the while facing moments of denial, and anxious to hear something encouraging from overworked and caring doctors, nurses and staff. The song captures the emotions of holding space and each other, exhausted; eyes and heads sore from too-bright lights, too little sleep and nourishment, and unable to shut out the sights, sounds, and smells of a hospital (right down to the song-quoted disinfecting smell of Formula 409 cleaner).

And it came to me then
That every plan
Is a tiny prayer to father time
As I stared at my shoes
In the ICU
That reeked of piss and 409

And I rationed my breaths
As I said to myself
That I’d already taken too much today
As each descending peak
On the LCD
Took you a little farther away from me
Away from me

Amongst the vending machines
And year-old magazines
In a place where we only say goodbye
It stung like a violent wind
That our memories depend
On a faulty camera in our minds

And I knew that you were truth
I would rather lose
Than to have never lain beside at all
And I looked around
At all the eyes on the ground
As the TV entertained itself

‘Cause there’s no comfort in the waiting room
Just nervous pacers bracing for bad news
And then the nurse comes ‘round and everyone lifts their head
But I’m thinking of what Sarah said
That “Love is watching someone die”

So who’s gonna watch you die?
So who’s gonna watch you die?
So who’s gonna watch you die?

(“What Sarah Said,” by Ben Gibbard, Chris Walla, Jason McGerr, Nick Harmer)

Hearing the song brings back those memories, but it also evokes happier recollections of before and since Dad died. It’s a terrific piece of music, too. It starts with a repeating broken triad on the piano (thanks to Sweety for telling me what the piano part is called), which ushers in some of the band after a few bars, then brings in the rest of the instruments, and finally, Ben Gibbard’s unmistakable voice joins to tell the story.

There’s an urgency in the sound, until the end and the linkage between love and death. This part of the song reminds me of a 12th century poem quoted on page 25 of the Francis Weller book, The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief:

“For Those Who Have Died”

Eleh Ezkerah (These We Remember)

‘Tis a fearful thing
To love
What death can touch.
To love, to hope, to dream,
And oh, to lose.

A thing for fools, this,
But a holy thing,
To love what death can touch.

For your life has lived in me;
Your laugh once lifted me;
Your word was a gift to me.

To remember this brings painful joy.

‘Tis a human thing, love,
A holy thing,
To love
What death can touch.

(by Judah Halevi, or Emanuel of Rome)

While I was out on errands today, I stopped in at a liquor store and, serendipitously, stumbled upon a bottle of Lemon Hart brand Demerara rum, the exact kind my dad enjoyed a long time ago and which I bought him as a gift sometimes. I remember that it stopped being available for many years, and I wasn’t even looking for it today as I didn’t know it was made anymore. I bought a bottle. My sweety and I will toast to my dear dad tonight.

Now you know a little about why this is my song of the day for today.

Thank you for joining me here.

Here’s the audio for the song from Death Cab for Cutie’s official YouTube channel:

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