"I always want an outstretched hand in music."
Like a Song: Iris (Hold Me Close)
January 14, 2016
[Ed. note: This is the 96th in a series of personal essays by the @U2 staff about songs and/or albums that have had great meaning or impact in our lives.]
I’m quite certain, loyal @U2 readers, that some of you have been waiting for me to finally write about this song and why it tugs at my often fragile heart strings. I made it my favorite moment of the North American leg of the I+E tour. I even predicted back in July that I would be an emotional wreck once I heard it played live. Bono’s love letter to his late mother had me crying buckets of tears to the point that the people sitting around me were probably concerned. This is U2. They make me feel. This song made me feel everything and it made me handle grief I haven’t really dealt with head on.
The star that gives us lightâ€¨
My Grammy passed in March 2010 from complications due to skin cancer. She was my world. I was the child of divorced parents, and she was the familiar glow that radiated as my younger years became as dark as a storm cloud. The problem with people like that is, when you’re younger, you build them up to be immortal. There is no way they will ever leave you. During a hospital visit, I held her hand and wished I were a mutant from one of my favorite X-Men movies. That my superpower would suck all the cancer out of her body by just touching her. I wanted us to be back at her house, on a Sunday, when I would sit at the kitchen table and pour myself over the New York newspapers as she cooked Sunday dinner. I wasn’t a mutant and I couldn’t save her.
Those who know me well know that my Grammy is literally with me every day. I have the date of her passing as well as the lyrics from “Walk On” tattooed on my right arm in her honor. I chose my right arm because that’s the hand I write with. Every time I write, she’s my muse. I always stare at the tattoo and I know two things. One, she definitely wouldn’t like it since she hated tattoos (I remember when I was 19 trying to come up with an elaborate way to explain why Tinkerbell’s legs were sticking out from under my shirt). Two, it’s definitely a constant reminder of her. Sometimes I can’t figure out how she used to sound. I have a picture of her on the fridge in my apartment. Voices and pictures don’t provide much. But these lyrics have always given me a vision of her.
Once we are bornâ€¨
Those final few lines, about the stars going out and meeting again, are for me the full circle moment of being reminded of my Grammy’s presence via the I+E tour last year. Like I said, I knew hearing “Iris” live was going to be an experience. I’ve totally cried on the subway if the song comes on my iPod (no shame ever). But I didn’t realize how much it was going to affect me. The use of the screen projecting Bono amid a constellation of stars as well as the home movies of Iris was enough to send me over. Combine that with his introduction speech before he sings and yes, this is where the “emotional wreck” definition comes in. I felt like hearing the lyrics in person, five years after her passing, had us connected again. As if she were watching me at Madison Square Garden in hysterics and saying that she was here with me via the song. My world that has been so dark since she left me was somehow illuminated again in the arena. I absolutely feel that Bono was channeling the presence of his mother every night, guiding him along those stars on the screen.
The stars are bright
For me at least, the most difficult thing in dealing with loss is the chilling reality of seeing others with what you don’t have anymore. A few weeks ago, Christmas Eve, I was at work getting ready to leave for the day and head home to New Jersey. The mother and grandmother of a co-worker stopped in to visit her and she happily ran to them with hugs and a big smile. I stood there and just stared with this slight twinge of jealousy running through me. It was this aching slow burn. This girl was most likely going home after work to celebrate the holiday with these two important women in her life. I went home and almost immediately passed out on my mom’s couch with the Bruce Springsteen Pandora station nursing me to sleep. This was truly a far cry from past holidays, when I would always spend Christmas Eve at my Grammy’s house. Her passing has contributed to my cynicism when it comes to the holidays. I don’t really see much joy in it anymore because that joy was her and she’s not here. Why does everyone else have a Grammy but not me?
Iris standing in the hall
My mother often told me that when Grammy was diagnosed with her cancer, she said things like, “Just let me see them graduate middle school.” And once my sister and I breezed through that, she would hope to see us graduate from high school. She got to see me through college as well as my post-graduation frustration of not finding my dream job. I just wanted to do good and have her continue to be proud of me, even though I never had to doubt that. When she was admitted into the hospital, the last time I would ever hear her voice, I said to her, “Everything I ever do will always be for you. You’ll always be my inspiration.” She said, “I know.” When we got the call in those early morning hours that she had to be admitted, I remember digging in my drawer to find something to wear that wasn’t pajamas and ended up pulling out my U2 Slane Castle fan club shirt.
I haven’t had a lot of dreams about her. In the ones I have had, it always looks like she’s speaking to me, but I never know what she’s saying. Like she’s mouthing things to me. I just can’t make them out. Maybe it really was “Don’t fear the world.” When I was in the hospital last April, my fears of the place had overtaken me as being there reminded me of seeing her there. The sterile smells, the constant beeping of multiple machines, and those seemingly endless hallways that can lead to your destiny made me panic every day I spent in my ICU room. But I made it out OK and those fears are starting to ease, albeit very slowly.
She said free yourself to be yourselfâ€¨
I truly believe that the meaning behind this lyric is that you must free yourself of forever grieving because you won’t get anywhere if you continue to live in sadness. I feel that Iris wanted Bono to always keep her in his memory but not to stop living a life where he could see his full potential. By using music and songwriting, he was able to express his thoughts on everything going on in his manic mind. Thoughts on love and friends, war and peace, time and space. He allowed himself to mourn but also allowed himself to be free. I don’t think he wanted to wallow in grief forever, and I know I don’t.
We didn’t have a memorial service for Grammy. We only had a burial, as we wanted it to be small and just immediate family. The funeral home said that we were allowed to place items in her casket. On the day of the burial, I still didn’t have an item. I kept trying to think of thoughtful things and came up blank every time. Rushing to get ready for the service, I went to my desk and gave it a once-over to see if I could maybe write a note. And then I saw it. Amid the magazines and other random nonsense on my desk was a bunch of photos I took during the North American leg of the 360 tour. I went through the pile and saw the most simple photo of U2 on the Claw screen. I turned it over, and as if lightning was coming through my fingers, I wrote with no hesitation, “Grammy, please don’t worry about me when you’re gone. These guys will take care of me.” I put it in an envelope and prepared for the drive to say good-bye. And they have taken care of me in the best way possible: with the I+E tour, with this song, with them just existing.
Bono said of his mother’s death, “Her absence, I filled with music.” I did the same, and I have to say, it does get better.
(c) @U2/Marino, 2016