More on Heather


Kelli wrote about her original grief process in the days following Heather’s death at the (now rather old school) livejournal Death Comedy Jam.

She also wrote the following for a music fan zine Emotional Tunes:

Death Cab for Cutie: I Will Follow You Into the Dark (from their album Plans)

This isn’t a song that jumps on your chest, yelling and screaming until you emote. Instead, it holds a softly curled hand to your neck, silently choking the sobs out of you.

A song that can fill you with delight at the same time it makes you break into loud public sobbing is either positively inspired or contains an encoded Jedi mind trick.

I Will Follow You Into the Dark is the former, I’m pretty sure. But the encoded Jedi mind trick would have been an interesting way for Death Cab for Cutie to maintain their indie street cred by getting the descriptor”quirky” into at least a few reviews.

For a long time, this was The Song I Was Not Supposed to Hear. The months it got heavy airplay (September 2006-February 2007) were the months my partner, Heather, was dying of ovarian cancer. My friends were nigh unto heroic in their attempts to keep me from being exposed to the almost ridiculously poignant lyrics.  They developed the sudden need to leave whatever store we were in. They invented concerns about a strange noise the car was making so we’d have to turn off the radio and listen more closely. On at least one occasion a friend visiting our home made a leap dramatic enough to stop a speeding bullet to unplug the stereo. She provided no warning signs before and no explanation after.

The first time I heard the song in its entirety was the day after Heather’s death. I was sitting at home with two friends planning the memorial service when the familiar opening guitar chords started. I leaned back in my chair to clear the way for their customary reaction but they just glanced at each other and cleared their throats a bit. We sat in silence and listened. More accurately, we sat in silence,  listened and sobbed.

The song repeats “If there’s no one beside you/ When your soul embarks/Then I’ll follow you into the dark” no less than three times but It’s not just the lyrics that make this song such a heart shredder. The spareness, the lack of production, the hollow sound (I later learned it was recorded on a single microphone and produced almost completely unedited) combine to create an almost physical intensity that refuses to let you off the hook. It feels like a hand around your neck. Or, I suppose,  like facing the death of someone you love.  Or like facing your own grief afterwords.

When I found out Ben Gibbard was only 28 when he wrote the song and had never lost anyone close to him, a part of me wanted to put my hands around his neck. How dare he write a song like this from anything other than personal experience? I forgave him his youthful presumption though, because the song was such a gift to me. In the months after Heather died when people pried into my emotional state I’d tell them to listen to this song a couple of times through. Maybe it was cruel, but it felt instructive. They sobbed a lot, and understood a little more.


The Big Burlesque website is maintained by Heather’s heart sister,  Sossity.

(If you’d like to add a link here, comment or email me at kelli dunham at gmail dot com)


One response to “More on Heather

  1. I really wish I could have made this. I have read the little clips and blogs and I can’t wait to hear your full story. I met my partner about 5 years ago. After a year, I moved to NYC so that we could be together. On April 1, 2008 she was diagnosed with Oral Cancer. I know…April Fool’s….well the joke really was on us.

    On November 30, 2008, she passed away. I love how you talk about some of the most painful moments with a touch of humor. We certainly did not laugh our way through this illness though we did have some laughs.

    Your material is really ministering to my soul Kelli. I think that this is something that is really hard for people to wrap their mind around it. I remember when she sat and cried and said…”I don’t want to be a burden to you.” I said, “Baby, you are never a burden, taking care of you is an honor.”

    There is sooooo much I don’t understand…like why God (whatever) would give me my soulmate and then to lose her the way I did. She was always so strong…such a Butch…letting me care for her was perhaps one of the hardest things she had ever done in her life.

    I am still waiting for that day when the pain becomes a little less…in many ways it is still intensifying, but I know one day I’ll remember and smile…but for right now…I remember and cry and that’s ok too!

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