With Michaela Anne
As soon as I found out I was pregnant, one of my earliest thoughts was, ‘I have to start memorizing some songs.’ As a singer and songwriter by trade, I should be much better at memorizing lyrics but it has never been my strong suit. ‘Jams’ with other musicians have always provoked anxiety within me, frantically scanning my brain thinking, what song could I possibly remember all the words to? My mind is more prone to the big pictures, the big feelings or ideas while the details remain blurred. My relationship to music is no different. Songs have always shaped my memories and experiences. A soundtrack has existed for every moment of my life since my earliest memory. But could I sing the lyrics to those songs? Definitely not. Within my family, Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl is a treasured tune, being that it was my dad's song for my mom when they were high school sweethearts. As a little girl, I famously sang along, loud and very wrong in the backseat of my dad’s car as…. “Heyyyyy Rodrigo!” My dad turned down the radio, “Um what did you say?” holding back a chuckle. I confidently replied, “Hey Rodrigo.” My brother burst into laughter, “No! Who is Rodrigo? It’s, ‘Hey, where did we go’?” They still bring it up 25 years later.
Learning that I was becoming a mother for the first time had my mind racing with fears, thoughts, ideas of how I would raise this little child. Of course, songs would be important. My husband and I are both musicians. I had to sing to her. I was already having fantasies of singing lullabies to our first child, lulling her to sleep in a dimly lit room with sweet melodies. But what songs?? I can never remember songs! I started contemplating this rather obsessively as I felt the songs I distilled in her at such a young age would be important. All of a sudden, I would be the first curator of this new little life’s soundtrack. What a responsibility. I couldn’t take this lightly. One afternoon, as I was showering, a melody popped into my head…. “Child of mine, child of mine.” What song is that? I called my mom and sang it to her over the phone, “Do you know what song this is?” “Yes of course, that’s Carole King. I used to play you that song all the time when you were little.”
My mom’s relationship to music is one I’ve only recently begun to contemplate through an adult’s hindsight perspective. I’ve always taken it for granted that of course she loved music. If I loved music, then my mother had to have loved music. Where she ends and I begin has only started to clarify in my mind. She always shared memories of her childhood, loving to sing, dance and play piano but as she grew up, she became self-conscious of her voice. I have very few memories of her actually singing to us. If she did, it was with quiet necessity rather than exuberant joyful confidence. But she always had the tv turned on to VH1 and a plethora of CDs to listen to. This was the late 80s/early 90s so music videos were everything. I don’t remember her explicitly communicating or explaining her love for music but I felt it through osmosis. And of course through dancing. Her body showed how she loved music. So when she saw that same movement in me as a baby, she nurtured it. She loves to recount how she would watch me bounce my body in my car seat to the songs blasting from the radio, trying to dance out of my harness. Our cd collection was one of the popular times. The Big Chill soundtrack, Dirty Dancing Soundtrack, Whitney Houston, Madonna and Taylor Dayne were my favorites as a little girl. Every night after dinner, we’d push the coffee table out of the way and have family dance parties. Another famous lyric blunder of mine that my father particularly loves is 8 year old me singing in the kitchen doing my best Madonna impersonation, “like a Virginia!!! Hey! Touched for the very first time….” “Like a what?!?” my father howled with laughter.
All of this is to say, my deeply instilled, though hazy memory of Child of Mine comes from a recording of Carole King’s voice, not my mother’s. After that call, my mom dug out her old CDs and found her copy. It was a Disney For Our Children compilation CD with benefits going to the Pediatric AIDS Foundation. The dots just keep connecting. (My grandfather was a social worker and did pioneering group therapy work supporting the earliest victims of the AIDS virus in the 1980s and 90s.) As soon as she sent me the photo of the cover, the memories flooded back. Again, I couldn’t remember any lyrics beyond the chorus but I immediately felt that familiar feeling I knew I must have felt as a child listening to that song. The heart squeezing, tingly warmth that slowly spreads throughout my body when I hear a melody, a voice or a song that resonates with me. That special connection when you know the vibrations and sound waves of a particular sound of music intertwine so beautifully with your own vibrations, like two winding river shaped puzzle pieces dancing together.
I immediately started learning the song. I wanted to imprint the lyrics in my mind so I could sing it to our child every night before bed. I methodically poured over the song, line by line, committing each word to memory before moving onto the next part. At least now I would know the most important lullaby, the one I had from my own mother, and could pass to my daughter.
Several months into my pregnancy, life was feeling uncomfortably comfortable. I’m prone to anxiety and a consistent state of itchy unsettledness keeps me skeptical of contentment. It’s almost as though I think it is a quicksand of complacency that will stop my life from progressing. God forbid I just coast and enjoy my days. So when I started to feel at ease, at peace, even fully happy and hopeful about growing a child, the potential future of raising a child and being a professional musician, even while a pandemic was still keeping us all at home, it of course triggered anxiety. I will never forget, going on a neighborhood walk with my husband one evening and saying to him, “I feel so happy. Which then makes me feel like, what bad thing is coming next?”
About a month later, I was 5 months pregnant, standing in the kitchen on a rainy Friday afternoon in Nashville. I was waiting for my husband to get ready so we could go out and pick up a crib for the baby when I noticed I missed a call from my dad. I called him back quickly with a cheerful “hey dad!” I had just gotten off the phone with my mom maybe 20 minutes earlier, listening excitedly as she talked about all of the cute clothes she had just bought for her granddaughter. “Chaela.” My dad said slightly breathless. “Your mom’s in an ambulance on her way to the hospital. I think she’s having a stroke.” “WHAT?” Was all I could muster as I leaned against the kitchen counter. His voice was shaky as he explained he was driving behind the ambulance following to the hospital. He recalled the details of the prior minutes, how he found her frozen in the kitchen and watched as her body, face and ability to speak quickly shut down. He was able to sit her in a chair and call 911. The ambulance was there within minutes and he watched as the paramedics came in quickly, picked up the chair with her still in it and carried her out to the ambulance. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Something bad was happening to my mom - my mom, MY MOM. The woman who I call five times a day, all day long, who I share everything with, who travels with me, helps me, guides me, talks to me incessantly about everything in life, or sits on the phone in silence with the occasional mmhmm just to be together. My mom, who was about to become a grandmother for the first time and I was 100% counting on her being there with me every step of the way… this couldn’t be real. We had so many plans. She was coming to Nashville only a few days later to set up the nursery. We had a list of things to buy. She had just had her 63rd birthday the week before. I had her gift waiting on the kitchen table for her to receive when she arrived. She was young! She was fit and healthy and active. She had to be okay. She absolutely had to be okay. I told my dad we would get in the car and drive to Michigan from Nashville that minute. He told me to wait, to see what the hospital said. I think he was still hopeful she would be okay by the end of the night but I knew we had to get there. We got off the phone and my husband, Aaron, and I started packing. I had a load of laundry in the washer that he threw into a trash bag, dripping wet. We were just about packed up and ready to go when my dad called back and confirmed it was a stroke. He said she was conscious but mute. She seemed blank in the eyes. “Okay Chaela,” he said quietly, “I think you need to get here.” We got in the car and drove 9 hours north to Michigan. I was there the next morning at 8am, waiting in line for visiting hours to open at the hospital.
My mom had suffered a massive and debilitating hemorrhagic stroke. She had completely lost her ability to speak and her entire right side was paralyzed. She was having static seizures and ended up in an induced coma for several weeks ultimately remaining in the hospital for over 3 months. In an instant, all of our lives had changed. I spent the rest of my pregnancy living at my parents house splitting shifts at the hospital with my dad and brother. Due to the pandemic, only one person was allowed in the hospital room at a time so I spent many hours alone, day in and day out, staring at my mother’s body, watching her breathe, memorizing her face, not knowing if and how she’d return to us. I had always heard it was beneficial to keep talking to someone in a coma and especially those with a brain injury. I wanted her to somehow know she had a lot to return to, a lot of reason to fight to live and be well. So starting from that first day, I sang to her, every single day, all day. But I could only remember the lyrics to one song. Child of Mine: over and over, like a prayer I hoped she could hear. It had to have meaning for her too, I had to believe she could hear it and it could will her back to life.
By the time my baby was born, I had spent several stressful months watching my mom struggle to slowly regain her cognition, speech and mobility. I watched in angst and pain as well as in wonder, as she worked to relearn how to talk, chew, swallow, all as my belly swelled and I came closer to becoming a mother myself. My mom had made miraculous gains in a short time but still had a long, unsure recovery ahead of her. I desperately wished I could freeze time, let her get better before my baby was born. Let her get better while I could still be with her as much as possible. Let her get better before I would be torn between caring for a newborn and caring for my mother. Then I could have mom back in time, helping and caring for me, the way it was supposed to be.
But I couldn’t stop time and she didn’t recover in time for the birth of her first grandchild. By the time I gave birth for the first time, I was exhausted, raw and scared but thankful I could at least call my mom on the phone and have a slow pieced together conversation. Every other plan had changed. She would no longer be coming to visit, no longer able to help and care for me through this transition into motherhood, no longer able to pick up and carry her first grand baby. But she was still here and working hard to keep regaining it all. I can’t help but wonder why this trauma had to happen at the time it did. Why was my daughter born into these painful circumstances? My mother says it’s because we needed an angel with us.
The very first song I sang to my daughter was of course, Child of Mine. And I now know every word. The first few months of her life, she was a sleepy little newborn who gave little response but I’ll never forget the first time I saw recognition on her face. I started the song the way I always do, “I know you see the world different than me…” I was cradling her close and she startled at the sound of those first words, pulling her face away from nuzzling into me and stared up into my eyes. She had a look of wonder on her face and I would swear on my life in that moment that magic was real. From that point on, every time I started to sing, “I know you see the world….” she’d jerk her head back from off my shoulder or on my chest to look at my face with the same half smile, sparkly glaze of wonder. It was as though she was saying, “Hey! I love that song! Keep going!”
My daughter is almost a year old now. My mom has yet to be well enough to come visit us in our home but I do my best to take my daughter to her as often as possible. She still can’t babysit or pick her up or help me in the ways I had always dreamt and counted on. Or the ways that I know she had hoped for. But she can talk and she even, surprisingly, has tried to sing. We are learning new ways of being together. I often tell her, my learning to be a mother just started a few months prior to actually having my baby. She was teaching me the acts of mothering through needing my care for her. Yet another ultimate lesson she has provided me, even in her consciously absent time.
On one of our earliest visits, I was standing in my parents living room, cradling my daughter, rocking her back and forth. My mom, still unable to walk or confidently move completely on her own, sat on the couch looking up at us. I started to sing the last verse of Child of Mine, the one that feels the most like ours. The one whose words I know as well as every other line of the song but that feels like it was written for us, for this exact experience in this time of our lives. For me, my mom and my daughter.
“I know the times you’re born in, may not have been the best, but you can make the times ahead better than the rest.”
My daughter smiled and cooed in wonder the same way she always did but this time she wasn’t looking at me. This time she held her grandmother’s gaze the entire song.
Child of Mine
Child of Mine
Michaela Anne grew up as a military child and moved all over the world with her family, but she remembers Carole King's 1970 hit "Child of Mine" from a childhood compilation CD, which offered her a sense of comfort throughout the chaos. But “Child of Mine” took on a new meaning for Michaela in 2021 as she became pregnant with her first child, and her mother suffered a debilitating stroke.
While 5 months pregnant and in the middle of the pandemic, Michaela dropped everything and put her life on hold to be by her mother's side as she recovered in the hospital for 3 months. “I wanted my mom to somehow know she had a lot to return to, a lot of reasons to fight to live and be well,” she says. “So I sang to her, every single day, all day. I sang her ‘Child of Mine’ over and over, like a prayer I hoped she could hear. I hoped it would will her back to life.”
Now, with a eleven-month-old baby girl, Michaela Anne still sings "Child of Mine" every day to her daughter, who watches her mother sing in wonder as if she remembers the familiar melody from those life-altering months spent in the hospital before she was even born.
Michaela Anne wrote a powerful essay on what Carole King means to her, and how her music has saved her, her mother, and her baby girl.
1100 Rock and Roll Boulevard
Cleveland, Ohio 44114