In 1971, the year I turned 18, I was dating a Swedish twin. We lived in a small city near the Baltic Sea. One day, her older brother came rushing in with a new album he had just bought: James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, the one with “You’ve Got a Friend”.
I was mesmerized. I had applied to be an exchange student in America, and James Taylor’s music and lyrics were the sounds of the country I felt an inexplicable longing for.
In America, it seemed, you could create your own happiness:
“I’m gonna cash in my hand
And pick up on a piece of land
I’m gonna build myself a cabin in the woods
And it’s there I’m gonna stay
Until there comes a day
When this old world starts changing for the good.”
Through all my years of medical school, residency, fatherhood and life as a married man, I have found James Taylor’s songs to somehow speak directly to me: I even made a PowerPoint presentation last year about diabetic neuropathy, juxtaposing James Taylor quotes with imaginary quotes from Harvard’s top neurologist, Dr. Martin Samuels.
James Taylor’s brother, Livingston, is also a singer-songwriter. I have heard him play at much smaller venues than his brother, including a nearby middle school. While James has always spoken to me, Livingston has come to touch me more and more in recent years.
Livingston Taylor wrote a song in 1991, the year I turned thirty-eight, ten years after I emigrated to America. It moved me to tears then, but now, almost twenty years after that, I’m not sure how deeply I understood then what it would mean to me years later in 2008.
My trip to Sweden last month was divided between spending time with my elderly mother in her new apartment and joining her for her daily visits to the dementia ward where my father is.
When I arrived, my father was asleep in his wheelchair. He was hard to rouse, but when he finally opened his eyes the recognition was instant and unmistakable as he laughed and cried at the same time. He never spoke a word, but his fingers rubbed mine while I held his hand, and although his eyes drifted, they locked on to mine every so often, and sometimes his lips started working as if he tried to form words.
Since that moment, Livingston Taylor’s song “My Father’s Eyes” has been echoing in my mind almost constantly:
“My father stands before me
In a place that’s his alone.
I’m guided to the future
I have the world to roam.
I stand up and I’m counted
A million miles from home
I can see forever
In my father’s eyes
My father’s eyes
My father’s hands
Oh daddy quickly pick me up
When will I be a man
When will I live long enough
To make somebody fly?
When will the mirror show me
My father’s eyes?