The Soul in the Man and his Music


I know that I just finished a blog, but I feel compelled to write this today. While cleaning, I happened upon the movie, Ghosts of Mississippi, about the murder of Medgar Evers. During part of the movie, his brother, a DJ, played blues in his honor and spoke of the legend of Robert Johnson. Legend has it that he sold his soul to the devil to be able to play the guitar as well as he did. It couldn’t help but bring back memories of Sean. Sean never sold his soul, and his musical talent was a gift from angels. You can see it in his face.

The thing is, I write about bipolar disorder and Sean’s battles with it. Have I written enough about Sean?  I think not. I am doing him an injustice if I don’t reveal the depth of his soul. Sean was an encyclopedia of the blues, and the blues belong to the blacks of the South. They were often songs of pain, but just as often, songs of the joy they found in life despite what they faced. Sean’s attachment wasn’t superficial. He felt their feelings. It may have started when he was about 8 years old. (I may have already told this story, but it’s the beginning of his empathy for a culture that was as far away from his as possible). Sean came home one day and told me he got the lead in a play. I asked who it was, and he said, “I don’t know, but he says ‘I have a dream.’” I told him not to bank on the part, but he was given the lead role. He and his sister went to a Magnet school on the border of Camden, New Jersey. It was a very racially mixed school and Sean was as blonde and white as a kid could be. He studied tapes. Read books. Was deliberate in his outfit (no pink ties in 1963).  He was so enraptured with Martin Luther King, that he could replicate his accent, certainly his passion. Sean surprised me, more than anyone, when my very shy son brought the audience to tears, as well as the High School to a standing ovation.

I’m not sure that connecting with Felix Reyes at a guitar show was an accident. He was already engaged in the history of blacks in the South. He played the songs of old bluesmen with reverence, and never marginalized the blues. It wasn’t just a way to play killer guitar; he felt the music from the bottom of his soul (and the tips of his toes, if you watch him play.)  I consider myself a champion for the underdog and always chose to work in places with a mission, but today, I realized that I never felt hurt the way that he did. One day, I told him how much I loved Charleston. He replied that he didn’t like it at all…”it has a heavy slave vibe…can’t you feel it, Mom?”

His empathy didn’t stop with blues or the plight of blacks in America. As a gifted student, he and his class watched a film on Auschwitz. After the film, he was in PE when some kids said they were going to form a Nazi party. Sean was a pretty popular kid, and not one to rat out another kid. Nonetheless, he went to his teacher in tears and told her about the conversation. His teacher called me, surprised at his reaction, asking “but he’s Catholic, isn’t he?”  (As if that should make a difference!) He asked me not to tell his stepdad about the incident, so he wouldn’t get upset (Glenn is Jewish). That was Sean. Feeling. Advocating. Courageous. Loyal.

His high school years reflected an ongoing connection to other cultures. His first girlfriend was Hispanic (as were others). He was going to Puerto Rico with their family, so he taught himself Spanish, telling me that it was rude to go to another country and not be able to speak their language, or learn their culture. I found out years later (and not through Sean) that he was taking Mexican kids for job interviews, as he was fluent in Spanish.

Why do I feel so motivated to write these things today…stories that I’ve told with pride so many times?  I think it’s because today’s movie brought me to tears in a way that it never did before. I think it’s because I was looking at it through Sean’s heart.

When we talk about someone who is bipolar or has an addiction, we often marginalize them. They become their disease and their humanity is wiped away. Sean has even a tougher time being viewed as his family, and I see him. He would give you his shoes, his shirt, his money, his guitar…just ask all of those people that he gave those things too. Most of all he gave his heart and soul to anyone who heard him play. Nonetheless, he was no superhero. He was a boy and then a man who felt more than most of us do. He lived pretty much unselfishly.  He needed help and understanding…what he gave so freely to others. His vulnerabilities were hidden in the strength of his convictions.

When we talk about people challenged with mental illness, I would wish that we could make two columns to describe them: one, the symptoms that they wrestled with every day; and two, the characteristics that made them human. I think the second column would bring us closer to understanding who they are. It would reflect how they are more like the rest of us than not.

In some cases, like creative people who are bipolar, they feel things with a greater intensity. See things with a greater clarity. Emote things with a greater freedom.

This was true for my son. I am so proud of him. His music was his gift to the world. His person was the source of his music and his gift to those who knew him.

There are many people that knew this side of Sean and just didn’t believe that he wasn’t in as much trouble as he was. Or maybe they ignored it because they needed with he gave them. Unfortunately, he needed the world to replenish the energy he expended. He needed shelter from the recognition of the injustices of the world. I would hope that another Sean gets back from the world what he gives.  Maybe the story of Sean is that there is no difference among people…not race, religion or culture…he didn’t think so. He felt for their challenges as they did. The lesson that Sean can teach us is that there is no difference between us and someone who has a mental illness… we all feel the same range of emotions. Sean’s music lends insight, understanding, fear, sadness, courage. Call it bipolar, or call it human. I call it wonderful.


2 thoughts on “The Soul in the Man and his Music

  1. Mary Gerdt on said:

    This touched me deeply. Thank you for telling your son’s story. He was so talented. Thank you for sharing some of his challenges and his path. Have a good veteran’s day. I posted a link to Sean’s video of When the Battle is Over and am still astonished. My heart goes out to you who lost him. mary

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