You Are My Sunshine

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine 
You make me happy when skies are gray.

There is not a mother or child in my orbit that does not know the lyrics to this song. My guess is that even reading those words above, you are singing it, on tune, inside your head.  It appears coded in our DNA somehow, an act of love like a kiss, a hug, a sweet caress on the cheek. Singing it and hearing it is a rite of passage in caring and being cared for.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away.  

My mother sang it to me.  She had a sweet voice, gentle, warm, nothing flashy, but it got the job done.  Hearing it made me feel loved, held, and cherished.  In March of 2004, days after bleeding out from an undiagnosed brain tumor in front of a slot machine in the unlikely Biloxi, Mississippi, her children gathered around her hospital bed and sang it to her.  A primitive act of love and fear.

The other night dear, as I lay sleeping
I dreamt I held you in my arms

It is an unlikely song to sing to a child, a babe in your arms, isn’t it?  The loss in it is brutal and naked.  It is written as a song for lovers, but has been co-opted by those who care for us first, our parents, our first loves.  Love at first sight has never been as intense as that between parent and child.  Lovers come and go, but, in the natural order of things, parents stay, their love unconditional.  In a just world, that is how it should be.

When I awoke, dear, I was mistaken
So I hung my head and I cried

I cringe when I find myself in a setting with music and children and, invariably, this song finds its way into the repertoire of some overly cheerful performer who has the audacity to switch the lyrics up, masking the pain and loss, swapping its glorious humanity with some nonsense about lollipops and rainbows.  Blasphemous drivel that underestimates the capacity of children to learn and know that life can be hard and people may leave us.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine 
You make me happy when skies are gray.

Like my mother, I sang this song to my daughter. Like my mother, her name was Donna.  Like my mother, she died of a brain tumor.  Like my mother, she heard these words countless times, sung with love and heartbreak, from one who loved her most in the world, me.

You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you
Please don’t take my sunshine away.

It is impossible to convey what it is like to hold your child in your arms and on your lap, sing these words to her, knowing what she does not know, that she is dying.  Your sunshine, despite your pleas and prayers, will leave you, ferocious gray skies in its wake.  Your sunshine will go and your arms will ache and now you sing the words to yourself to recall those times you sang those words to the girl you loved most.

When you hear these lyrics, no matter where, you will sometimes find yourself telling a stranger, the now sad and awkward stranger devastated by your confession, that you sang that song at your daughter’s memorial service.

One time, you will hear that song in the middle of a Wiggleworms class, surrounded by mothers much younger than yourself, not yet broken by life and loss, and you will cry, then sob, remembering the girl you sang it to first, and you will feel badly and a little embarrassed for a moment, but then you won’t, because you don’t care, you stopped caring when you started grieving.

Another time, just a few months after your second sunshine named Donna died, you will walk into a tiny little shop in Northhampton, Massachusetts with your mother-in-law and see this on the wall:

You Are My Sunshine

And your mother-in-law, the one who first sang these words to the man you love most in this world, will see it, too.  And she will buy it for you, cost be damned, and you will cry together in that little shop in Northhampton, and then, a few weeks later, a slim cardboard box will arrive on your doorstep and you will open it and hammer a nail on your living room wall and hang the words that mean so very much to mothers and children everywhere, reminding you of your own mother and your own child you love dearly, the ones who left you, but who brought an intense and lasting sunshine to your life.



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