I have been avoiding this post for a really long time. Weeks, actually. Because even though I knew exactly what I wanted to say, putting my thoughts into words took a little bit of courage. I always hope that someone, somewhere out there, finds meaning in the things that I write. But this time, I guess I’m hoping a little more fervently. I’m hoping that somebody will take something away from this post, because this time, it’s very personal to me.
The idea for this post started back in June, when I went to my first U2 concert. My sainted Moogie got us a pair of shiny general admission tickets, and when the day finally arrived, I couldn’t have been more excited. After spending about 30 dollars on water bottles, waiting for hours in what was basically a giant bowl, and being regaled by the utterly insane musical talents of OneRepublic, I finally—finally!—had the chance to see U2 in person for the very first time. First Larry, then Adam, then Bono and Edge. The Gibson Explorer, the purple Fender, a black cowboy hat, giant screens towered over by an immense and larger-than-life Joshua tree. Beautiful Dublin accents mispronouncing the name of our fair city, just as every local knew that they would. An emotional roller coaster, songs that hadn’t been played in 30 years, and the triumphant return of a band that hadn’t been in our area in more than a decade. My first U2 concert was everything that I dreamed it would be—and more.
I had worked so carefully, so diligently, to avoid tour spoilers that I was completely taken by surprise when [spoiler alert!] the band played Ultraviolet and Elevation and Beautiful Day! I was only fifteen feet or so away from the stage the entire time—I was that dancing idiot in the pineapple shorts waving my fist in the air, completely losing my dignity and not caring a bit.
And my favorite moment of the night? Finding out that my sainted Moogie knows all the words to Vertigo. If you have never heard your mother shouting, “Hello, hello—HOLA!”, then I strongly encourage you to do everything you can to make that happen as soon as possible. You will not regret it.
That night, it seemed like all of those favorite moments were stacking up for me. I have a carefully stockpiled cache of memories from that night in June that I will treasure in my heart forever. I knew long before I made it to the stadium that I would come away from that concert energized and full of new idea and experiences to share. I knew that I’d have a thousand different ideas to incorporate into my U2 Radio posts, and I was right. Songs that I’d only listened to once (or not at all) gained a new respect in my eyes, and songs that I’d never quite grasped before suddenly had new life breathed into them.
One of those songs was One Tree Hill. And that’s the reason that I’ve been putting off this article for so long. For those of you who don’t know the story behind One Tree Hill, the song was written in memory of one of the band’s friends, Greg Carroll. Carroll was from New Zealand, and he was killed in a motorcycle accident. I knew the basics of the inspiration for the song before I’d ever listened to it, but I had only ever listened to the song once. At the concert, when it came time to play the song, Bono recounted the story of his friend for the audience, and I will never forget what he said.
He said that he had lost his friend with no time to say goodbye, in a split second that changed everything. He said that many of us have lost someone that we hold in our hearts who reminds us of the fragility of life. That night, Bono dedicated the song to the victims of the shooting in Alexandria, Virginia. But for me, the song came to mean something very different.
I’ve been trying to avoid writing this post because despite all my big talk, I am not very good with my own emotions and I am certainly not very good at expressing them—particularly in front of other people. I don’t like exposing my deepest emotions to the outside world. But Bono’s words struck a chord with me that night. One Tree Hill struck a chord with me. Because very recently, I *did* lose someone close to me. One split second proved to me and my family that life truly is more fragile than we would like to believe. In one split second, I lost someone that I hold in my heart, and I never got a chance to say goodbye. None of us did.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m certain that she knew that I love her. But that isn’t quite the same as being able to really say goodbye. (And even now, it’s hard for me to write “knew” instead of “knows.”)
This person that I loved was a first-grade teacher. I may have met her in elementary school, but she continued to teach me long after that. She was the guiding light for many people, and she was one of the greatest people that I ever knew—even though she’d probably be too modest to think that of herself. She was wise, kind, gentle, compassionate—she was endlessly patient, both with children and with adults. I have never heard anyone say a cross word about her, and I can’t imagine that anyone ever would. She had a deep Christian love for all people that I only wish I could match. If I could someday grow up to become half the person that she was, I would rejoice.
Over the years, her family and mine became intertwined, and all of us became very close. They supported me even when some of my own family didn’t. They believed in me even when some of my other loved ones had me convinced that I was throwing my life away, and I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without her family in my life.
Her loss was very sudden and unexpected. She had a heart attack on the way to school. She was driving. She was alone. She died instantly. I found out at school, while I was student teaching. I cannot describe how I felt when I received the news. It was as if the earth had shifted around me. This beautiful person that I had taken for granted for so long was gone. She had been in my life very nearly for as long as I could remember, and in a split second, everything changed and I suddenly would never be able to see her again. I can’t even imagine what the kids in her class must have gone through. I don’t want to imagine what her family must be going through.
We lost her in March. Since then, there has scarcely been a day gone by that I haven’t thought of her at least once. Before that day in March, I had lost loved ones at various points in my life, but I had lost them to illness or old age. I knew that I would never see them again, but I was able to prepare myself so that even though the losses hurt, I was at peace in advance. I could give thanks that my loved ones would be in a better place, where their suffering was ended. But this was the first time that I’d lost somebody without any warning, and while I understand that God is in control and that this happened for a reason, I still miss her, and I am certain beyond all doubt that everyone else who knew her feels the same.
Bono’s eloquence at the beginning of One Tree Hill only served to give me a reminder of what I’ve already learned: that life is fragile, and people are fragile, and not a single second can afford to be wasted.
We will never be prepared for death. Not really. “No one knows the day or the hour… Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matthew 24:36-42). All of us are fragile and could be taken at any moment. I try to always say “I love you” over the phone, before I leave my grandfather’s house, when I say goodnight to my parents, when I’m talking to an old friend… I never refuse a hug. I want to live my life so that, if God forbid I should die tonight, the people in my life will know how much I cared. I’d like to encourage all of you to do the same, because life is fragile and we don’t always get the chance to say goodbye. …And even if we do, that honestly isn’t enough.
I apologize for the heavy topic, but this is a heavy song.
Let’s take a look at the lyrics of One Tree Hill.
The first verse, like many U2 lyrics, is built on contrasts: night versus day, cold versus bright, and moon versus sun. Since the verse depicts the sun going down, it’s safe to say that the sun and the daylight represent life. The “scars carved into stone” are the tomb, and the night must, of course, be death. When the day begs the night for mercy, we are embracing death; even the sun that “leaves no shadows” must give way to the “enduring chill” of night eventually. Death, like the sunset, is an inevitable change that all things must face. With every rotation of the Earth, the sun has no choice but to give in to the moon; likewise, all living things have no choice but to die.
The second verse is a little more difficult, especially because at first glance, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the rest of the song. (And in fact, I must confess that parts of this still confuse me.) The phrase “heart of darkness” comes from a novel by Joseph Conrad. It’s a weird little book that basically catalogues the evils of racism and imperialism, and implies that even the “civilized” world can be a place of darkness. The next few lines describe the way that Jara (a Chilean folk singer and political activist) was murdered for his music and his views. By saying that “his blood still cries from the ground,” Bono is making a reference to Genesis 4:10—Cain’s murder of his brother Abel.
With this verse, Bono is going from the “little” view of death—a personal loss–to a “bigger” view of death—the way that the entire world is darkened by loss. I could be wrong, but my interpretation is this: In a world where there is so much suffering and pain and loss already, why do so many people make the darkness worse by adding to it with needless violence? Death affects us all, and death claims us all; why do so many of us make the problem worse?
The third verse continues with the “big” view before shifting back into the personal realm. “Painted roses” are an allusion to the works of Lewis Carroll, where the characters try to trick the queen and get out of trouble by painting white roses red. “Bleeding hearts,” at least in English, is often a somewhat-derisive term for people who try to save the world with one social cause at a time—but sometimes these efforts are empty.
“I don’t believe in painted roses or bleeding hearts
While bullets rape the night of the merciful.”
Bono is saying that he doesn’t believe in false solutions or insincerity while innocent people are still losing their lives. The darkness in the world remains.
But that problem fades away with thoughts of the friend who’s been lost:
“I’ll see you again when the stars fall from the sky
And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill.”
This is an allusion to the book of Revelation; the end of the world, when the dead will be resurrected. Then again, the “end” will come for each of us when we die and reach heaven, and there we’ll be reunited.
And that idea of reunification brings me to my favorite part of the song. The repeating chorus: “We run like a river to the sea…”
We are, each of us, drops of water in a river. We’re small individuals, part of something greater than ourselves, but we’re always changing. None of us ever stay in one place. We have to keep moving and changing, and we’re carried away by the currents in our lives. All of us are swiftly coursing to the inevitable end. But the good news is that the end isn’t death. God is vast and unchanging. He’s stable and He is waiting for us beyond death, just as the sea waits for the rivers. Everyone with a basic knowledge of science knows that each drop of water on Earth must someday return to the ocean—and death is just our way of finding our way back home. It’s comforting to me to know that we’re on a journey, not just cast adrift, and that someday—someplace where things are a little less fragile—I will see my family again.
Until the end of the world, we will run like a river to the sea—but that’s the way things are meant to be.