Episode 16: Unanswered Prayers - Nothing Can Last Forever
If I had to pick one type of media most integral to my daily life, it would have to be music. And that may surprise some of the people who know me in real life. Because I am a self-described and socially confirmed bookworm, which is a title that I love and feel right wearing. But at the same time, a recent dive into time-tracking has confirmed that most of my time is spent with music.
Which makes sense on some other front. When you consider things like background music for household chores or tools to calm one’s mind before sleeping. But on the other side of this expansive view, there’s a few reasons why this would make sense. The first one being that my mother was never all that into music, so that genetics card is likely not in my hand.
But that’s something about her that has always puzzled me. And sure, no child will ever understand every bit of their parents, but this particular thing is something my brain can never seem to process. It’s a simple factual statement that just can’t click into place.
And if you ask her, she doesn’t have much of an explanation, not that she needs one or that anyone but me would feel inclined to ask.
Playfully, I’ve always teased her that maybe the reason why she doesn’t like music is because she can’t talk over it, like you can—even if you shouldn’t—with other things. In other cases, the person can rely on the visual component to carry you through until she has made whatever comment she wanted to make, asked whatever question she wanted to ask, or say whatever she wanted to say. The whole family teases her about her being completely incapable of saying nothing for more than 20 minutes before the self-control gives way and words come flying out of her mouth. With music, sure—songs are short and relatively basic, so it’s not like missing one bit means missing out on a complete narrative arch or some key element on the story thereby leaving you completely lost, but on the other hand, you might miss out on a huge chunk of a song if not the entire song if she asks you a question that requires more than a yes or no answer. Not a big deal, cosmically speaking. But it does get noticed, particularly if it wasn’t a CD in the player we were listening to but the radio. And I might be dating myself a bit with that comment, but whatever.
Contrast that with my dad, who was not a talker but loved music and would always have the radio playing in his car. It was one of those differences that a couple has that makes you wonder how their relationship could possibly work, but in an absurd and not serious way. Like, it’s not a serious enough difference to mke you think their relationship is on the verge of imploding and causing quite bit of collateral damage on the way out. For example, whether or not to have kids and should the elderly parents move in or be placed in a retirement community. Rather, it’s the sort of thing that only feels important, but what we don’t realize is that this is the type of thing that can still be negotiated. Like situation from the radios to CDs and making sure that your CD player has a good back button.
In saying that,, I guess I got my love of music from him. As I did so many other things, but with him being gone for so long, it feels like I can’t be sure if I inherited this trait from him.
But—for sure—I did inherit his CDs.
(Music fades out)
Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 16.
(Music fades in)
Today, I want to talk about a specific song. Which I didn’t think I was ever going to do when I first launched this show just because I wasn’t sure how I was going to make an entire 30 minute episode about a single song. Clearly, though, I wasn’t thinking about “Unanswered Prayers” by Garth Brooks when I made that conclusion. It’s a song I’ve had with me for so long that my thoughts on it are numerous, expansive, over-baked and somewhat difficulty to put together. But bear with me, I guess. Because it was never going to get any easier.
My dad was the family chauffer when I was growing up. We had one car and a profound height difference between my two parents. So—ultimately—the most logical thing to do was set the car for the parent who didn’t walk to work and make him drive to literally everything. While it was the family’s car, it was technically his car. Because he was the one using it all the time, he was the one who kept track of all the day to day things that went into having a car. He knew when the engine was having difficulties, and he knew what it was supposed to sound like. He knew when the tank was last filled and if gas was being used at a normal rate. He was the one who changed the oil, and he was the one who took the car to the car wash. And most of all, he was the one who stocked the car’s CD holders.
It was a weird system. But it worked for us without issue until the day Dad died. The car lasted a few years after that—long after we as a family should have replaced it. However, that’s getting ahead of myself.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
Mom would normally come with us to all my activities, but she drew the line when it came to my karate classes. They made her incredibly nervous, especially the fighting or self-defense drills. The forms, she was completely fine with, but my instructor took the art form very seriously, so there was not going to be any picking and choosing. He told my parents that I was free to leave and go to a different school, but if I wanted to stay at that center, I had to adhere to his rules. And that meant participating in everything. I think this strict nature was what my dad like about him. He liked me being around teachers who were never going to cut me a break but weren’t overly mean or abusive about it. So even when the school moved to a location further away from our home, Dad still kept me in the program. To him, it was worth the added drive and inconvenience because he was absolutely convinced that this instructor would make me a better person. And he was right, but that’s a story for another time.
As for me, I did love my karate classes. I don’t remember why I loved it so much. But to toss around a few ideas. It was a community I fit into far better than the one I had at school. It was fun. My instructor—despite his more serious demeanor—was a genuinely funny person who used to lightheartedly tease us, but he always knew when to stop. His life lessons were actual life lessons and hearing them made me feel a lot more grown up. And—obviously—there was something empowering about an activity based around smacking punching bags and learning how to defend yourself in a potentially dangerous situation.
But even saying all of that, I still loved the car rides more. With my dad being as soft spoken and almost conversation-averse, our car rides together were our best chance to talk. It was when I didn’t have to doubt that I had his full attention, uninterrupted for at least forty-five minutes. That being said, he died before I actually needed this time—or his death set forth the events that created this need. And maybe, I could have stopped him at any time if I needed to talk rather than having to wait for the next car ride. Actually, I probably could have. Quiet doesn’t mean unavailable, only that it sometimes can feel that way. But like I said, time with him wasn’t something I felt inclined to seek out that the time. It was just nice to know that I had it.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
Dad would usually have music playing on this car rides. His taste in music was rather eclectic. He was certainly willing to listen to pretty much anything, especially if I brought one of my CDs to the car, but he definitely hovered around a few specific CDs at various points in my life. If I thought more about it, I could probably break down what little time we had together into different music-related eras, but honestly, it’s not something I can attempt without falling into a very specific type of grief related pain that I don’t want to explain right now or experience.
But I do know that there was this phase of his when the only CD that ever sat in the player was a Garth Brooks one, namely his second compilation album, called The Hits. And this phase happened towards what would be the end of my father’s life.
I don’t remember most of the songs on the album, to the point that despite how long it spent playing in the background of my life, I’m convinced I haven’t heard all the tracks. Because at some point, we started hovering around tracks eight through ten. The tenth track “Standing Outside the Fire” was my favorite song on the album. The eighth track, “If Tomorrow Never Comes,” was my mom’s favorite, or so she said. At that point, she had started coming along more frequently due to—I imagine—my father’s failing health. And the ninth track, of course “Unanswered Prayers,” just got stuck in the middle of this back and forth.
Up until recently, I always thought that those were his favorite tracks too, but now, I’m not so sure. Well, obviously they probably weren’t. Now, I really think he only played those songs on repeat because those were the ones Mom and I professed to like. [Side note: if you have heard or are in any way familiar with the song “If Tomorrow Never Comes” you’ll understand why I’m skeptical that my mom genuinely liked it and didn’t have some sort of well-meaning but ulterior motive.]
(Music gradually fades out)
It bothers me far too much that I don’t know what my dad’s favorite song on that album was or on any of the many albums he kept in his car. I know he wasn’t the type to say but I wish he had told me. I wish I knew what they were.
(Music fades in)
“Unanswered Prayers” was just crammed in there, but I still listened to it so many times that I had the words memories, even though I was completely disinterested in it.
In this song, you have a man who has just returned to his hometown with his wife, and together they are going to a football game at his old high school. And while at this game, they run into his high school flame. Which might not be the most accurate use of that term, considering he and this other woman were never together. Then again, there’s an infinite amount of other things that would be better uses of my time than trying to police the use of that particular term. Also, I didn’t have a high school flame by any stretch of that definition, so I’m not even invested in that fight on a personal level.
But back to the point, see, this man and his so called high school flame were never actually together. Which was the problem. High school him genuinely thought he was in love with this girl, and so, he prayed fervently every night that he and this girl would end up together. Cue all the standard praying techniques and bargaining chips. All the offerings in the world felt worth it to be with this perfect angel of a woman.
But that never happened. Well, the praying did happen, but despite all that he said or offered, despite all of his many pleas and promises, he did not end up with this girl. And after high school they went their separate ways, and it’s implied that this chance meeting is the first time they’ve seen each other since then.
In that time, our narrator man has met his aforementioned wife and presumably has done a lot of other living, which she has also done, I guess but she’s not the one telling this limited story so who knows... And ultimately, at this chance meeting, it’s like they barely recognize each other. At the very least, they certainly aren’t the people they were in high school. They’ve grown up and apart.
In that conversation, the narrator gets the closure he never got in high school and never thought to want after graduation. But he can see, clearly, he and this woman could have never made it long term and missing out on that potential relationship saved him the difficulties of a harsh breakup at best or costly divorce at worst. Most of all, however, it made it possible for him to meet his beautiful wife, someone he is actually compatible with and with whom he can build a very happy life.
And ultimately, he attributes this to God’s wisdom. He expresses gratitude that God didn’t answer his prayers and left him on track to live out a better life. And finally concludes, that there are just times when the greatest thing God can do for you is leave your prayers unanswered.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
It may be a good thing that commenting on a podcast episode is difficult if not outright impossible because if that were not the case right now this is where various debates about religion at varying degrees of intensity and rationality breaking out in the comment sections. In some ways, it’s understandable because this song has very overt religious tones, and religion and politics are two topics that are quick to make people’s blood boil. They’re also things that I think should be discussed and debated as a way for humanity as a whole to converge on whatever ultimate truth may be out there. But the idea of the core at this song doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious one. If you pull a form of the “death of the author” card, one that includes the narrator and the narrator’s beliefs, you can find a pretty important lesson lurking at the core of this song.”
Because, ultimately, even if you don’t believe in an all-knowing and all-powerful deity, you can still admit that sometimes things work out for the better, even if in the moment, they don’t seem to go our way. Say, for example, you missed your bus, but when you caught the next one, you sat next to someone who had a button on their bag for your favorite YouTuber, and suddenly there was a friendship there. Or you’re horrible stomach flu saved you from being put on a project at work that ended up failing miserably. Full crash and burn. No holds bar. And veryone involved got fired.
Or maybe—and most simply—maybe that unfulfilled love made it possible for you to meet someone that really did become the love of your life. Take the events of the song and remove the callout to God. Does that make it easier for you to take? Does that make it easier for you to accept?
After all, in this review, I’m not talking about religion. At all. I’m talking about the idea that sometimes things work out better when they don’t go the way we want. Sure, preteen me might have clung to the religious aspect, assuming I was paying attention which I must have been because I knew all the words to that song. But maybe I didn’t think too much into it or just let the song seep into my world view unchallenged.
I’m not sure. The latter seems to make the most sense. At that point in my life, I was a sponge, absorbing everything my parents exposed me to without question. Which—especially in the case of my father—was all aligned to a very specific world view. And I mean specific, he held what many would fall conflicting views but at the heart of it, they meshed together in a very logical way. It was just a very specific, logical way. Not that preteen me would have understood his logic. But he still wanted me to take everything he said at face value, trusting that I could figure out why later.
Which… Look, parenting has different aspects. This life mentoring and life coaching aspect is something my dad had a hit or miss type record. Ultimately, his goal wasn’t to make me a carbon copy of him or his beliefs but for me to be a good person. But at the same time, he likely wouldn’t have been thrilled at the prospect of his daughter going across the country to some place where he couldn’t watch over her and protect her from people who meant her harm.
Do you see the weird dichotomy here? He wanted to empower me to do the right and just thing, but because he knew other people couldn’t be trusted to do the same, he went into lock down mode. Or he would have, had he lived.
And that’s where the problem comes in
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
He would have wanted me to go to college, yes. He would have supported me getting whatever degree I could imagine, but at the same time, he would have pushed for me to go to the college by our home, which was still a good school or he would have even supported me going to one of the many trade schools in the area. A smart idea but not one many parents can get behind in this day and age. That’s a lot of support right there, and all he’d be asking in return is for me to stay close by.
But ultimately, that one condition would be the problem. I’ve mentioned before—many times before on this podcast—that I couldn’t have stayed in Arizona. Family matters weren’t very high on that list in terms of reasons why. I just didn’t have a place for me in that community, through no one’s fault. And while his death had exasperated that feeling, had he lived, it would have still been there. It would always be there.
When I think about how happy I am in my new life, a life few people back in Arizona would have approved of, it just confirms how badly I needed to leave, that dad’s death was an inconsequential issue in this context, and that the only future I could have had in Arizona was a dark one, if I had one at all.
That’s a heavy statement that maybe I shouldn’t drop like that, but while it’s the truth, it’s not one that requires too much of an explanation. Simply and more universally, people just outgrow their hometown like they outgrow their childhood beds, clothes, rooms, and habits. When it’s an object like a shirt, we move on without much thought. And it’s probably easy to do just because shirts are small things that are largely replaceable. But hometowns and the people therein, that’s all something you only get once. And maybe it’s harder to admit that something that has so much of us in it and is so integral to our identity needs to be dropped. Or thrown out like… like, well, old trash. Of course, when it’s a bad relationship, it’s far easier to do.
But if he had asked me to stay, I would have stayed. And I don’t know what would have become of me.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
For all the problems there are with college and the college system, for many, it’s the best chance you have to get away from the dysfunctions of your childhood and home life and find your own way, your own beliefs, and admittedly your own dysfunctions formed amongst people with different beliefs and ways that you may have never encountered before.
I could say this a thousand times without ever lessening the impact of this statement, but I needed to leave my hometown. I needed to go to the school that I did, meet the people that I did, read the books I did, and learn the things I did. And all of it happened there.
Simple factual statements. And yet, there’s some problems to it, I guess. Hard declarations like that—considering the scope of the universe both around us and in our own minds—put me off. They can be hard to fully grasp, their counterexamples are easy to imagine making the argument rather weak, and they often depend on information the speaker may not be inclined to give. The latter is certainly true, here. There’s a lot I don’t know if I should say and more I don’t want to say.
But maybe, I don’t need you to believe it so much as trust that I believe them to be true. Because this belief is at the core of my problem.
In college, I took classes with people who focused on lessons rather than material. Yay for the social sciences, I guess, or at least for professors within the social sciences who recognized that the students who take university requirements don’t need to be able to quote authors verbatim so much as they need to understand the underlying lessons. To that end, they are going to do and use whatever they need to in order to convey those lessons to you.
And that’s how “Unanswered Prayers” came up, in a lecture that included a discussion on fortune that happened completely outside any notions of modern conceptions of the Christian God. You see, fortunes can be fickle and can happen independent of whatever the recipient thinks is right.
It was the first time I heard that song since Dad died. When he died, Mom took over the car and started playing Kenny Rogers because he reminded her of my dad. I took the rest of Dad’s CDs from the car and to college with me. But by then, CDs were largely dead. I still had a player, but it skipped constantly. It was dying and not worth replacing. By then. Dad’s CDs were more of a memento than anything else. Things that I had way too much of in my college dorm room. Because I just wanted to have him with me. Somehow.
Now you bet I was praying when my dad was dying, prying that he would live somehow despite what the doctors were telling me and my mom. I dropped to my knees and pleaded with God every time he was sick, which was fairly frequently. I swear at the time all these things were happening, I was willing to bargain with any cosmic deity just to have more time with him.
It’s not like the acceptance phase hit, and I suddenly became okay with his death. Me being completely okay with his death has never happened nor will ever happen. Probably. I’m not okay that the hand of cards life gave me… that I would lose my dad at a young age. The reality of it is just… it’s just something I don’t question anymore. And I guess it was because I was so young that I didn’t think about what this would all mean to simply think “this is the way my life is.” I didn’t think about what it means to think “I’m not going to fight this truth anymore.” Or the implications of this divergence in my life’s plan.
But when I heard the song again, the question was forced. And then I didn’t know what to do. How can I say that my life was truly better because my father died?
I didn’t want to say that. But honestly? For a moment, it seemed like it.
(Music fades out and new music fades in)
I listened to that song almost nonstop for a while. Well covers of it. See aforementioned problems trying to use a CD in year that is not too far from current year. And actual downloads of the Garth Brooks track can be hard to find but covers are all over YouTube.
It was a heavy time. I didn’t want to believe I had a better life without my dad. Because, yes, he had many flaws, but he wasn’t a bad person. He wasn’t perfect, but he was my dad. And I love him. And he loved me. There was no way that things could be better without him, that I was better off not having him. There was no way this was the best life for me, right?
When I would think like this,I would be stuck in a very dark mood. I was in one of these moods when a knock came on my dorm room door. It was somewhat late into the evening but not yet what any college student would call nighttime. The lights in my room were on and visible from the outside, so there’s no way I could have pretended to not be home. Or actually, with dorm life being what it is, I could have pretended to not be home. It just didn’t occur to me at the time.
So I stood up and walked over to the door and saw someone who in about four months would become my best friend.
“Hey, I’m getting food,” she said. “You should come.”
I looked down at my old pajamas. The faded fabric, on the brink of tearing, had pink teddy bears all over it. They were the only part of the design you could make out.
“I’m going to have to change,” I replied.
She answered, “You’re fine. You can go like that.”
I hesitated. She insisted.
“No one’s going to see you,” she said.
Well, she was wrong. Many people saw including someone I was crushing on at the time. But even in the moment, it was just funny. The absurdity of being dragged out for fast food while wearing my teddy bear pajamas wasn’t lost on me, not even in the moment. It was just funny. There’s no need to be embarrassed and miss out on that joy. What is my embarrassment going to change? It wasn’t going to give me a new pair of pants.
I got home pretty late that night. Much to my father’s dismay, I imagine. But at the same time, I started to think that he could have gotten over it. Because I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed that hard or felt that happy. It was the kind of life he wanted for me, even if it was in a different place.
Once when we were in the car, he told me he’d support me in anything I wanted to do. I’m not sure how the topic came up, but I’m sure that’s what he said.
And I don’t know why, but I replied, “Until I’m a teenager, and then that’s all out the window.”
It was just a stereotype, but repeating it made me feel more adult. Like, by mocking teenagers, I was more grown up than one. It didn’t make sense, but I was also twelve.
Dad was silent for a moment, not finding my joke funny. “You know, if you give me enough notice, you can pretty much do whatever you want. But you have to let me get use to the idea. That’s it. I just need time.”
He didn’t see me in high school, but if he had, he would have seen me pouring over those college brochures I was getting bombarded with as an honors student. He would have seen me looking at the pictures of campuses in faraway places and loosing myself in dreams of what could be. He would have realized what was happening. He’d have his time. And ultimately, he would have let me go.
(Music fades out and new music starts)
And that’s the other message of the song “Unanswered Prayers.” It’s certainly not that we need to be grateful for the tragedies in our lives whenever something vaguely related works out for us. But that people change, for worse or better in subjectively and objectively. Even parents can become more of what we need them to be, like more hands off. Or they can learn to do what we need them to do, like let us go despite their fears.
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