HUFFPOST PERSONAL

How Going To A Dead & Company Concert With A Stranger Helped Me Heal After Losing My Son

"I hate crowds and loud rock music, but I was being offered a gift: the chance to learn more about my son all these years after he was taken from me."
Matt and Judy on Shakedown Alley at the Dead & Company show at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, in Ju
Matt and Judy on Shakedown Alley at the Dead & Company show at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California, in July 2018.

I froze when I saw the subject line “Jason.” I quickly opened the email and found the following message:

Hi, Mrs. Nelson,

I never met you, but I was friends with Jason in college and we used to hang out a lot, especially the year he died.

We were going to be roommates senior year... 

I hope you are doing well after all these years…

And I hope my note doesn’t bring back unnecessary pain.

I just wanted you to know that he is not forgotten.

All the best, Matt

I wanted to hit the “delete” button — the email brought me back in time to the voicemail Jason’s dad left me at midnight 29 years ago.

It was the day after Christmas and my husband Jim and I had come home late from a party. I saw the light blinking on the answering machine and pushed play. 

 “Judy, call me. There’s been ... ” 

It was Jason’s dad. His voice didn’t have its usual harsh and demanding tone ― instead it was slow and halting.

Before he had finished the sentence, I deleted the message. I knew.

Jason had been on a scuba diving vacation in Cozumel, Mexico, with his stepbrother. I was so worried about a scuba accident it didn’t occur to me they would rent mopeds and go bar-hopping. Or that they would ride home without wearing helmets on a dark highway with giant speed bumps. Or that Jason, most likely speeding and tipsy, would hit one of those bumps at high speed, crash headfirst into a tree, and die instantly — two months before turning 21.

Losing my only child ripped a permanent gash in my heart. I saved my sanity and assuaged my agony by writing him letters every day for months but I had nowhere to send them.

*

Many people seem to think grievers should be done grieving after a year.

When a longtime friend of mine lost her son in a plane crash 10 years after Jason died, she held an annual celebration of his life. At the second party, a guest leaned over to me and said, “It’s been two years, for Christ’s sake. Why doesn’t she just get over it?” I excused myself to get a strong drink.

Jason and Judy hiking in the California Redwoods, ca. 1986.
Jason and Judy hiking in the California Redwoods, ca. 1986.

*

I printed Matt’s email and brought it to Jim to read. His eyes watered, and he held me in a silent embrace.

I wrote back to Matt:

Dear Matthew,

You can’t know how much it means to me to hear from you and learn that you think of Jason so many years later. And, no, your words do not bring up pain but rather joy to know that his memory is still alive. I would like to chat with you and hear any stories you might be able to share about your time with Jason.

Soon we were communicating every few weeks.

I learned he was a professor of biology — a subject Jason had loved. In fact, they met when they both signed up for biology class.

“Today we will do an experiment in muscle conductivity. It will hurt a little, but just like a pinprick,” Matt told me the professor had said. “Any volunteers?”

“I’ll do it,” Jason instantly replied, his hand waving in the air.

*

When Matt suggested we attend a performance of the Grateful Dead spinoff group Dead & Company together in a 20,000-seat amphitheater near San Francisco, I laughed. I’d already told him about the time Jason wanted to attend a Dead show when he was 12.

“Mom, Mom, Guess what? My friends have an extra ticket for a Grateful Dead show tomorrow night and they’ve invited me! Can I go, Mom? Please,” he’d begged.

“You know how I feel about that band,” I told him. “Just look at that awful logo. They’re evil, devil-worshipping druggies and you are not going near them!”  

Jason finally stomped off, muttering. He stayed mad until I finally coaxed a giggle out of him with a bad joke and a cookie.

Knowing how that interaction had gone, Matt threw me a challenge.

“How about I take you to a Grateful Dead concert to show you how wrong you are!” he suggested.

I hate crowds and loud rock music, but Matt was offering me a gift: a chance to understand why Jason loved The Grateful Dead so much and ― a chance to understand more about Jason all these years after he was taken from me.

*

I hope Matt doesn’t see how winded I am, I think as I puff up the hill behind him at the outdoor amphitheater we’ve traveled to for the concert. I hear Jason’s voice in my head — “You can do it, Mom!” — and I power forward.  

Matt is on the cusp of 50, the same age Jason would have been today. I am 75 years old. I had not planned on the curves the universe has thrown my way. Some, like aches and pains from arthritis, were expected. However, I never anticipated the shortness of breath and low energy caused by an unexpected cardiac condition.

Matt keeps climbing along the edges where people have set up blankets and folding chairs on the grass of the large meadow. Zigzagging through the crowd, he heads to one of the few unclaimed spots and pops open two green canvas folding chairs, which he sets side by side on the grass. It’s late in the day, but the lingering summer light casts a soft glow.

Matt eases himself into his seat. I struggle to ease myself into mine.

Jason and his spirit animals at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, ca. 1985.
Jason and his spirit animals at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, ca. 1985.

*

In the months before the concert, my friends offered lots of suggestions to help me maximize the experience. “Get a fake tattoo,” one advised. “Put some stripes of color in your hair,” another said, adding, “Don’t forget to wear a tie-dye shirt.” These friends knew me from the 1980s when I wore the businesswoman’s uniform: conservative suits with a little bowtie. “How about if just wear a brightly colored shirt?” I asked. “TIE DYE!” they insisted.

*

I meet Matt for breakfast on the day of the show wearing a tie dye shirt. Matt is handsome, matching my 5-feet 10-inch lanky frame and three inches taller than Jason was, with brown hair and a receding hairline, a salt-and-pepper beard and brown eyes. I think of Jason’s sun-bleached blond hair, big blue eyes and clean-shaven face.

The band hasn’t taken the stage yet, but most of the crowd is dancing as if to their own music. Almost everyone is standing except for a few couples under their blankets making creative uses of the descending darkness. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one baby named Jerry or Jeraldine is born nine months from now.

A few feet away, a portly, barefoot, grinning, gray-haired man in his early 60s is trying to dance. He’s wearing a tie-dye shirt, and his knobby knees and hairy legs are sticking out under wrinkled Bermuda shorts. When he gyrates his way up the hill, he pauses, bends over, grabs my hand and plants a sloppy kiss on the back of it before he continues on. Matt points to one corner of the amphitheater where several colorfully dressed girls are spinning in place. They must be the twirlers I’d learned about online who dance to experience a high at these shows. I had assumed the high must be drug-related, but as I watch them spin, I’m reminded of the ecstasy some religious groups reportedly get from intense singing and praising the Lord.

A buzz of excitement whips through the crowd. Matt jumps up and pulls me to my feet as the band members file onstage with their instruments. The crowd claps, cheers and whistles, arms waving in the air, brightly colored beach balls popping up everywhere.

With the first note, everyone sways or dances to the music, eyes closed, arms still waving in the air. What would Jason have done if he were here, I wonder. I know he would be grinning and every now and then would have winked at me or given me a hug.

I’m moved to try a mini-sway. The motion feels soothing, but after a few minutes, my legs buckle. I lean on Matt’s arm and sit down. He is gentle and understanding and so much like Jason, it chokes me up.

Matt resumes swaying while Bob Weir and John Mayer, who has joined the band to play some shows, belt out “Iko Iko,” a song I had listened to online before coming to the show. The crowd joins in and, after a few refrains, so do I. We all chant “Hey now!” at the right moments. Jason would have loved this!

“Awesome!” he would have said in every other sentence.

A rainbow of constantly changing psychedelic patterns throbs on the big video screen behind the band throughout the night. It gives me a feeling of calm I’ve rarely known since before Jason died.

I’d read about the band’s infamous “wall of sound” that was used in the ’70s and I’d been warned about how loud the music would be, so I brought earplugs. It turns out to be a more melodious experience than I expected. Every few minutes, pot smoke wafts over from the enthusiastic individuals vaping on the blanket next to us. I’m feeling mellow and it’s not just the pot.

I’m at one giant, gentle party where total strangers drop by, as if we’ve been friends forever. When intermission comes, I realize I don’t want this show to end.

One young man, barely out of his teens, is wearing a two-sizes-too-small tattered green suit, no shirt and high-top shoes. Another bent-over old man with white hair, weather-beaten skin and missing teeth carries a cane and sports a dirty, frayed shirt with a Grateful Dead logo. I spot a tall, slim woman in her 50s wearing a black dress with 20 strands of brightly colored beads around her neck. She takes a deep drag on what looks like a cigarette.

Jason must have been to at least a few of these concerts, I think. Maybe he even met some of these people.

“This is the last song,” Matt says, helping me to my feet. The stage comes alive with even brighter colors and flashing lights that make star shapes in the air as the band sings “Casey Jones” to hoots and whistles. Then I hear the lyrics that make me wince: “High on cocaine ... ”

It began slowly, but over time I started having trouble picturing Jason’s face ... Even scarier, I couldn’t remember the specific times we spent together ... But at this moment, my arm grazing Matt’s, I can suddenly picture Jason standing next to me again and I can almost feel our elbows touching.

I wait for the fear I used to feel about those lines that I thought encouraged drug use but it doesn’t come. Instead, something else does: a sensation I’d thought was long gone. Over the past few decades, the feeling of Jason sitting next to me on the couch watching television, our hips or legs touching, or riding in the car and grinning beside me, had disappeared. It began slowly, but over time I started having trouble picturing Jason’s face: the exact color of his eyes, the curve of his chin. Even scarier, I couldn’t remember the specific times we spent together, or recall the content of our conversations. But at this moment, my arm grazing Matt’s, I can suddenly picture Jason standing next to me again and I can almost feel our elbows touching.

The sensation is electric. 

*

Music is at the center of my memory of the last time I saw Jason. We were at his dad’s house in Delaware and had the place to ourselves. Jason was taking piano lessons and wanted to show me what he’d learned. I slid over on the piano bench next to him, close enough so our bodies were touching. He played Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and each haunting note was perfect. When he finished, he turned towards me. “Mom, you’re crying,” he said as he wiped a tear from my face. “So are you, Sweetie,” I said doing the same for him. We reached for each other for a long, lovely embrace. It was our last one. That moment is etched in my soul. And now so is this one in this field.

*

The music is winding down and then Bob Weir appears onstage again, followed by John Mayer. Matt inhales sharply. “They’re going to play it!” he whispers.

We hear the first, gentle notes of “Ripple.”

I remember Matt had seen two Dead shows in Chicago with his wife, Jennifer, and had emailed me about the song.

“‘Ripple’ is a big deal, because it makes you think about those who have passed on,” he wrote. “It’s the first time I heard it live and I had a few tears thinking about Jason.”

Matt slips his arm through mine and we sway with the crowd. Each note connects me more to Jason and it offers me a sense of peace. When I hear the final words, “If I knew the way, I would take you home ... ” I realize Matt’s gift has finally allowed me to take Jason home — if only in my heart. And I hear a voice in the breeze softly whisper, I love you, Mom. I told you you’d love the music. Isn’t it awesome?

Judy Nelson is in the 15th year of her encore career as an executive coach and writer. She is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council and has law and master’s degrees. For 30 years, she was CEO for child abuse prevention organizations in three states. Judy also hosted an online radio talk show on leadership. Her book “Intentional Leadership: Using Strategy in Everything You Do and Say” was published in 2016. She has publication credits including Forbes, INC, NextAvenue and TheMuse. Judy lives with the love of her life, a retired physician who shares his beautiful children, grands and greats. The couple resides in Southern California with Morris, their rescue maltipoo and resident comedian. For more information, visit www.JudyNelsonWriter.com.

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