I love the Grateful Dead. Naturally, when my three uncles — lovers of all things Grateful Dead — invited me to join their caravan hightailing it to Chicago for the July 4th weekend, I burst with excitement. As you may already know, the four remaining members of the Dead reunited to play their (supposed) final three shows in honor of the band's 50th anniversary, and I was thrilled to be joining in on the festive occasion.
While my generation is younger than that of ‘proper' Deadheads, I nonetheless identify with the community, and in fact I went to Chicago thinking I was very much part of the community — in other words, together with all Deadheads in mutual feeling. Colored by my glorified notions of the Grateful Dead, I expected youthful joy and uplifting gaiety: unadulterated innocence.
I arrived in Chicago only to discover the extent of my own lonesome innocence. Surrounding me were years and years of triumph, despair, love, transformation, and mostly a deep gratitude toward a band that, for many, represents more than a band: they’re the gravitational center of a community bound minimally by a love of the music. At the extreme, people could not imagine their life without the Grateful Dead.
Compared to these veterans of life, 22 years old hadn’t ever felt younger. I had sympathy. But, I remained distanced; inexperience left me feeling foreign. I couldn’t empathize.
The words ‘sympathy' and ‘empathy' developed from the Ancient Greek roots sympathes and empatheia. Related by their second syllable pathos meaning feeling or emotion, the words’ key difference lies in their prefixes; syn- means 'together with’ and en- means ‘in or into.’
Sympathy — feeling together with — names those feelings found outside the body. Togetherness is external and mutually experienced, recognized, and categorized as such.
Alternatively, empathy — feeling into — penetrates. The feeling is experienced as if it originated within the body of the feeler. Emotional identification. A person connects with the internal experience of another, as if it were his, her, or their own.
To my surprise, a substantial yet indiscernible heaviness filled the Chicago air, which may have been due to my appearance: I’m a spitting image of my dad — his gait, slender frame, and prominent jaw. Or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Upon arriving, I joined a group of his closest friends, who were all quick to mistake me for him.
My father died of Leukemia when I was young, so the memories I have of him, which there are few, are most likely fabricated, a product of a young mind in need of an image or a feeling to grasp in times of uncertainty. Over the weekend, when I was frequently reminded of our similarity, and when near-strangers hugged me with the affection of years of friendship, I, for a moment, became him. Uncles became brothers, and people who typically went by Rob, Jamie, and Jimmy introduced themselves to me as Buddy, Boogie, and Z — names earned through our reputed years of camaraderie and mischief.
I was happy, to be sure. The circus was in town, and how privileged I was to join in on the (supposed) final round of Dead shows. Yet, happiness only nestles so deep.
The Grateful Dead are iconic because of their range. Charging out of the gate, 80,000 people joyfully roared alongside the band during "Jack Straw" and then became instantly teary-eyed from a delicate "Ripple." While I appreciated the enormity, I was ambivalent about the whole affair. Feeling both warmly received, yet inexorably distanced. What was I supposed to feel?
Ever present was the void hanging in the air. He’s gone.
Jerry Garcia, the Dead saint and lost legend stood in for all who couldn’t be there. And, I was turned and twisted in utter confusion, knowing only my stark and bare mortality. I couldn’t cry over my unreal Water Dog named Bertha or my Pitbull named Stella Blue. I haven’t lost lifelong friends, brothers, nor old tour buddies. I haven’t road tripped the country, seeing show after show, tour after tour. But, I have listened to the band for years, read a ton, and followed the remaining members’ other musical projects.
At the show, I was introduced to a stout gleeful man who, after learning I was the son of his old friend, promptly delivered a heartfelt apology. The last words he shared with my father were at a Dead show. My dad had told him to go find another place to stand because this gleeful man was dancing a little too close.
I guess my dad and me aren’t so different after all.