Casey Kasem’s voice crackles out of the small boom box I bought with money I earned at my first summer job. I’m fifteen. Sitting back against the sliding glass door in our living room, I can almost feel the November sleet spitting against the glass. I spend every Sunday afternoon with the American Top Forty, never imagining an impossible future when I can look up all the songs online. While my parents nap, I sit on the carpet alone with the volume low, guessing which song comes next on the countdown.
After an advertisement, I turn the volume knob ever so slightly and bring the boom box into my lap: it is time for a long distance dedication. Casey reads each letter in his signature kindhearted voice, endearing to me both writer and receiver.
This long distance dedication is from a girl whose father is in prison. This one’s different from all the other letters I’ve heard, most of which are about romance and lost love. I don’t know anyone whose father is in prison. I am at once captivated and horrified. The letter is sad and sweet, but hopeful. The prison sentence is hard, but one day soon, father and daughter will reunite. Her choice of song is unfamiliar to me. It’s one by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers that somehow I’ve missed.
The first upbeat chords strum out of the small speakers and I hear that unmistakable voice I’ve grown to like from his other songs, Oh baby don’t it feel like heaven right now, don’t it feel like somethin’ from a dream… It is a love song. I sit up, instantly alert to the steady beat, the promising tune, the hopeful words.
Each week I think about the letter I’d write and which song I’d choose. At fifteen, I am in love. Mom says I am too young to know what love is, but I know. Just days before I turned thirteen, I met a boy. For a summer, we explored young love in wide-eyed innocence, and when we started school together that fall, our love grew. A year later, to keep me away from him and the sex she didn’t know we were already having, Mom sent me to an all-girls school with uniforms and nuns. I am still forbidden to see my young love so I pine on the living room floor with Casey Kasem and dream about how life could be different.
Tom Petty’s voice in my boom box continues, Yeah I’ve never known nothing quite like this, don’t it feel like tonight might never be again, Baby, we know better than to try and pretend, Honey, no one could have ever told me ’bout this, I said yeah yeah, yeah yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
I don’t often love a song the first time I hear it, but sitting on the carpet, listening to The Waiting, I love it instantly. The words bring to life my longing; my waiting. In this moment, I am certain I will wait for my boyfriend forever; and he will wait for me. It is hard and the song says it perfectly – the waiting is the hardest part. Waiting for my love, waiting to grow up, waiting for life to begin.
* * * * *
Today when I hear The Waiting, I’m taken back to that day on the living room floor, when I had nothing else to do on a Sunday other than sit on the carpet and bask in the music. I wonder about that girl who wrote the long distance dedication and about her father in prison. Was he released? Did they reunite? What of them today? She picked the perfect song.
Thirty five years later, Tom Petty’s rough, nasally, but somehow friendly voice still grabs at my heart. Not just in The Waiting, but in all his songs. They’re all so different in style, strung together by that voice, but each tells the story of my life. Of all our lives.
Don’t Do Me Like That was seventh grade. Braces and awkward first kisses and bad hair and longing to be a cool kid. Refugee was eighth grade in a new school, that first boyfriend, and mean girls. The Waiting arrived as I entered high school and waited desperately for my true love. You Got Lucky and Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around happened around the same time that first boyfriend and I started dating other people.
As the decades fell off the calendar, new songs slipped into my life. Don’t Come Around Here No More, aptly, as I graduated high school. Free Fallin, I Won’t Back Down, and Running Down A Dream, as I juggled college and became a single mom at twenty.
Then I fell in love with a different guy, a guy I would marry, to the delightful tunes of the Traveling Wilburys. My husband and I still smile wistfully at each other twenty six years later when we hear Handle With Care. Learning to Fly accompanied more babies and young motherhood, and You Don’t Know How it Feels defined my feelings about my husband’s six-month Navy deployments and the highs and lows of marriage and family.
Tom Petty’s songs are as familiar to me as the town I grew up in and my mom’s voice over the phone line. They’re always there in my memories or on the internet, and they’re still on the radio stations I listen to. I’ve taken them for granted. I took him for granted. I didn’t know quite how much he meant to me until I heard the news that he was gone. It’s been four days and still I weep as The Waiting plays on repeat in my head. Tom Petty’s death means mine is on the horizon, because ultimately, that horizon is waiting for us all.
R.I.P., my lifetime friend.
Copyright © 2017 – Paulla Estes