You stand beside your daughter's incubator, wondering how to reach her. She can hear your voice, but she can't make the slightest sense out of anything you say. She can't see, because she was born four months early and her eyes are fused shut. She can't signal what she's feeling, because the ventilator tube down her throat blocks her cries. But you know she's hurting, and you imagine she must be scared.
"One good day," your wife keeps saying. "I want her to have one good day, so she'll know what that feels like and want more."
I hit play on my phone, and Bruce's voice fills the hospital room, singing "Waitin' On A Sunny Day." I'm singing with him and holding Junebug's hand – the size of a kitten’s paw – through the porthole of her incubator, and suddenly she's squeezing my finger. "Sunny Day" is about a man who longs for someone he loves to come home. The lyrics allude to things my daughter has never experienced: Rain falling on her skin. A dog barking in the distance, the call of an ice cream truck on an empty street. The ticking of a clock on a wall. Night, giving way to morning.
Springsteen sent this song out into the ether, and now it has found its way into this darkness where she lives, into this box where she is confined. From the rising numbers on her monitor tell me that Junebug can hear his voice and absorb the rhythm of the words and that she likes it. The nurses have told us that micropreemies are exceptionally sensitive to emotions, and so I have no doubt that she can feel how happy this song makes me. She doesn't understand a word of what Bruce and I are singing, but the lyrics promise her the thing I have not yet dared to say out loud: Someday, we're going to get out of this place.
Don't worry, we're gonna find a way
Don't worry, we're gonna find a way
I repeat that line over and over. I say it there beside the incubator, when I'm driving to the hospital, late at night when I'm in bed and fighting another panic attack.
During our months in the NICU, Kelley and I played many songs for Juniper. They were our prayers.
I Call Your Name - The Beatles - I sang this one so loud, the nurses told me to settle down.
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out - Springsteen - Three minutes and ten seconds of pure joy. Started playing this one for Junebug in the womb, propping the speaker against Kelley's stomach.
Folsom Prison Blues - Johnny Cash - Fell in love with my wife all over again when I heard her softly singing to our daughter about how she'd shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Junebug didn't understand a word. All she knew was that her mother was singing to her, and that was enough.
Lean on Me - Bill Withers - His voice carried me during those long months.
The Puppy Song - Harry Nilsson - Crazy beautiful in its innocence. We played this on better days, when we thought there was a chance.
Ain't Hurtin' Nobody - John Prine - If we hadn't been Prine fans, our fabulous primary nurse, Tracy, would never have put up with us.
I Wish - Stevie Wonder - A glorious song, written and sung by another preemie.
Banana Pancakes - Jack Johnson - Sometimes we needed to go light.
Waitin' on a Sunny Day - Springsteen - Thank you, Bruce. You have no idea.
Angel From Montgomery - The live version where John Prine and Bonnie Raitt trade verses - This song made the hospital room glow.
June Hymn - The Decembrists - Felt like they wrote it for our Peanut.
Hey Jude - The Beatles - When I sang, I changed it to Hey June.
Jersey Girl - Springsteen - Tom Waits wrote it, but it feels like he was channeling details already waiting inside Bruce. I played this at night when the floor was quiet.
If I Had a Boat - Lyle Lovett - Anytime there's a pony in a song, Kelley is happy.
Blue Bayou - Roy Orbison - "Oh that girl of mine, by my side/Silver moon and the evening tide." Wish I'd written that line.
(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay - Otis Redding - Sang it to both of Junebug's big brothers when they were newborns. Had to sing it for their extra-little sister.
Island in the Sun - Weezer - Probably imagined it, but she seemed to smile at every "hip hip."
Thunder Road - Springsteen - Half-sang, half-whispered this to Junebug when I finally got to hold her for the first time, seven weeks after she was born.
California Stars - Billy Bragg & Wilco - Still remember that tiny hand wrapped around my little finger when I played this for her.
Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat - Bob Dylan - Junebug didn't wear any leopard prints in the NICU, but Nurse Tracy did slip her into zebra stripes whenever possible.
The Promised Land - Springsteen - In the NICU we vowed to take Jbug with us to see Bruce in concert. We made good on that vow earlier this year at a show in Louisville.
You Are the Sunshine of My Life - Stevie Wonder - Always lost it at the line about how she rescued him.
Lullaby Baby Blues - Keb' Mo' - I floated this as a title for the book, but Junebug's mother shot me down, even though she loves this song.
Christmas in Prison - John Prine - Another Kelley favorite. She had a whole prison theme going.
My Sweet Lord - George Harrison - Kills me that he was audacious enough to write a hit about wanting to know the face of God. So achingly beautiful. Got me and Junebug through many a night in the NICU.
Love and Happiness - Al Green - We want to take Junebug to Memphis and hear this man sing in his church.
Brand New Key - Melanie - When Tracy put a long wig on our daughter, she suddenly looked like a tiny version of the pop singer Melanie, and I couldn't help but break out into a falsetto rendering of this classic from my childhood.
Mrs. Robinson - Simon & Garfunkel - Sang this one to Junebug so often that I finally figured out what the hell's happening beyond what they show in the movie.
Portland - Middle Brother's cover of the Replacements song - "It's too late to turn back, here we go." The one line captured exactly what it felt like the morning when our daughter was born.
Jungleland - Springsteen - We were in the NICU when Clarence died and paid our respects by playing this for Junebug that afternoon. Still can't believe she'll never get to see that beautiful man onstage with his sax, lost inside this solo.
That's the Way the World Goes Round - John Prine - A dose of perspective that we desperately needed.
The Good Life - Weezer - "I don't want to be an old man anymore." Figured Jbug would eventually understand why that line hits so deep with her dad.
Kodachrome - Paul Simon - Made me happy just to sing her the opening lines about high school. Go Red Devils. My apologies to the wonderful Mrs. Vogel, my junior year English teacher.
Wild Billy's Circus Story - Springsteen - Junebug had no idea what a circus was, but her numbers on the monitor soared whenever I played this one. I credit the tuba.
Stuck on You - Elvis Presley - Made her positively giddy.
Here Comes the Sun - The Beatles - Thank you, George. Rest in peace.
Pink Houses - John Mellencamp - The lyrics never made much sense, at least to me, but being an Indiana boy, I couldn't resist rocking it in the NICU.
Pony - Kasey Chambers - If Kelley was a baseball player, this would be her walkup song.
Across the Universe - Rufus Wainwright's cover from the I Am Sam soundtrack - So gorgeous, it seemed to hypnotize Junebug
Falling Slowly - Glen Hansard & Marketa Irglova - The yearning in this song was a perfect fit for how badly Kelley and I longed to watch our daughter grow up.
Racing in the Street - Springsteen, the '81 version from the Meadowlands – Roy Bittan's tender piano solo somehow captured the range of emotion we felt in the NICU. Thank you, Roy.
Down in the Valley - Otis Redding - The entire world lived inside that man's voice. I wanted Jbug to hear all of it.
Two of Us - The Beatles - We wanted to get our daughter home, and Paul and John made us feel like it might happen someday.