aging, Guest Posts

Keep On Rockin’

April 28, 2024

No one has ever compared me to Neil Young.

No one but me.

When your heroes are Jesus and Jimmy Fallon, and your aesthetic is Strawberry Shortcake, you accept that many will deem you tame. This is fine. This is an occupational hazard of being stubbornly innocent, which is the wildest quality ever underestimated.

But undomesticated earnestness confuses critics. It is no surprise that few would guess my most feral friendship.

I encountered Neil the way most of his younger buds do, on the paltry sampler platter of classic rock stations. Perched between Bruce’s garlic knots and Bon Jovi’s bruschetta, there was an artichoke heart of gold.

I loved him instantly, that anguished voice with its audible ache. The old man with the harmonica made me inexplicably happy. I found my way to Ohio and bayed beneath the Harvest Moon.

When I finally found a picture of my friend, Neil was somehow exactly as I’d pictured. His hair was an independent animal, his hats a declaration of independence, his eyes amphitheaters for thunderstorms.

He always appeared to be wearing too many layers, suedey coats and grizzly flannels his only protection against the infuriating world.

He loved the world, though, loved it enough to howl and growl and kick and rock. He believed we could do better. He wheezed the exasperation known only to lovers.

By the time I was old enough to know I was uncool, I realized how much cooler Neil was than his collaborators. There was a wearied, wild warmth under all those jackets. No Crosby on earth could keep up with this bleeding heart of gold. No hypocrisy was safe. Every harmonica was holy in Neil’s care.

But Neil needed care, too.

There are salty facts that come to you like lightning. When trivia comes close to the bone, it’s like discovering fire.

I did not go looking for “Neil Young’s chronic illness,” but this nontrivial information sought me. There it was, fact-checked and boggling: Neil had lived with Type 1 diabetes since age six.

My type 1 diabetes.

My exceedingly uncool, exasperating type 1 diabetes.

He doesn’t speak of it often, but neither does he deny it — nor the polio that made a run for his life, nor the epilepsy that still encroaches.

I stared at the screen, glowing into the dark. It was one or two in the morning, and I was awake with bratty blood sugar and out-of-tune ketones. I have an arsenal of strategies against self-pity on such nights, special teas and lap cats and distracting websites reserved for these times.

Suddenly, I had craggy camaraderie.

I pictured Neil, seven decades into this dastardly disease. He’d lived through the Jurassic age of endocrinology, taking charge of his life long before at-home blood testing or low-carb cupcakes.

He’d known the symptoms you can describe but not really capture, the upholstered tongue of hyperglycemia and the hollow elbows of a low.

He’d done midnight combat with the threat of complications.

He’d also done all sorts of things that Strawberry Shortcake never dared, solids and liquids and gases and ghastlies that his body surely did not appreciate.

But he was still here, body and voice and hats and thunder.

He was still rockin’ in the free world.

He was, perhaps, having a night very much like mine. Tomorrow, the world would expect us both to sing.

Now, I had a new layer against the cold. My worst wee hours would hereafter be Neil Young Nights, less lonely by half. I pictured my feral friend and flexed my own claws. My heart of gold and pancreas of folly would outlast the swooping sugars.

I have a fantasy that someday I will glimpse Neil, who has been seen strolling a certain town fifteen minutes from mine. When I do, I will raise my insulin pump high, a lighter against the dark, a silent shout of solidarity.

Old man, look at my life. I’m a lot like you.

Angela Townsend

Angela Townsend is Development Director at Tabby’s Place: a Cat Sanctuary, where she bears witness to mercy for all beings. She graduated from Princeton Seminary and Vassar College. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Cagibi, Chautauqua, Clockhouse, Glassworks Magazine, Hawaii Pacific Review, Invisible City, The Penn Review, and The Razor, among others. She is a Best Spiritual Literature nominee. Angie has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 33 years, laughs with her poet mother every morning, and loves life affectionately. She lives just outside Philadelphia with two shaggy seraphs disguised as cats.
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