All this year, KEXP is celebrating our 50th anniversary. Each week, we’re picking a year from the last half-century to remember that moment in music. This week, we’re celebrating the year 2019. KEXP’s Dusty Henry reflects on how Helado Negro’s “Two Lucky” guided him through grief and new beginnings. Read or listen to the piece below.
It was nearly a year ago now and it felt like a normal morning. I was doing my morning ritual of reading a book, sipping coffee, and listening to music before I started work. I had on Helado Negro’s album This Is How You Smile, thinking about a piece I wanted to write about it at the time. Then my phone rang. It was my mom. I knew what she was going to say before I picked up.
My grandma was dying.
I’d tried to prepare myself for this moment for years, most of my life even. She’d had health issues off and on over the years; so many tears and heartbreaks only for her to pull off some miraculous turnaround. Peggy Henry, my grandma, was one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known – but also stubborn. She wouldn’t let death take her.
But then COVID happened. And she would be gone soon. Only my mom was allowed to be there with her in her final moments, wearing what looks close to a hazmat suit. I was able to speak to her on the phone before she passed, but she couldn’t talk back. I felt like I couldn’t articulate everything I wanted to say about what she meant to me. Afterward I collapsed into tears. A couple hours later, she was gone.
Over the next week after she passed, it felt like all I did was cry. But the world around me was still moving. My wife Kristin was pregnant with our first child. Her sister was getting married in a few days and I was officiating. Even when your world feels like it’s over, life continues.
As much as I turn to music to get me through hard times, I found it hard to in grief. Maybe because it was already on my mind already, the only music I could stomach was Helado. I played This Is How You Smile incessantly. I’ve bonded with so many albums in my life, but never before like this. I wept every time I spun it, right from the start. I could almost make it through opening song, “Please Won’t Please,” without crying. But inevitably I’d break down as soon as he sang: “And we'll light/ Our lives on fire/Just to see/If anyone will come rescue/What's left of me.”
I spent a lot of time thinking about the role of grandmother’s in our lives. Kristin and I both lost our grandmother’s in 2021. Both were matriarchs, the centers of our families that kept us all together. It was a tragic blessing to be able to share our grief together. Kristin told me how her therapist shared with her how special the maternal grandmother is in particular – that when our mothers are in the womb, a part of us is also within our moms and thus within our grandmothers. I watched TikToks about how grandmother whales teach their young.
Of her many roles in my life, my grandma was a teacher. In my childhood, I remember her working for a non-profit called the Literacy Council, teaching adult learners to read and write. We’d share that love of reading. She was the first person I can remember encouraging me to write. She’d devour entire books within a day, often reading late into the night. But she also taught me kindness, sweetness, and adventure. She was always putting on community events for local kids – her favorite being putting on Christmas pageants and toy drives. One of our favorite summer activities was driving around and turning down a road we’d never been down before, just to see where it’d lead.
I think that’s part of why Helado’s music resonated with me so much during this time. There’s a gentleness to the hushed tones he sings in and the quiet, tasteful instrumentation. It doesn’t call attention to itself but when you lean in and listen, you hear music filled with wide-eyed wonder and overwhelming love. The music made me feel closer to her, even if I doubt she ever heard of Helado Negro – Keith Urban was more her thing.
Exactly a week after my grandma left us, my daughter arrived. While we’d prepared all the overnight bags and recommended items all the new parent books told us bring, there was one thing I hadn’t got to yet – making my wife’s birthing playlist. I’ve made her over 80 playlists over the years and it’s a very sacred ritual to me. I was looking forward to making this one, but the chaos of the week prior kept me from it. Even still, music was going to be essential. I quickly asked Kristin what mood she wanted and she said she wanted her comfort songs. Songs from Sufjan Stevens, Julie Byrne, and Kacey Musgraves. Then I started throwing songs into a playlist I hastily named “it’s happening” and put it on shuffle. Not my finest work, but it’d have to do. And when the moment arrived, when we first heard cry and saw her face. Playing over my portable speaker through the miracle of shuffle was Helado Negro’s “Two Lucky.”
Becoming a parent, you start to understand every cliche about parenthood you’ve ever heard. Everything changes. Every fabric of you is now dedicated to this tiny human. You are always very, very, very tired. My Una is my everything. When she looks at me with her four teeth, scrunches her nose and says “da,” I am weak with love. To experience such intense grief and the joy of new life simultaneously is overwhelming.
It’s been almost a year without my grandma, which means my little girl is turning one soon. These two things are intrinsically linked in mind. It doesn’t take any joy away from celebrating my daughter, though. My heart breaks that they couldn’t meet, but also there’s something poetic that they’ll always have this tie together.
My grandma’s been heavy on my mind as we reach this anniversary. Not that she’s ever left my thoughts. I see her in my daughter’s messy hair in the morning. In the storybooks we read at bedtime, the way she and I did when I was a kid. I think about her when I see the pink knit boots my mom found by my grandma’s bed, almost assuredly a gift she meant for my daughter.
And I think about “Two Lucky.” Two people I’ve been lucky to know. I can’t think of a better song for them to share. A song that opens with “take care of people today, hold their hand.” A song about loving one another while being in awe of the world. I don’t know if I can say that everything happens for a reason or what stock to put into coincidence versus miracles. But “Two Lucky” and these two amazing women leave me in awe of the world in the best and worst of times.
As Helado says on the song, “Who are we to explain this mystery?”
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