A Bridge Over Troubled Water

This is a story about a song.

Reading time:  6 minutes

By Michael Ransom

In February of 1970, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel released a record, “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” that I liked the moment I heard it. It was (and still is) a beautiful, soothing song.

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When you're weary, feeling small,
When tears are in your eyes
I will dry them all
I'm on your side
Oh when times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

My father had a nervous breakdown in 1970 during my senior year in college.  Mental illness at that time was not “respectable,” so Dad was whisked away to the psychiatric unit of the Mason City, Iowa, hospital, and Mom encouraged my sister, Sue, and me not to tell where Dad was or why he went away. We were not allowed to visit. My best friend had disappeared, and I wondered if I would ever see him again.

I listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s song over and over while Dad was in the hospital. Its smooth melody and comforting words calmed me, and after several electroshock treatments and weeks of rest, the dad we knew and loved returned home.

When you're down and out
When you're on the street
When evening falls so hard
I will comfort you
I'll take your part
Oh when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Life went on. In 1980, my wife and I had our first child, Ben, and in 1983 our second child, Tyler. In 1984 Tyler was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and on March 21, 1985, on the first glorious day of spring, he died. Autopsy results showed that he might have died from Reyes Syndrome, a disease that quickly shuts down vital organs.

Knowing what triggers depression is difficult, but maybe the stress of Tyler’s death was too much for Dad. On a dark, cold November evening, he needed help. Mom called near midnight to say that Dad had spent several sleepless nights. He was having trouble concentrating, and he was sinking into depression. Could I come right away and bring him to Mayo Clinic? I could, of course. On my way, I pulled off the interstate to get gas. As I paid inside, I heard a radio playing softly. At midnight, in the middle of nowhere, at a time I felt so scared, I was comforted again by “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” I was taken back to 1970, and I thought, “Dad’s going to be all right,” which he was after more treatments and time under doctors’ care.

Even stranger was something that happened a year or two later. I had the most vivid dream of Tyler. He was sitting up by himself, something he’d never been able to do. He looked so alive that I thought I could reach out and touch his wispy, blonde hair. He smiled at me with a reassuring look that said, “I’m OK, Dad, I’m all right.” As the warmth of knowing that Tyler was fine filled my heart, I awoke to music playing on our clock radio. It was 3 a.m. Our radio had never come on by itself in the middle of the night. But that night, right after Tyler’s smile, Simon and Garfunkel sang “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”  

Several years later, on July 31, 1997, I’d come to the Mason City hospital to visit Mom. She had been sick for weeks but refused to see a doctor. Dad and Sue finally convinced her to go to the emergency room, and as soon as she arrived she was admitted. Sue, Dad, and I spent the night in a hospital waiting room. After viewing Mom’s test results, her doctor told us that she had scarring on her liver that would shorten her life.

Her doctor told her that unless her liver and kidneys begin working, she would likely not live to see her fiftieth wedding anniversary (a month away). Had Mom seen a doctor earlier, there may have been things to do, to try. But now, nurses were instructed to make Mom's last days comfortable. At noon, after hearing the sobering news, we went to lunch. As we ordered, I heard Simon and Garfunkel’s song playing softly to all those in the restaurant, but it felt like the words were meant only for me.

Over the next twelve days Mom died a slow, peaceful death. With Mom gone, we turned our focus to Dad. We worried about him, knowing his history of depression, but he assured us that he would be all right. Unfortunately, the disease attacks quickly, so quickly that even he doesn’t have time to ask for help. Two weeks after the memorial service for Mom, Dad was in an ambulance on his way to the psychiatric care unit at Mayo Clinic. What we had feared had come true. 

I received a call that Dad had arrived in Rochester and had been admitted. He was not in good shape. I tried to stay calm as I rushed to the hospital, but the stress of Dad’s troubles, added to what I had been through with Mom, were beginning take their toll. “How am I going to be strong?” is what I remember thinking. “What if Dad dies, too?   Can I take two funerals and losing both parents in a matter of weeks? This will be Dad’s fifth time through treatment. How many times can the magic work?” I pulled into a parking space and was about to turn off the car radio when I heard the announcer say, “And now we’re pleased to play the following request.” And the song began. When it ended, I got out of the car, shook my head in disbelief, and felt chills shoot up and down my spine as I walked to the Generose Building, where psychiatric miracles would once again be performed.

Neale Donald Walsch, in his book, Conversations with God, complained that throughout his life he had talked to God, but that God never had talked to him. God wholeheartedly disagreed and had this to say to Walsch:

“I have heard the crying of your heart. I have seen the searching of your soul. Unendingly have you beseeched me. Show Myself. Explain Myself. Reveal Myself. But watch. Listen. I speak to you in many ways. The words to the next song you hear. The information in the next article you read. The story line of the next movie you watch. The chance utterance of the next person you meet. Or the whisper of the next river, next ocean, the next breeze that caresses your ear—all these devices are Mine; all these avenues are open to Me. I will speak to you if only you will listen. I will come to you if you will invite Me. I will show you that I have always been there. All ways.”

The older I get, the less sure I am of what’s beyond this life. I’m fearing there’s nothing while hoping there’s more. I realize that one shouldn’t put too much stock in chance occurrences of a song, but even today, nearly fifty years since I first heard them, the words and melody of “Bridge Over Troubled Water” ease my mind.