This song is a fictional character piece. The main character is a young woman (late teens to early twenties) orphaned and raised by her grandfather who is the only family she knows. Her grandfather was diagnosed with a terminal disease and rather than hang on for the inevitable conclusion, takes his own life.
She is alone at the internment and struggling to process what has happened. She feels lost and abandoned, but can’t decide whether his suicide is an act of courage or cowardice.
Lost in thought, she wanders away from the fresh grave and begins reading the headstones knowing that she will soon have to decide what should be on her grandfather’s headstone. She notes that sentiments tend to be very similar until she comes across one that is different. The epitaph on this stone reads “All I ever wanted was to be of some use.” She finds comfort in these words and an acceptance of her grandfather’s suicide as his acknowledgment that he can no longer do anything for her and does not want her to have to take care of him (he calls a ‘truce’).
The construction of the song choruses is based on a rhyming exercise I was doing collecting multi-syllabic rhymes. The chorus lines terminate with four-syllable rhymes that I pulled from the list I constructed from my exercise (cemetery, actuary, ancillary, sanctuary, commissary, statuary, mortuary, dignitary, etc.). The trick (if there is one) was trying to say something that made sense while using as many of these words as possible.
The verses are a little different and the rhyming scheme carries from one verse to the next with the first lines all rhyming (sick, brick, pick, rubrick) and the second and third lines rhyming with each other (couplet).
There are three different personal inspirations in the song. The first is the setting. About ten years ago, my wife and I were doing some genealogy research in various cemeteries in Quebec. We literally walked through the rows reading the stones looking for family names and particular individuals.
The second is the terminally ill relative and was inspired by an uncle’s struggle with colon cancer and the equally painful struggle to maintain his dignity and independence. I learned from my father that he had considered suicide and purchased a cheap handgun near the end likely for that purpose. As far as I know, he never fired it.
The last inspiration for the song is the headstone with the unusual epitaph. This is really about me and is something I’ve told only a few people in the past. My sense of accomplishment and fulfillment stems from my belief that I am being productive at some task that benefits someone. I initially joked, but now really feel that this sentiment should be MY epitaph. Specifically: “All I Ever Wanted to be was Useful”. (Hopefully, no one will need to worry about fulfilling this request anytime soon.)
Grampa was gone, but he never really got sick.
No friends to say ‘goodbye’ now the service is done.
The prognosis was poor so he cured his pain with a gun.
I wandered around, my heart as heavy as a brick.
Walking through the rows reading dates and the names
I never noticed how they all look the same.
What do we say
When we go away?
Is it the opportunity
To confess to your community
Or retreat in anonymity
While we pray for your immunity?
How far do we stray
With the words we carve today?
Do you lie only to the statuary
Or shit in your own sanctuary?
Is what’s written in the cemetery
A sum for the final actuary?
It’s too late to change now.
It doesn’t matter anyhow.
Tell the truth or be silent evermore.
Within a month, I’d have to make my pick.
Should the message be proud despite his shame
Or should it only be a place for his name?
Through bleary eyes, I saw a new rubrick
It said, “All I ever wanted was to be of some use”
And I realized his life wasn’t win or lose, but truce.