Waterfall
©2021, George J. Irwin. All rights reserved.


People may come people may go
Just as long as the water's slow
But watch out when you're headed for the waterfall

--Wendy and Lisa, "Waterfall."*

If you were listening to music at all in the 1980s and 1990s, there's no question you heard something either recorded by Prince, written by Prince, or with a contribution by Prince. But he not only was a superstar in his own right. The people he worked with, influenced or touched in some way evolved into what might be rightfully called a Prince Universe.

Among the inhabitants of this universe are Wendy and Lisa: Wendy Melovin and Lisa Coleman. Wendy had a musical heritage already—she is the daughter of Mike Melovin who was a member of "The Wrecking Crew" of session musicians of the 1960s and 1970s (speaking of artist universes!). Lisa Coleman's father Gary L. Coleman was also in the Wrecking Crew. Talk about a head start. Both Wendy and Lisa were in the Revolution, the backing band that helped create the monster soundtrack album Purple Rain.

What is probably my very favorite song among all of those who had anything at all to do with Prince is Wendy and Lisa's song "Waterfall," released in 1987 on their self-titled album. It's not only a great song, well crafted, danceable and yes, though I don't really have the right to say this given my upbringing, I think it's just plain funky. I can't say I wore out the grooves on that entire Wendy and Lisa album, because I bought the CD, but if I'd had it on vinyl I certainly would have.

Having a beat aside, the words of "Waterfall" speak to me directly. Once a song is released by an artist—any artist—it's the listener that takes it and gives it its own meaning, which is not always what the artist intended. I think I'm somewhat close, but if I'm not, my apologies to Wendy and Lisa.

The obvious and perhaps literal interpretation of the song is a farewell to a lover: "Take heed/for our love has passed" for example. And that certainly made sense in that way to me back in 1987.

Since then, though, I've focused on the chorus cited above, and my interpretation that it's about the dependability of people. We've all been through crises. Colleen and I certainly have, not least of which is her previvor journey following the revelation that she tested positive for the BRCA2 gene. BRCA2 is an indicator for a massively elevated risk of breast cancer, a significant risk of ovarian cancer (for which a typical diagnosis remains "too late...") and a nontrivial risk of other cancers. You might have heard of this mutation from Angelina Jolie's experience. Colleen had already decided to take the same difficult path that Jolie did, should the genetic testing reveal bad news.

And it did.

I'll pause right here and say we were very lucky. We had the wherewithal, and the medical coverage, to enable Colleen to decide to have what amounted to seven surgeries over two years, plus recovery at home after each surgery. Many, many people not only do not have this choice of action, but they cannot even be tested to understand whether they need to make a choice. And I do say "people," not "women," because the BRCA2 mutation occurs in men too, and yes, they can get breast cancer, and yes, they can pass on this mutation to their male and female children.

I expected this journey to be difficult, and it was. What I did not expect was what happened in Colleen's social circle. Some people were there for her—what can we do, do you need help, we're sending you love and light. One of her friends thoroughly confused the hospital gift shop after Colleen's reconstruction surgery by sending a balloon to her room which read, "It's Twins!" We will always be grateful for this.

And then, sad to say, there were other reactions.

Some people backed away in a hurry, as if BRCA2 was communicable and that they were going to catch it from her if they even so much as sent a message over social media.

Others decided that they couldn't understand why Colleen made such a decision and by their comments, actions, and inactions declined to support it.

And still other people, we never heard from at all.

It seemed as if my social circle, on the whole, was more concerned about Colleen than hers was. Once I told my co-workers (which was fine because Colleen had already decided to be upfront and public with this journey), conversations more often than not opened with "How's Colleen?" before getting to the business at hand.

That just didn't seem fair. And it hurt.

But, truth be told, it also didn't seem unusual.

Eighteen years after "Waterfall" was released, the small company I worked for basically imploded. About half of the staff was let go in one day, including me. And there's nothing quite like becoming unemployed to show you who your friends are. People that I was close to didn't bother to check up even once. I'm still waiting for the "we'll do lunch" promise from one of the managers. But people that I thought would forget about me faster than you can say "layoff" came through, providing leads, making introductions, and in one case, even getting me an interview with a company whose leader I admired.

I would be a complete—and verified-- hypocrite if I were to say that I've never reacted badly to other's situations, and not just misfortunes. There were the obvious times: breakup of relationships (including a marriage), reaching an unresolvable conflict, and your basic drifting apart. And there has been more than one regrettable time when I decided for no good reason whatever that I just didn't want to be friends with someone any more.

But then again: Someone Colleen and I both knew—her for much longer than I—needed a lot of help with a project. We were there, doing what we could, until we couldn't be there given Colleen's BRCA2 journey, which was no secret in terms of timing. That earned us zero phone calls or well-wishes during the entire time, and eventual removal from this person's social network. I guess that since we couldn't be around to assist, we were no longer of any value.

Maybe it's inevitable. Despite our attempts to the contrary, we are still animals, and we still evaluate based on our own self-interest, perhaps not as far away as we believe from self-preservation. There is only so much time available ("22,000 Days," to cite an estimate in a Moody Blues song I don't particularly like to consider) and so we optimize how to spend that time, and with who. Some economists would reference the concept of Utility—what's it worth to us to be connected to some people versus others. That sounds pretty cold, but it could be more true than it isn't. I feel I'd have a tough time arguing against this resolution in an old-fashioned debate.

I can hear some of you rebutting that This Is Not What Life's About; we're here to help each other and be there without expecting anything in return. The Golden Rule, and all that. I like to think that's true, but I'm also familiar with the pain of Banging One's Head Against A Wall trying to help, and getting bruised in the process. I still have a couple of stories that may or may not yet be told on that subject. There is accuracy in the concept of preserving of one's own sanity. Thinking of another song that should have gotten more attention than it did, there is "Limits To Love" by 'Til Tuesday, which was really just its lead singer Aimee Mann at this point: "So we just gave up / Yeah, we just gave up / 'cause sometimes you know / there's limits to love."^

Or perhaps I'm just being overly complicated here. People change friends all the time. Sometimes we make the change and sometimes it is made for us, including in the most permanent way possible. There might not be anything more to read into it. Or as Billy Joel tells it in a song that, ironically, I first heard when it was played by my first girlfriend:

So many faces in and out of my life
Some will last
Some will just be now and then
Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes
I'm afraid it's time for goodbye again...**


Song Credits: *"Waterfall," written by Wendy Coleman, Lisa Melovin, and Bobby Z (Robert B. Rivkin), from the album Wendy and Lisa (1987). ^"Limits To Love," written by Aimee Mann, from the 'Til Tuesday album Everything's Different Now (1988). **"Say Goodbye to Hollywood," written and performed by Billy Joel, from the albums Turnstiles (1976) and Songs in the Attic (1981).

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