This was sometime around 1991. I was in Nowhere, Kentucky, playing Hammond organ, backing a gospel singer, and trying to look engaged with the vapid music. I was filling in for the regular keyboardist, and while I played the right notes, I was aware that I was more of an onlooker than a participant in what felt like a carnival side show.
In the performance arts, there are times when you know that something real is happening, and other times when you wonder if it’s just an act. The singer waved a handkerchief, fanning some imaginary flame, as if to imply that something extraordinary was occurring on the heels of his golden voice. The music seemed secondary to the snake oil antics, which were hell-bent on whipping the crowd into a frenzy. I have never been able to go whole hog for anything like Pentecostalism, yet here I was, cranking away on a Hammond organ, spinning the Leslie speaker as if it were a dizzying ride on the Tilt-A-Whirl.
A few die-hard fans in the audience were enrapt, as if God Almighty was a mischievous puppeteer, stirring them to shouting and lifting their hands in the air, their bodies jerking out of time with the music. I wondered if the Holy Ghost were impersonating Ralph Kramden. Bang! Zoom! The band was all smiles, and to the crowd, it probably looked like the joy of the Lord on their faces, but to me it looked like they were all in on the same joke. I considered the possibility that everyone in the band was experiencing an epiphany except for me. Wouldn’t have been the first time. Maybe that was the joke I wasn’t connecting with.
Back in the green room, I had run into a singer we were sharing the bill with, Kathy Troccoli. She and I were old friends, and in the process of catching up, she told me that her mother had recently died. She said that her mother’s passing was beautiful, and that she had been at her bedside when her time had come.
After the show was over, we disembarked for Nashville. As soon as we left the park, our tour bus died. We wound up renting a car and heading back to Nashville. No one spoke as we wound our way South, each of us caught up in private silence.
I pictured Kathy by her mother's deathbed, an image which soon morphed into a series of pictures of whoever came to mind. My thoughts found themselves in California at the bedside of a friend who was in the hospital, having had a heart attack. I didn’t know that he was soon to have a second, fatal attack, and yet my thoughts of him sank in the fathomless reality that life is short.
My musings turned to my father, who hadn’t yet been overcome with Alzheimer’s, and was to be with us for another 15 years. I tried to imagine the feeling of being with him as he passed into Gloryland. Why I became transfixed on this idea, I can’t say, but in the silence of a conversationless car, I wrapped myself in a comforter of melancholy and thought about this man I feared losing.
Morbid thoughts cascaded into a snowdrift of poetry, and I began playing a memory game with myself, silently repeating new lines and the ones that preceded them. By the time I got to Nashville, I had a sad, yet hopeful song called “Goodbye For the Last Time”.
The song was the first of many I would write about grieving, loss, dying, and crossing over. I went to one of the Christian record companies and proposed a concept record about loss and grieving, an idea which was well received. After all, if anyone would be open to a discussion about death and dying, I assumed it would be Christians, for whom the Resurrection says “O Death, where is thy sting?”.
Meetings ensued in which executives and I brainstormed over sushi, reviewing songs and dreaming about the big name artists who would perform these pieces. Somewhere along the journey, my idea was confiscated and turned into something a little less taboo, a little less dark, and I found myself with a hat full of tunes that might never find a home.
In the meantime, Dad’s Alzheimer’s became more pronounced and instead of fearing his death, I began hoping for it.
Years after his memory had departed, my father passed on, and had I been there to hold his hand, he wouldn’t have known it until, perhaps, a millisecond between this world and the next.
This is how I found out that Dad was gone:
I woke up early on November 29, 2006 to take my daughters to school. My virtual stack of emails included one from my mother to just about everyone in the world, which announced the death of my father. A few minutes later, my phone rang, and I heard Annie’s shaking voice calling from Ireland to tell me what cyberspace had already broadcast. I said, “I already know. I just got an email from Mom to about a thousand people.” My idea of how to escort Dad out of this world had been whittled down to a toothpick, and now I had to share it with my mother’s email list.
I had spent my childhood sharing my father with his parishioners, and now I was no more important than any of them in the hierarchy of finding out about his death . My mother made funeral arrangements which seemed to have more consideration of his old flock than his own children. We buried him a month after he died, to ensure that all of his former congregants would be able to make plans to attend.
I made mental notes about what not to do when I died.
In the ensuing months, a friend of many years became my dearest companion. Among the things we shared was the gift of composing, and we began writing songs together. I told her about my “grief project”, and together we wrote two songs which seemed to fit. My old passion for the project returned to me through this collaboration, and I decided to research markets which might have a need for songs of comfort.
Coincidentally, I was working on the Ralston Bowles CD, and because of his illness, it seemed timely to consider my “music to grieve by”. One day, my phone rang, and it was someone calling from Michigan, who wanted to help with Ralston’s project. He was a doctor who had cared for Ralston’s father-in-law, who’d spent his final days at a Grand Rapids hospice.
Through this contact, I met with Pam Brown at Alive Hospice in Nashville, to discuss the possibilities of making my project in conjunction with her organization. We met one Friday morning at the Alive Hospice campus, a bright and cheerful set of buildings near Music Row.
After talking for a while, Pam offered me the “nickel tour” of the facility, and I accepted. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I assumed I would encounter somber sights, sounds, and smells similar to the nursing home Mormor, my maternal grandmother, had lived her final days in.
Such was not the case.
Every effort had been made to make the live-in facility as un-clinic like as possible. Pam showed me a vacant dorm room, which had little furniture in it, explaining that patients often like to have a favorite chair or dresser brought from home. Similarly, the walls are bare because many people like to hang their favorite pictures around their room.
The social workers who work at Alive Hospice encourage patients to be honest about their needs, and try to see that even that the wildest of wishes might be fulfilled for a patient in his or her last days. One patient, a camping enthusiast, wanted to spend a night camping with her best friend. A tent was set up in the courtyard area, and her wish was fulfilled.
Walking down a corridor filled with original art, Pam explained that one of the residential patients was an artist who wanted to show her work. The staff hung her paintings and invited her friends and family to her art show, and gave her a true sense of having meaning and something to live for right to the end.
When I had seen all there was to see, Pam and I shook hands and said goodbye. As I left, I began thinking about this journey we’re all on. A journey that I believe leads to Somewhere and Someone.
I thought about how well my mother took care of Dad during his long bout with Alzheimer’s, and how she enjoyed being with him even when it was unclear as to whether or not he understood who she was.
I thought about the friends I’ve lost over the last decade to illness or accidents- Tom, Jackie, Janice, and Mark. And I thought of friends who’d survived calamity and illness- Ralston, Marlei, Dave, and John Arthur.
I thought of my dearest companion, my Southern Born Woman.
And it occurred to me, driving away from Alive Hospice, that life affords everyone the ironic opportunity to accompany those we love on the long ride to Somewhere. We don’t often think this way unless something catestrophic happens, but in truth, loving someone is all about making them comfortable en route to the next life.
What if today were her last day in this life? How would I be any different? Maybe I would speak a little softer, listen a little harder, smile a little wider, and pull her a little closer.
I can play all the right notes, but what does it matter if I’m not engaged in the music of living? I’m thinking of that day in the amusement park, when a friend’s story of bereavement gave me a song, and when the gospel group entertained whoever had ears to hear. Maybe I was wrong about them. Maybe they were caught up in the joy of knowing exactly what they were doing, and perhaps the joke they were in on was that they were serenading people who were getting ready for the long ride home.