From about the time she turned 40, my mother has been scouring the obituaries. It used to amuse me; her first glimpse of the day's news being the Bad News. She breathes in as she announces the name of the departed. She breathes out a heavy sigh.
The subtle wind she stirs is, in my mind, a prayer.
Now that I'm older than she was then, I get it, which is not to say that I scour the obits, but just to say that as time goes on, the likelihood of recognizing someone in the column increases.
Death can hit us in many ways, but nothing is so shattering as witnessing someone who has lost their child. It seems so unfair when young life is cut short, and parents left grieving.
One week in Nashville, good friends lost their son Chris to cancer. He was 40- the same age as my mother when she started paying attention to the obituaries. Two weeks before they lost Chris, they lost their one remaining mother. It was a plumb hard season for these two friends.
Up North, my friend John was asking friends to send their energy, prayers, and hopes out to his twenty-something son who was struggling with cancer. John, a fellow musician, texted me "Your prayers are helping!", which of course I hoped was true.
I prayed earnestly that their son would be healed. If nothing else, I hoped John and his loved ones would find mercy and peace in this worst of scenarios.
At the same time, my buddy Dave, who had been in remission from cancer for a few years, had given me notice that "it" was back. He was in the inferno again, dreading the treatment, wary of the difficult journey that lay before him.
He spoke with a tone that was blunt and weary, and it made me sad to think of my good pal suffering as he was.
We finally managed to get some face time together at Fido’s a local coffee joint in Nashville.
As is our way, we got down to it pretty quickly. I asked him about the process, and he detailed the next few months of the ordeal he was about to enter. Tubes and stem cells and ports, constant sterilization of this, that, and the other are evocative of a world we can't control.
He said that it would be several months at best since we’d get the chance to visit; he was facing quarantine, and surgery, and chemo.
I wasn’t sure I could go through with all the messing with my body, I told him, but who’s to say that a year of misery won’t beget another quarter century of good living? Whatever one does in this situation requires extraordinary bravery.
I recall my friend Tom, whose spirit suddenly left his body in the snow on a hiking trail on a few years ago. A few weeks before his departure, he had told someone he was ready to go, and I remember thinking, “Who thinks this way at 60 years old?” I was 57, I think.
Well, now I’m 61. And I don’t look forward to going forward into the Great Beyond any time soon, but neither do I want to live as long my mother has- still ticking away at 92. Her one good eye is starting to fail and she’s slowing down, but she talks about having another decade in her.
Dad was 84 when he checked out of this world, but I think he was 70 when his mind checked out of his healthy body, and I’d be a big, fat liar if I said that I don’t wonder about getting Alzheimer’s like he did.
I feel just fine, and if something is really wrong with me, I don’t want to know just yet. And yes, if some almighty boot descends from on high and snuffs my light out, I’m ready, I guess, to reignite elsewhere, hopefully in the presence of Almighty Love. I enjoy life as I know it, with all its difficulties and blessings. Perhaps the next life will be even more exciting, but it's hard to imagine Paradise being interesting when all the drama will be back here on Planet Earth.
All of the fighters I’ve mentioned above have taken drastic steps to keep their feet planted on this earth, and I can’t blame them. There are babies to behold, songs to unfold, hands to hold, and anniversaries to go gold. I didn’t mean to rhyme, by the way, but there you go.
Once, I was producing a rock’n’roller named James Clay. He was an amazing singer, and probably still is, although I’ve completely lost track of him. He came, as many great singers do, from a Pentecostal background. He knew how to hoop and holler and tongue-talk, and he could sing like Mahalia Jackson and Bono all wrapped up into one longhaired, redneck package.
I liked James a lot, and we had a great time working together, mining for the right stones on which to build his musical house.
One day I was looking at his lyrics and there was a line that said if he didn’t audibly speak his prayers, God was incapable of hearing them. I took issue with the idea, but he was stalwart in his faith that that was how it was. With so many voiceless people on our planet, I argued, that idea is plumb cruel... religious.
I think we are built to pray, and that we are created to commune with God to the point that our very breathing is accomplishing good things beyond what we’re conscious of. We breathe in God by taking in the oxygen God created.
I go so far as to assume that our humming, our smiling, our tears, and everything that emanates from our emotive beings is a prayer, even when we might be expressing an excruciatingly painful denial of God’s existence.
We pray with our ears.
Every time I listen to my friend John’s music, I remember to pray for his son, and for all those who love him. And frankly, that is quite often, because I do love John’s music.
We pray with our sorrows.
I think often of Chris’ parents, and the gaping hole in their hearts, and yet a hole so large means someone wonderful occupied their lives, and there’s something indeed profound about that.
We pray with our joys. My meeting with Dave was littered with laughter, along with a tear or two, as we recalled how the road of our music making has bonded us.
We pray in our solitude.
I don't pray with the idea God will do exactly as I've asked, but I do pray with the belief that God is capable of intervening in this weathered old world of ours. I believe God Almighty is more involved than empirical evidence suggests, but it doesn't make me feel better when tragedy happens.
So, I sing out a gypsy prayer. It changes shape, traveling along the highway of God’s veins, wandering in hopes of finding a good place to land. It might be literal babble from an uninformed tongue, letting go and letting God. Or it might be a succession of notes spit off my old Gibson guitar. Often my prayer is silent but thoughtful; I’m thinking the words, but not saying them audibly. Sometimes they are spoken as curtly and black and white as a grocery list in hopes that God is my personal delivery man.
Today, my prayer is a litany of first names, breathed in and breathed out.