“Tell Me: Are You a Christian, Child?” I Said “Ma’am, I Am Tonight.”

Eddie Miller, RIP

This is not the post I was supposed to be writing.

This was supposed to be my report on driving two hours to Longview to help a nice woman raise some needed money for some nice people; about watching a great band do what they do best for a good cause; about witnessing friends come together to take care of their own. And that report is coming, hopefully early next week, quickly followed by a post on the bike rally my band is entertaining this weekend.

But this post is about something completely different because sometimes life doesn’t go according to plan.

My lovely Lady Fair, Kristi, has been best friends with Tammy since they were kids. Tams was a cheerleader, yelling and performing flips in front of the home team; Kristi was in Technical Theatre, back in the wings making sure the spotlights were aimed the right direction; Tams majored in Accounting, passing all four portions of the CPA exam her first try; Kristi was singing in three different choirs, later designing flower arrangements and writing fan fiction. Their differences balance each other out, making each a better, more rounded woman, and they are sisters in all but blood.

I met Matthew in Boot Camp. He’s an East Tennessee boy with the Smoky Mountains as his back yard; I’m a kid from the East Dallas suburbs who thought the mall was God’s gift to Texas. Matthew is six foot, blue-eyed, with a silky baritone that makes panties drop; I’m a five-nine comic book geek who sounds more sarcastic the more sincere I’m trying to be. Out of a company of recruits for communications military occupational specialties, we were two out of maybe six who had spent time onstage, often singing harmony together in the showers to the delight/consternation of our bunkmates. Our shared past of performing brought us together, and either of us would take a bullet for the other.

Through Kristi and me, Matthew was introduced to Tammy – six months later, they were married; twenty years later, and they are the parents of two gorgeous girls, Grace and Emma, my unofficial goddaughters. Following a job offer far too good to turn down, they all moved to Washington State a few years ago. We miss them terribly. They miss us horribly.

The Best Bud, The Adopted Sister, The Lady Fair, and The Wannabe Rock Star.

While getting prepared for the trip to Longview Saturday morning, my lovely Lady Fair got the phone call we’d been dreading for weeks: Tammy’s stepfather of over thirty years, Eddie, had passed away after a very difficult struggle with cancer (to add insult to injury, Tammy’s lovely, wonderful mother, Nan, was also diagnosed with cancer this year, and is in the middle of her own struggle with chemo). Tammy, Matthew and the girls would be flying in Sunday; and while our hearts broke for Tammy and Nan, the Lady Fair and I couldn’t help but be thrilled we’d be seeing our beloved extended family after so long. Kristi and I knew we’d probably not see them the first day, but we made plans not to have plans every day after that so we’d be ready at the drop of a hat to join Nan, Tammy and the rest of her family whenever and wherever they’d be.

I performed the benefit Saturday. Matthew, Tammy, and the girls arrived in Dallas Sunday, settling in at Tammy’s parents’ house to help Nan prepare for the upcoming week.

Monday mid-morning-ish, I got the call from Matthew I’d been expecting – he’s been in high-speed low-drag mode at work, so we hadn’t talked in a while. What I hadn’t expected was the subject of the call; I assumed we’d play catch-up as soon as he got a spare moment from the girls, but instead he needed to relay a request:

“Nan wants to know if you’d consider singing at Eddie’s memorial.”

I’d never been asked to sing at a memorial. Done a couple of weddings, done a few charity gigs… gave a eulogy at a friend’s memorial last year, but never sung. I choked back the lump and blinked away the tears. “I’d consider it an honor and privilege. Yes, of course, I’d be happy to sing.”

Matthew passed along my affirmative to his mother-in-law, getting a teary “Thank you.”

“Hey bro – did Nan have something in mind for me to sing?”

“Lemme see.” Pause. “Uh, she really thinks Eddie would have loved Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art. You think you can handle that?”

NO.

“Sure, no problem – got three whole days to practice. I’ll get the lyrics this minute and get to work. Kiss your girls for me, we’ll see you tonight.”

“Thanks so much for doing this. Love you, bro.”

“Love you, bro.”

And each second that passed after that, the more my heart sank and my chest closed in. Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art… two of the best-known and best-loved hymns of all time, the hymns other hymns are judged against. Two hymns I’d never sung solo before in my life. Two hymns I didn’t know.

It’s no secret I’m not religious. If you want to get all technically about it, I’m officially an Agnostic Monotheist Apatheist, which is a fancy-pants way of saying that yes, I do believe in a higher power; no, I don’t think you can prove or disprove the existence of that higher power; but if you could prove the existence of said higher power, I still wouldn’t change the rational, reasoning approach to life I maintain. I am from Texas, the buckle of the bible belt, living in a house with no less than six churches within easy walking distance – I spent many a summer as a small child at Vacation Bible School, I accepted many a friend’s invitation to Sunday Worship. I don’t begrudge the role church has in small-town life here – if anything, I’m jealous of the fellowship that comes from gathering in the house of the Lord with well-meaning like-minded friends and family. I’ve had ample opportunity to try church – I did, it just didn’t work for me. After many years of wondering why it didn’t, I decided to stop fighting it and found an approach to life that did work for me – been happy ever since.

But coming from small town Texas, I still have a great respect for religion, especially the power of Gospel music – when performed well and true, Gospel music can shake the pillars of heaven and cause the angels themselves to weep tears of joy. I’ve performed in front of five hundred hard-core one-percent bikers and auditioned for a national television competition with thousands in attendance – the thought of these two hymns scared me more.

I did a Google search for lyrics only to discover while How Great Thou Art was fairly standard, there were multiple versions of Amazing Grace with up to seven different verses. YouTube was no help, either, as renditions of the classic ranged from the strictly traditional of Judy Collins to the touchy-feely new-age of Chris Tomlin to the soaring trills of Leann Rimes. While I was never going to be able to reproduce Rimes’ power, I did like that she began and ended her version with the first verse, with only the second and last verse in between – hers would be my guide. I’d been informed that Nan was not a fan of Elvis’ Las Vegas version of How Great Thou Art – his was the key closest to mine own, though, so I ignored the showroom ending.

I printed out the lyrics and had them with me everywhere I went Monday, Tuesday and early Wednesday. If there was a lull in the conversation, I looked at the lyrics; if I excused myself to the bathroom, I looked at the lyrics; while the Lady Fair drove, I looked at the lyrics. I sang the hymns while I took my shower; I sang the hymns when I lay down to bed; I sang the hymns as soon as I got up the next morning.

Tuesday night was Eddie’s viewing, where I officially met all of Eddie’s other daughters: René, Rhonda, and Renee. I was first introduced as Kristi’s husband, later as Matthew’s friend – by the end of the two hours, it was known I was the soloist for the memorial. Each sister made a point of expressing her gratitude and appreciation by night’s end.

Wednesday morning, the Lady Fair interrupted my shower to let me know we’d been put to work: as soon as I got dressed, we’d be hitting the road and running by the store for soft drinks, iced tea, red solo cups and other sundries. My cunning plan to get to the funeral home early to check out the sound system and acoustics was now scuttled – I’d have to play it by ear after I arrived. My lady and I completed the errands, dropped the supplies off at Nan’s, waited for Matthew and Tammy to finish getting dressed while Grace and Emma showed me their demi-plies, and then finally took off for the funeral home, well after my hoped-for arrival time. Someone passed me off to the minister as soon as I made it to the chapel, who informed me of the schedule of events – my two hymns would be at the end of the ceremony: Amazing Grace, a call for anyone in attendance who’d like to say a few words, then How Great Thou Art as the finish. I decided the microphone to the side felt more appropriate than the lecturn, I found a seat near the front on the far end of the outside row, and waited.

The memorial was lovely and deeply moving. The two oldest granddaughters spoke and read scriptures; the daughters spoke, recited poems and read scriptures; the minister spoke – all were heart-felt and emotional, all spoke volumes of the friend, father and paw-paw they’d lost. If I hadn’t already been near tears, hearing each daughter tell my lovely friend, Nan, how much they loved and cherished her and how much Eddie had loved and cherished her was enough to put me over the edge – I was wiping my eyes when the minister announced my name to sing.

I made my way to the front, stood before my mic, took in a breathe and then nothing came out – all I could feel was the loss of the daughters. I blinked back the tears in my eyes and looked away, taking biggest breathe I could with my chest as tight as it was, feeling my heart pound as I closed my eyes and willed the first two words out.

“Amazing Grace…” out of breath. Breathe. Will out the next four words.

“How sweet the sound…” out of breath. Breathe. Will out the next four words.

“That saved a wretch…” out of breath. Breathe. Will out the last two words.

“Like me.”  Try to hold the note, can’t, let it go. Breathe

First line was down, and two things had become very evident very quickly – I was way more emotionally invested than I had anticipated, so my body was going to fight me the entire way; and the microphone volume was turned up way too loud. The microphone issue was an easy fix – I took a step back; there would be no way to fix the pounding heart, loss of breath control and tears that kept threatening to sneak back into the spotlight, though – my composure was good and thoroughly shot. There was nothing to be done.

Except use it.

When I could breathe, I sang; when I couldn’t, I paused. When the tears wanted to come, I trilled the melody; when my heart pounded too hard for decoration, I eased back into the song and softened the phrasing. I didn’t fight the feelings, trying to force the song to do my bidding – I surfed the wave of the emotion, letting my feelings dictate where the song should go. I stopped being a classically trained vocalist or a rock star – for that moment, for that hymn, I became a Gospel singer.

Now Muriel plays piano every Friday at the Hollywood
And they brought me down to see her and they asked me if I would
Do a little number, and I sang with all my might.
And she said, “Tell me – are you a Christian, child?”And I said “Ma’am, I am tonight.”

– Mark Cohn, “Walking in Memphis”

I finished my hymn and made my way back to my seat beside my lovely Lady Fair, grateful she was there, shaken by the experience of the song, and hopeful I’d not made a fool of myself. The minister called for attendees who wished to speak to come forward and share their stories – in rapid successions, three of Eddie’s co-workers came forward, telling of Eddie’s dedication and professionalism, his dependability and compassion. Then my brother, Matthew made his way forward.

“Eddie did more than build stuff with his hands: he built friendships, and he built relationships. I can only hope I can learn to build friendships and relationships half as well.”

When Matthew’s voice broke, so did my heart. And before I knew it and well before I was ready, the minister was calling me back up to finish the service with the harder of the two hymns – and I knew in my heart what I needed to do. I stepped to the microphone, chastised Matthew for making me cry, then addressed Eddie’s friends and family:

“I’m here because I’m Mathew’s best friend and my wife is Tammy’s best friend, which is why I was asked to sing even though no one in the family had heard me sing, so I appreciate the faith. This next hymn is such a lovely song, especially for a singer because of the refrain – ‘Then sings my soul.’ When I’m happy, I want to sing; when I’m sad, I want to sing. And as honored as I am to be here singing this song today, it would be selfish of me to keep it to myself.”

“So if the music moves you, if the spirit of Christ compels you, and you want  to join in on the refrain, please believe me, you will not be hurting my feelings in the least.”

I smiled, took in a breathe, and began to sing – low and slow, again letting my emotions dictate the pace. And as I began the refrain, right on cue came voices from all over the chapel, joining in praise.

“Then sings my soul, my savior God, to thee,
‘How great Thou art; how great Thou art.’
Then sings my soul, my savior God, to thee,
‘How great Thou art; how great Thou art.’”

The lovely Nan and Eddie, in healthier days…

And the strength and volume I couldn’t muster in Amazing Grace came bursting out, surprising me with its power and intensity. I kept singing, confident I could hold the melody while I let the song choose how to phrase the lyrics. I stole a moment to look at my family, taking comfort in the joy and pride I saw in Kristi and Matthew’s eyes, the gratitude I saw in Tammy’s eyes… but Nan was looking down, gently crying. I’d sung her to tears. And again, my heart broke. As tears welled up midway through the last verse, I had to stop as the next line darted away in the face of Nan’s grief. I paused, took a shuddered breath, and then resumed the song as if nothing had happened. As I began the last refrain, my arms outstretched and raised slightly of their own accord; and those voices who’d been shy before took my motion as their cue to join in fully, and the final refrain became the loudest, most joyous of them all.

For a second time, I finished my hymn and made my way back to my seat beside my lovely Lady Fair, grateful she was there, shaken by the experience of the song, and hopeful I’d not made a fool of myself. I’d honored Eddie the best I could. The memorial was over.

Matthew, Tammy, Grace and Emma are on a plane headed back to Washington as I write this; Kristi and I have plans to go visit Nan next week; and I’m still singing the two hymns. Wonder if the bikers will mind if I sing them at the rally tomorrow.

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