It was an overcast day at the graveside when we laid my wife’s mother down. The sky was the color of Quickrete. And it was hot. Grown men had sweat marks on the seats of their Sunday trousers. Ladies were fanning themselves.
Welcome to a funeral in South Alabama at high noon.
I led my wife beneath the tent while she clutched my arm tightly. I released her, kissed her forehead, and stood behind the casket, willing myself not to cry.
I had one official job today. To sing. I was supposed to sing three hymns. My friend, Aaron, drove all the way from Montgomery to accompany me on fiddle. And I was already choking up before things began.
Anyone who knows anything about singing knows that you can not sing if you are crying. Your throat closes up and you sound like a frog with laryngitis.
When I glanced at the mass of good people standing around the tent, things weren’t looking good for me. My chin began to wobble. My vision went blurry.
“Pull yourself together,” I was muttering quietly.
The preacher was in good voice. Brother Andy brought a Methodist message that made your heart feel good and sore at the same time. If there has ever been a funeral homily delivered with more humility and grace, it happened somewhere in Galilee.
Then it was my turn. The preacher gave me The Nod. The fiddle began playing. And it was time. The moment of truth.
I cleared my throat.
I opened my mouth and did my level best to sing “Amazing Grace” without messing up. And in this moment, I couldn’t help but remember the first time I ever sang at a funeral.
I was 10 years old. It was my grandfather’s funeral. My mother had wanted all six verses of “Amazing Grace.” Six long, arduous, hard-to-learn verses. She gave me one week to memorize them.
This was no small feat for a child. I practiced for seven solid days by keeping a tally sheet beside my bed. Every time I read through all the verses, I would make a mark on the notepad.
By the day of the funeral I had recited John Newton’s beloved hymn nearly 1,400 times. I still break into cold sweats whenever I see that old red hymnal.
But it worked. I sang before my granddaddy’s casket, which was draped in an American flag, and watched my father cry on the front row as I sang.
My father wore a full suit that day. He was a blue-collar man with sunburned skin and toughened hands, I’d never seen him in a suit. When I got to the fourth verse, my father quietly sang the song with me.
He knew all the words.
My father died shortly thereafter, and I would sing those same six verses at his funeral.
I’m a middle-aged man now, but somehow, in my heart I will forever be that little boy singing before his weeping father. At least that’s how I felt today—like a boy in grown-up clothes.
I was not ready for my mother-in-law to die. My wife and I took care of this woman, our lives were built around her needs. We ate meals with her. We sat with her. We did her grocery shopping.
When her COPD got bad, we connected her oxygen and reminded her to breathe. When my wife’s mother had appointments, we were the chauffeurs. We listened to her stories. We held her coffee mug while she sipped. We were holding her hands as she died.
And we learned a lot, too. In the time we helped take care of my wife’s mother, I can honestly say we got a crash course in caregiving.
My wife learned to tend to every human need. We learned to cook her favorite meals, to administer meds, to lift her frail body into the restroom. We learned how to remind her that she looked “mah-velous” even on days when she didn’t think so.
This is what I was thinking while I sang.
I was thinking about how life travels so fast it makes your face burn and your neck hurt. I was thinking about how I’m not unlike that little boy in the Salvation Army khakis who sang at his grandfather’s homegoing.
When I rounded the fourth verse this afternoon, I felt it happen. The dam burst. The tickle in my throat started small. Then it got a little bigger, until I had reached what we in the performance arts might call “The Point of No Return.”
My voice broke. A few hundred people watched me weep like an idiot before a casket. And, believe me, I should have been embarrassed by all this. But I wasn’t. Because immediately a powerful voice came from the front row that caused me to open my eyes.
My wife knew all the words.