Daddy is still here. Unconscious, but not entirely. You think he’s just laying there, eyes closed, in a coma-like state, but then he will murmur something to let you know that he’s not completely lost in the fog. He let my cousin Jake know that yes, as a matter of fact, he did want Jake to help bust him out of here and take him fishing.
Late in the afternoon, my mother held the framed photograph of my late sister Ruthie up for him, and he stared at it, and even held it in his hand for a while. It was a moment of almost unbearable beauty. He tried to speak, but it wasn’t clear what he was attempting to communicate. She told him it was okay to go, to go to God, to go to Ruthie. I said the same into his ear. We have been telling him this all day: We love you, but you are free to go.
On Tuesday afternoon, as I update this, he can no longer open his eyes.
Daddy’s home hospice nurse, Denise, is one of the more wonderful people on the planet. She is what they used to call a dame — and coming from me, that’s a compliment. She’s got a low voice and a raspy, whiskey-cured Southern accent that’s all Elizabeth Ashley in scrubs. I keep expecting her to step out of nurse mode and ask me for a toddy. Our whole family has fallen madly in love with her, because there is nothing she won’t do for my dad. Last week, when he had a scary coughing fit at 10pm, she got dressed and drove out to the country to help, a journey that was two hours, round trip. That’s the kind of person she is. Last night, after she finished her nurse duties, she went to the living room, borrowed a guitar from my son Lucas, took it to my dad’s bedside, and began playing and singing “I’ll Fly Away.”
My mom, who was sitting next to her, and who has a beautiful singing voice, joined in. Before you knew it, most of the people in the front of the house had stepped away from their fried chicken and peach cobbler to follow the sound of the guitar. And there we all were, singing “I’ll Fly Away,” and then “Amazing Grace,” and then “Brown-Eyed Girl,” which was Ruthie and Mike’s favorite song. The loudest voice in the room belonged to their daughter Hannah, who drove in lickety-split from California to be here for Paw’s final days. I cried my eyes out. Seven days of living at Daddy’s side, praying long stretches of Psalms and acres of petitions and praises from a prayerbook had been so solemn and worthy, but the music, man, it just drew me out and broke me down. I was reminded of this moment with Lucas at the Avett Brothers concert in town in 2013:
My son Lucas, who is nine, is the only one of my children who is musically inclined. He’s just like his uncle, Jud, who is a natural musician. I hear Lucas in the living room noodling around on the piano, and boy, does he ever have the gift. So we were standing in the darkness under the moon and the pine trees tonight, with the band about half an hour into their set, and Lucas was in front of me, and then he turns and plants his head into my chest, sobbing, saying, “I didn’t think I would love it like this.”
The power of music. I had tears too, thinking about how those chords, those harmonies, that power on the stage moved a little boy to tears. He couldn’t talk about it. All throughout the show, he was so moved he couldn’t speak, or even look at me. We’ve been home for an hour, and he still can’t talk about it. He’s going to be a musician one day, I know it.
Later, after everyone but Jake and my wife Julie had left the room, I mentioned to Jake that for me, the perfect song for this moment would be the Rolling Stones’ “Shine A Light.” A moment later, I heard its opening chord coming from Jake’s smartphone. These lines reduced me once again to tears:
Angels beating all their wings in time,
With smiles on their faces and a gleam right in their eyes.
Whoa, thought I heard one sigh for you,
Come on up, come on up, now, come on up now.
May the good Lord shine a light on you,
Make every song you sing your favorite tune.
May the good Lord shine a light on you,
Warm like the evening sun.
In the living room a few minutes later, seeing Lucas struggling mightily with what’s happening to his grandfather, I took him into a bedroom, laid down with him on the bed, held him close, and talked about music. Angels beating all their wings in time — that’s what the experience of our songs at Paw’s bedside had been like. I pointed out to Lucas how moved everyone had been by the music, and how music can express things that words cannot. Lucas — who, by the way, is at his weekly guitar lesson as I type this — is really good at music; I told him that God had given him this gift to serve Him and to serve others, by saying through his music things that are in their own hearts, but for which they lack the words. That seemed to move him, and to confirm him in some way. Lucas is one of those kids who feels best when he is helping others. When I made the connection for him between making music and helping, it was like a light went off in his mind.
When we stood up to leave the room, I noticed that he was wearing his now-faded Avett Brothers concert t-shirt. Seemed fitting.
We are very, very close to the end now. Thanks for all your prayers and the kind words you have said here in these comment threads, and that you’ve sent to me privately. I don’t have time to answer any of you personally, but know that I am reading them, and am consoled by them. I even received a note from Father Benedict at the monastery in Norcia, who said he and the monks were praying for Daddy. Man, just think of it. All these people around the world who know Paw from my books and this blog, lifting him up in prayer, and here in this house in the valley of the shadow of death, all this love, and laughter through the tears, and music. And bright-shining light.
I always knew I would hate the death of my father. But I didn’t know I would love it like this too.