My friend Ryan runs a home medical equipment business, which means he often visits patients in their homes in order to get them what they need to make life more pleasant for them when they're ill or in their last days here on earth. I don't know how he does it. The smell of hospitals and sick people makes my stomach turn. The sight of oxygen tanks and tubes sends my heart racing. Ryan's currently working with a patient who used to be a hired hand for his own grandfather, and this patient is one of those who's in his last. Earlier this week he told Ryan he'd like to hear some gospel music. Being the nice guy he is (I have great friends), he gathered our little bluegrass band up and today we drove to this guy's house to put on a little mini concert for this guy, his wife, and his son.
The guy was in a hospital bed and on oxygen. He looked so frail and small in his bed. His wife stood barefoot, leaning against a bed post. The son lounged on the bed near his father while the pet Cocker Spaniel slept between the two men.
We started with Gillian Welch's "By the Mark," and the first note out of my mouth was shaky beyond belief. I had shoved my hands deep into my front jeans pockets in an attempt to hide the shaking. Tears welled in my eyes as as I sang "When I cross over, I will shout and sing..." My legs felt rubbery, like they'd give out any moment. I couldn't get my body to stand still--nor could I tame the vibrato in my voice. I've sang this song at least 100 times and know the lyrics by heart, but still I kept my eyes glued to the music. I couldn't make eye contact with the man we were singing to; if I did, I'd lose composure.
Throughout the song my mind wondered to the last time I'd seen someone so sick and frail. I think I was 7 or 8, and it was my grandpa. He had lung cancer. I vaguely remember a hospital room, and his small frame tucked in those sterile looking white hospital blankets. I remember the oxygen tanks and the hum of the machines in the room. I think I remember hearing people cry, but mostly I remember feeling scared out of my mind. I'm not sure what I was scared of. Maybe deep down, I feared that was the last time I'd see my grandpa.
We fumbled our way through many of our songs that are, ironically enough, mostly sad or about death. As we sang, my voice eventually settled and calmed to its original straight, smooth tone. I slowly gained courage to peek at the wife who kept her eyes mostly fixed on her husband, and the son who seemed deep in thought. A few times I glanced at the old man and give him a sort of half-smile as I sang. During one of the songs he stared straight ahead, and I wondered what he was thinking. Was he negotiating with God for more time with his beautiful wife? Was he remembering days spent with his children? Or was he thinking of the long list of regrets we sometimes think of when we come close to death?
Soon other family members crowded into the house, so we ended with "I'll Fly Away"---another song about death. Though it's a hopeful song about being free and joyful to meet the Creator of the universe, I couldn't stop myself from thinking about all of these people who'd soon be without a loved one. The shaking returned and the tips of my ears grew a deep hue of red and felt fiery. I was thankful when the last chord rang. We packed up and drove home, making small talk until we finally got back to Ryan's house. After I shut my front door behind me, I let myself cry for just a few minutes as I remembered the frail little man we sang for and my own grandfather. Those 40 minutes left a deep imprint in my memory; I hope we brought a little joy to Ryan's patient and his family during what I'm sure is a tough time.