by ABBIE JOHNSON TAYLOR
"Grace," said the nurse to my grandmother. "You have a visitor."
I approached the bed with caution, not knowing what to expect. The woman who lay there looked small and forlorn. Her hair was as white as the pillow on which her head rested and the sheet that covered her. Her eyes were sky blue, as they'd always been, and they were looking straight at me. Her mouth broke into a weak smile of recognition.
"Hello Grandma," I said. I grasped the wrinkled hand that lay on the sheet. After pulling a chair close to the bed for me, the nurse left the room.
As I settled myself, I looked around. The bed in which my grandmother lay was next to a window. The curtains were open and bright sunlight streamed into the room. Near the open door, there stood a closet and another chair sat in a distant corner of the room. Next to the bed was a night stand and a chest of drawers stood in another corner. On a nearby wall was a television set that was not on at the moment. The only evidence of illness was a machine of some sort that stood next to the night stand, its roar and hiss filling the room.
"I was hoping you would come before it's too late," Grandma moaned.
"I came as soon as I could," I said. "Mother called me only last night and I caught the first plane out of New York. It arrived about an hour ago."
"I'm so glad you came," said Grandma, squeezing my hand. "How's your work going?"
"I'm still working on my new CD," I answered. "It should be released in a few months."
"That's wonderful," said Grandma. "And to think all those years ago, when you were just a little girl and you and I sang together in the kitchen, I never dreamed you would be doing that for a living." She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep. I sat holding her hand and thinking of all those happy times I spent with my grandmother as a child. When I visited Grandma, we often sang together as we did dishes or other domestic chores. Grandma's favorites were "I'll Fly Away" and "When the Roll is Called Up Yonder" and I learned these and many other songs at an early age.
One Sunday morning when I was about thirteen, Grandma and I were driving to church when we heard, for the first time, Judy Collins singing "Amazing Grace" on the radio. Grandma pulled the car to the side of the road and we sat and listened. I could tell Grandma was touched by this particular version of the song. Her eyes grew misty and she reached into her purse for a handkerchief. "That's so beautiful," she finally said after the song ended.
I bought a recording of Judy Collins singing "Amazing Grace" and practiced singing it her way until I mastered it. The next time I visited Grandma, I surprised her by singing it that way, slowly, methodically. Again, Grandma's eyes were filled with tears and she reached for a handkerchief. "Oh Melissa, you have such a beautiful voice," she said after I finished.
She called the pastor of the Baptist church we attended and arranged for me to sing "Amazing Grace" at the service the following Sunday morning. It was my first solo performance and I was terrified. But Grandma said, "Melissa, if you can sing to me, you can sing to the congregation. Just pretend you're sitting at the kitchen table across from me like you were the night you first sang me the song. God has given you a wonderful talent and He will give you the courage to use it."
Despite my nervousness, my performance at church was a success and that was when I realized that I wanted to be a singer. Although Grandma didn't think I would make much money by singing, she always supported my musical endeavors. As I grew older, I lost interest in singing hymns and started singing more popular songs. I even wrote a few songs of my own. I learned to play the guitar and used it to accompany my singing. Although Grandma proclaimed not to like this kind of music, she always listened to the songs I sang with interest. When I landed my first recording contract, I called her from my apartment in New York City. "Oh Melissa, God has finally answered my prayers," she said, her voice breaking. "Now, you can make money by sharing the special gift He has given you." And that was about ten years ago. Since then, although I couldn't always find the time to visit Grandma as often as I would have liked, I frequently called and wrote her and she was always there for me through the triumphs and sorrows of my career, even when she was diagnosed with cancer and her prognosis was grim.
Now, as I sat by the bed in Grandma's room at the nursing home, I noticed a portable CD player on the night stand next to the bed. On top of the player lay a copy of one of my CDs. I was touched by Grandma's loyalty. Though she didn't care much for popular music, she always bought my recordings. As I was about to insert the disc into the machine, Grandma's voice stopped me. "No Melissa. I don't want to listen to that now."
"What would you like to hear, then?" I asked.
Without hesitating, Grandma said, "I want to hear you sing 'Amazing Grace' the way you sang it in church those many years ago."
"What?" I asked.
"You heard me," Grandma replied. "I've been waiting so long to hear you sing that song. You sang it to me years ago so you can sing it to me now."
I was thrown off guard by this request. It was years since I sang that song. But when my mother called me the night before, she said that they didn't think Grandma would live much longer. So I couldn't deny a dying woman her last request.
Though I wasn't warmed up and I hadn't practiced the song in years, I sat up straight in my chair, took a deep breath, and began to sing. At first, my voice was hesitant but when the words and the interpretation came back to me, I grew more confident. As I sang, I forgot Grandma was dying. I saw myself many years ago standing in front of the congregation in that church, singing that song for the first time and I noticed that almost everyone wiped their eyes as I sang. When I finished, Grandma's eyes were again misty, as they were years ago when I first sang that song to her. I pulled a Kleenex from the box on the night stand and wiped them for her.
She smiled and said, "I want you to sing that at my funeral."
"What?" I asked, not believing what I was hearing.
"Promise me you'll sing that song at my funeral the way you sang it in church years ago with no band, no chorus, no nothing. Promise me, Melissa," she wheezed.
I could see that Grandma's strength was fading and although I wasn't sure I could do what she asked, I thought it best to reassure her. "Ok Grandma. I'll sing 'Amazing Grace' at your funeral. Now, try and get some rest. I'll be right here."
With a satisfied sigh, Grandma closed her eyes and I did the same, resting my head on the back of the chair. I don't know how long I slept but a light touch on my shoulder woke me with a start. Shaking my head to clear the cobwebs, I saw the nurse standing by my chair. I noticed that Grandma's hand was cold and limp. One look at her face told me that she was finally at peace.
"It was your song that did it," the nurse said as I blinked back tears.
"What?" I asked in bewilderment.
"She had been asking for you," the nurse replied. "She said she was hoping to hear you sing 'Amazing Grace' one more time. After you sang that for her again, I guess she figured it was time for her to go."
"I guess so," I answered.
"Your grandmother already made arrangements in advance," said the nurse. "All we need to do is notify the funeral home, which I'll do right now. If you need anything, just pull the red cord."
"I should probably call my folks," I said, dreading the task of telling them or anybody this sad news.
"I'll bring you a mobile phone," said the nurse as she slipped out of the room and closed the door.
I kept my promise to Grandma. I sang "Amazing Grace" at her funeral, with no accompaniment of any kind. I sang it slowly and methodically, the way I heard Judy Collins sing it years ago, the way Grandma liked it. When I first sang the song in church, my performance was followed by a chorus of Amens. Now, there was only a respectful silence as I made my way back to my seat after my solo.
I also recorded "Amazing Grace" on my next CD which was released a few months later. In this recording, I sang it the same way. It was the last song on the CD and in the liner notes next to the song title were written these words, "This selection is dedicated in loving memory of my grandmother Grace who always supported my musical endeavors."