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20111018-a-bluegrass-wake-by-andy-whitmanMy sister died on a day when I was in Nashville. She went to be home, and I was five hundred miles from home, and another two thousand miles from my sister.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. A one-to-three-months-to-live death sentence wasn’t supposed to only last two weeks, and vacations—taken in part as a respite from the grievous weight of caring for a dying loved one—weren’t supposed to end with the death of the loved one.

But that’s how it worked out. And my wife and I found ourselves in the ridiculous position of the worst of all possible phone calls ringing in our ears, wandering unfamiliar streets, listening to honky-tonk music pouring out of every open door.

Elizabeth Kübler Ross claims that there are five stages of grief, and I believe I went through most of them multiple times during that morning stroll through downtown Nashville; depression and denial on Demonbreun, Bargaining on Broadway, Anger on every street corner. Forty-six years old. It wasn’t nearly enough time.

Acceptance? I haven’t arrived there yet. It’s too fresh. I’ll let you know.

Nashville is a weird town in any circumstance, and on the morning of my sister’s death it struck me as more than a little surreal. Nashville is a city of bars and churches, with remarkable music pouring out of both, and as we strolled through the streets we encountered itinerant musicians playing on the sidewalks, guitar cases open to receive passing tips, and what seemed to be a whole horde of screaming, tract-wielding fundamentalists willing to share the good news of why we were going to hell for listening to country music.

It was too much. It might have been too much in any event, but we needed to get away from the pitched supernatural battles, and so we retreated to the leafy confines of Vanderbilt University, where we found an open, nearly deserted chapel.

And that’s where we camped out for most of the day; talking quietly, praying, reminiscing about my sister. We found a quiet, out-of-the-way restaurant for dinner, looked at our watches, and asked ourselves What Now? The thought of our hotel room was depressing, as was the thought of witnessing some kid in a Stetson and cowboy boots trying to impress a big music label.

“How about this?” I suggested, perusing the local entertainment rag. “Bluegrass jam. No place I’ve ever heard of. No cover charge. No musicians named.” So we tried it, driving to a little dive of a bar south of the city.

I still don’t know the names of the musicians. There were perhaps twenty of them wandering in and out, huddled under a neon Budweiser sign near the back of the bar. They played banjos and fiddles and guitars, dobros and upright basses. They were young and old, high school kids and old codgers in their seventies and eighties, men and women. They seemed to know one another, and greeted each other with slaps on the back or good-natured quips.

They didn’t introduce the songs. No one served as a leader or spokesperson. They just played music. They played Hank Williams’ “We Live in Two Different Worlds” and Bill Monroe’s “Little Cabin Home on the Hill.” They played The Stanley Brothers’ “O Death,” and some unknown hillbilly guitarist howled out the pleading words:

O death, O death
Won’t you spare me over ’til another year

An old woman, with a raw, ragged voice straight from the hollers, sang “I Saw the Light” and “I’ll Fly Away” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” And one of the old codgers shifted his chaw over to the other side of his mouth so he could sing “All the Good Times Are Past and Gone” and “Long Journey Home,” songs as old as the mountains themselves, and infinitely sad.

They couldn’t have known that they were singing for my sister, or for me. They were just playing old bluegrass standards. But it was a pretty fair approximation of church under that neon Budweiser sign.

The usual criticism of bluegrass music is that it is hokey and sentimental. And it is. So maybe you need to hear it in a heightened emotional state; say, on the evening of your sister’s death. On certain nights, under certain conditions, it can cut to the bone.

All I know is that on that unnaturally warm Nashville Sunday night it was exactly what I needed to hear.

In another two weeks I’ll travel out to California for my sister’s memorial service. There will be hymns and prayers, stories and tears. There will be a proper wake for the person who grew up in the same crazy, violent, dysfunctional family that I did, who survived the butcher knives and the murder attempts, and who impossibly became an incredibly bright, kind, compassionate human being.

Dr. Elizabeth Verber. That was my sister.

Sometimes I doubt the reality of God. There are weeks like this one, when I ponder the premature death of one so kind and gifted, that I don’t understand, and I doubt all over again. I remember my sister. But then I consider the imperfect, broken human being, scarred and timid and terrified, who was changed into someone who positively impacted the lives of thousands of people.

This is the work of God. I’d be crazy to deny it.

I simply remember my sister. And I remember those unknown musicians, merely jamming, merely playing exactly the right songs that I needed to hear for a wake they didn’t know they were attending.

I don’t doubt. I believe.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Andy Whitman

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