While listening to online radio one night—thankful for technology that encourages the human ‘spirit’—“Georgia On My Mind” sung by Ray Charles came through, and with tears came the rush of memory:
—“Pop”, as I had recently begun to call him, my strong silent father who answered to the name “Bill”, was sick. He had struggled and suffered since his diagnosis of a rare type of cancer and through the round of chemotherapy treatment that followed, and it seemed that he had taken a turn for the worse. On that day I was fortunate enough to be there with him and with the rest of our family: brother, sister, mom, and the other close relatives who trickled in throughout the day.
Personally and honestly, I myself had been oblivious, selfish, and uncaring throughout most of his struggle, throughout most of my own life really, but the past no longer mattered. As his oldest son there were responsibilities that I had to fulfill, or so I thought: to show a personal strength or steadiness to what was at hand; to show a strong face; to be determined and able to handle whatever may come, and to handle it with dignity—for Pop, and for the rest of the family.
That last day—it seemed that all of a sudden the man he had been was inexplicably turning into something which I never saw coming: a weak, tired yet peacefully resigned, clinging sort of human figure; once the all-powerful mythical “Father”, one of such strength and resolve in my eyes, “steady as a rock” and unshakable, now with a body reduced to frailty and to weakness—that day had unexpectedly come.
Unexpectedly. It had only a few days ago when my brother and I had taken him to a local pool hall, and on the table we played he still had what I call the “rush of the dance” going easily, when the shots go in and a body dances freely around the table with cue-stick in hand, making one shot after another after another—a joy that needs no smile but exists naturally. An amazing display for such a body and spirit, however brief it was in time. We even shared food and “communed” together, all three of us picking through a single tray of fries and chicken we had ordered, with sticky fingers grabbing white napkins to clean up our hands, then later walking outside to the patio to sit for a few moments. A beautiful afternoon, and a memory that doesn’t fade.
That rush of excitement though, that “dance” around the table—certainly he was skilled at billiards, real tough in his early years according to one of his younger brothers later on. I knew it as well— I had heard the occasional rumor around town from others, about how he had a certain nickname that described his skills on the green felt. Unbeatable at times. But now the final day had come, and when the end was just a moment away it seemed, all I could do was just “be there”.
That last evening rolled around, the daylight hours passing as we all occasionally shared time outside when he was still able to walk and move, visitors coming and going—but his voice was growing scarcer and scarcer. The last words he spoke to me, after I asked for his forgiveness for the wrongs I had done in my life, were spoken with a slow and raspy voice: “We all do bad sometimes”. He was forgiving me completely, easily, without hesitation, in his own way.
(We all fall. We all struggle. And we can all rise again. Forgiveness, it seems, must begin from inside truly, and grow outward from there, continuing onward).
That last night, as his body lay in the hospital bed we had set-up in the main living room—at home, the place where he had wanted to stay in his last days—my sweet and brave mother began to sing to him. Throughout the day Pop had been watching television like he so often did in life, but now he was switching channels to the religious networks, reviewing his childhood faith and beliefs perhaps—things he never really spoke openly about. Pop was good though—he tried to live the way a person can and should, particularly later in life—helpful to others, honest, with an easy sense of humor, and kind, even to the little squirrels around the house—remembered by so many people he met, strangers it seemed who later came to pay their final respects to the body.
As mother sang softly that night, a religious song that she knew so easily, his body began to relax from the previous fit of unease and discomfort, and the very moment she stopped singing he motioned to his ear with his right hand. “Sing, he wants me to keep singing”, Mom said. I was beside the bed that was set-up in the living room, seeing that motion of his hand from my point of view, and well—if singing was what he wanted, singing was what he was going to get.
Mom brought out on old hymnal from the back bedroom and began with some familiar songs—“Send the Light”, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Amazing Grace”, and a few others. I joined in when I could, both of us singing softly and just good enough I guess. He became peaceful, finally closing his eyes to rest.
Eventually she got tired and sleepy herself after such a long demanding day and retired to the bedroom. I remained where I was, sitting right by his side on the couch, and grabbing that old hymnal I sang whatever I could find, leafing through the book, searching for songs that had a good message. The melodies weren’t important I thought, just the words and their meanings—I made up my own melodies to go along with them.
Finally I remembered—he had recently spoken to me and my brother about the time he had spent in Georgia as a younger man, living with his uncle further south, carefree and experiencing another world it seemed, probably far different from the small town he grew up in. That story, to me, was like him weaving some kind of magical and mysterious spell—the silent father finally sharing a moment of himself, something I had thought I never got to experience before.
And as he described that short period of life before marriage, it was like one of those times when the world seems full of possibilities, where nothing is yet “set in stone” and a lifetime could go in many different directions. And since I had exhausted the book anyways for its real ‘goodies’, “Georgia on My Mind” was the song that came to me. The problem was, I didn’t know the words—I only knew that lovely chorus and I wasn’t sure about how that really went.
As I sang it anyways, adding my own words to the ones I knew, mixed in between tears and softly whispering words of love, along with of my own strong belief of “life-to-come”, I knew I was making a mistake with the song, thinking “I wish I knew all the words”. But I kept flubbing through it, doing the best I could with what little I knew, laughing at myself and crying at the same time.
He passed on some short hours later, peacefully and at rest.
I still apologize, even now. I didn’t expect to get so long-winded, nearly losing myself in the memory. But that song came back to me the other day abruptly on the radio. I hadn’t thought of it once since that night, and as it played I listened to those beautiful words Ray sang, agreeing with every one of their simple truths, every poetic phrase, every single word, until—
—nearly halfway through, the lyrics “no peace I find…just an old sweet song… keeps Georgia on my mind”. I stopped, puzzled and concerned. My first thoughts then: “Why ‘no peace’ Mr. Charles? Why not ‘such peace I find’? Or even ‘what peace I find’? Seems to me that such would be closer to the meaning of existence, closer to some ultimate truth in life, or something or another like that”.
(Such thoughts run their course, and there’s no need to stop them out of fear—just follow on through, listen, and make any changes as you so choose.)
Of course, and truthfully now, creativity can be expressed in whatever way a person chooses—the melancholy of a sad and dark mood, the emptiness of a particular dream, or the pure joy of being alive—but it almost always displays a reflection of one’s own personal beliefs and ideas. But I think there is more to it than that.
It brings me back to the thought that we do live in a world with that most unfortunate idea almost built into it, that thing that says, “if there is good there must be bad”; or “without bad we cannot know good”. Similarly—the Yin/yang duality, the balancing of influences, the positive vs. the negative, right versus wrong, faith versus reason, inner versus outer, and on and on and on. Pick your terms.
Perhaps, and it does make sense in a way, we haven’t yet as a whole been ready to move beyond such concepts. That we, as a whole, cannot accept the natural rightness of our lives that we have been given—the life that flows through the flesh even as the breath does; that divine spark that exists within ourselves and seeks to create and to just be—accepting our basic innocence as easily as an animal within its own nature does.
Sometimes I think, “we have a long way to go”, but then I remember to slow down, take my time, and not to rush to any conclusions or dire proclamations. They would build their own momentum, and there would be a huge mess to deal with after that.
The natural “magic” of simply living the best life possible and not hassling every little detail that falls short, shaking off old ideas and limitations, learning to trust the inner integrity that is already there—these will automatically come when the need or desire makes it possible. We can then “re-write ourselves” and have a new song—one that doesn’t limit our understanding, nor cause us to fall back into the habits of our pasts, but rather one that liberates and expands ourselves even further, ringing throughout the moment, forever.
Peace, and be well as always