LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. — Three years ago tomorrow, my dad and I listened to Willie Nelson as he gently passed away. It was a Tuesday afternoon, and the sun was shining through the old window of the hospital. The nurse had encouraged us to bring CDs when my dad was transferred to palliative care, and Matthew and I had stacked up his favorites: John Lee Hooker, Turtle Island String Quartet, Nigel Kennedy and this one, “Across the Borderline” by Willie.
Willie had played an important part in our musical upbringing, with no road trip complete without the whole family singing gustily to “On the Road Again.” My dad loved music. He went to the symphony every month, had me take him to jazz clubs when he visited me in Washington, D.C., and even went through a new-country phase when Garth Brooks was really big. I think he also felt it was important to share music with Matthew and I. When I was very little, he bought me the single “Betty Davis Eyes” by Kim Carnes, and when I got older, my Christmas presents would always include some CDS: esoteric picks that he’d heavily researched.
But Willie was one of his favorites, and when I got into the hospital room that day, I automatically popped in his CD.
“Let’s listen to this, dad,” I remember saying.
Of course, I didn’t think he could hear me. Three weeks before, he’d had a massive heart attack, one that left his brain without oxygen for far too long. As a result, we’d taken him off life support and now there was just the wait, a pretty excruciating one, before his body let go.
I sat beside him and we listened to the first song on the CD, “American Tune,” written by Paul Simon.
“But it’s all right, it’s all right, I’m just weary to my bones,” Willie sang in that strong, clear, warm voice. “Still, you don’t expect to be bright and bon vivant, so far away from home, so far away from home.”
The hospital floor was quiet, and I just held my head in my hands, still in shock that my strong dad had gotten to this place. When the song was over, I looked up, and my dad’s eyes were open but his chest was still. He was gone.
Since, I’ve thought a lot about that day and once a year, I listen to that song, which is still hard to hear. It may be magical thinking — the tests all showed his brain function was gone — but I do believe my dad was waiting for me and maybe even for that song before he left.
So when I heard that Willie Nelson was playing at the Master Musicians Festival in Somerset, I knew I had to go. Turns out my father-in-law also loves Willie, so soon all of my in-laws were excitedly looking for cowboy hats to complete their Willie Nelson ensembles.
Last Saturday, we saw Willie’s RV pull into Somerset Community College’s campus, a beaut painted with an Indian chief riding horseback into the sunset. The campus was packed with people, and the atmosphere was charged with anticipation. As the bus rolled in, the crowd started cheering and soon thereafter, Willie showed up on stage, looking a whole lot younger than his 80 years.
Earlier, I’d noticed the space in front of the stage was reserved for people who wanted to stand, and that’s where I planned to go. As Willie started playing, I saw people start flowing toward that space and I leaned into my sis-in-law Teresa.
“If we want to get close, we’d better go now,” I said.
Little did I know, Teresa is well versed in handling a crowd and when we reached the knot of people, she turned over her shoulder.
“Just follow me,” she said.
Whenever a pocket of space would open up, she’d scuttle immediately in, pulling me behind her. Soon, we were but 10 feet away from Willie, close enough to see his wrinkles, close enough to see the pleased smile on his face when he started a fresh song and the crowd cheered in recognition. Then I heard the opening strains to “On the Road Again.” I felt giddy and lucky and healed, and I clapped and danced and sang. Puffs of smoke circled overhead, Willie tossed his red bandana into the crowd, the harmonica wailed, the guitars soared, and for a few seconds, I knew my dad, he was there with me.