Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When the Roll is Called Up Yonder I'll Be There

I don’t want to forget Tuesday night. I probably wouldn’t anyway, but I want to write about it, to tell the world about it.
My daddy might not remember the year he was born, or where the bathroom is or the front door, or how to put on his shoes, but he remembers the hymns he sang for decades in the pews of Marsh Swamp Free Will Baptist Church.
My daughter, Anna, and I stopped by Mama and Daddy’s last night after a visit to the county fair. Mama had a miserable day, and when I left her at suppertime, her eyes were red from hours of crying and frustration. I gave her a big hug, squeezed her hand and promised I’d be back before bedtime.
But it was Daddy who needed me more last night. Nighttime is nightmare time for Daddy. He has what’s known in the world of Alzheimer’s as Sundowners. Once the sun goes down, and actually a few hours before, what’s left of his sensibilities escapes him.
He panics and frets and complains and worries: Where will he sleep? Does anyone know where the bed is? How will he stand up from the couch? Will his feet reach the floor? How in the world will he take off all these clothes? Who will help him put on his night clothes? Who will help him take them off in the morning? Is anyone going to feed him? It goes on and on for hours.
He was in full panic mode when Anna and I arrived. Already dressed in his black and gray plaid pajamas, he was leaning to the right, almost falling over against the side of the couch, worrying aloud and loudly how he was going to get up.
“Will someone help me get up? I’ve got to get up from here.” It’s a common refrain with no real answer. If you ask him where he wants to go his response is: “I don’t know. How in the world am I supposed to know?”
I worked hard to distract him by rubbing his leg, talking softly and encouraging him to relax and calm down. He was having none of it.
“Why don’t we sing?” I said. He didn’t even move his head from its resting spot on the sofa, but his face perked up a little. “Do you want to sing? We can sing some church songs.”
“Those are good ones,” he said.
“What shall we sing?” I asked him. He didn’t have any suggestions. My mind raced through the hymns I grew up with, and I tried to think of ones I could remember. I felt like I was on a stage and sort of panicked myself because no song names came to mind. Then I remembered one:
“I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more.”
Daddy still didn’t move, and I wondered if he was even listening to me.
“But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry …”
And then I heard it. His weakened but beautiful voice joined in:
“From the waters lifted me now safe am I. Love lifted me. Love lifted me. When nothing else could help love lifted me.”
We sang along until we came to the end. I had his attention! He was distracted! He was singing!
Anna was amazed. I was ecstatic.
But what could we sing next?
Suddenly I was flooded with ideas, and we sang “How Great Thou Art,” “Just As I Am,” “Jesus Loves Me.” He didn’t always sing along with the verses, but by the time I hit the chorus, he would join in.
Then I remembered another song, which I knew was one of his favorites:
“When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more, and the morning breaks, eternal bright and fair.”
He finally picked up his head and I saw, I really did, a sparkle in his eye. A recognition. A flash of a memory perhaps. And, definitely, joy.
He sang along with me and really piped in when we got to the chorus:
“When the roll is called up yonder I’ll be there.”
But as soon as we finished, he started worrying again. “How am I going to get up?” he asked Anna.
“Daddy,” I said, “let’s think of something else to sing.”
He didn’t want to sing anymore and asked me to stop. But I’m not one to take no for an answer and asked him what was his favorite hymn. He sang a few lines from “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder “ again, and I joined in.
Then I asked him if he remembered “I Come to the Garden Alone”?
He hesitated for a few seconds, then looked straight ahead and sang by himself, his voice even weaker because I had tired him out. Weaker but even more beautiful and determined: “I come to the garden alone. While the dew is still on the roses.”
Anna looked at her grandpa, her eyes wide open with amazement and on the verge of tears. Tears did fill my eyes, but I started singing and didn’t worry if my emotion showed and my voice cracked.
“And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the son of God discloses. And he walks with me and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own…”
We sang the whole song. He knew every word. Every word.
But on most days, he can’t tell you the city we live in and doesn’t believe he’s in the right house. And many days he can’t recognize family members. But he knows the words of the songs he sang at his beloved Marsh Swamp Church.
I’ve read that our earliest memories are our strongest memories. I believe that’s true. I also believe I’ll have the memory of Tuesday night for years to come. I only wish Daddy could remember it too.