A short story by Judy Gerlach
After months of moping around, trying to come to grips with the unexpected death of my mother, I received a phone call that triggered a strange new healing process for the huge hole in my heart. Even more surprising to me was that the call came from my dad.
If anyone had more reason to be moping around than I did, it was Dad. He’d been devastated by Mom’s death and seemed lost without her. Apart from his faith in God and his beloved Mary, Dad had only one other reason for living, and that was the music he made with his trumpet. Sometimes I wondered who got top billing—Mom or the trumpet.
When he called me that day, I noticed he sounded a little more upbeat than usual. A few minutes into our conversation, I had to grab a chair and sit down.
“You’ve been what?” Dumbfounded, I switched the phone to my other hand and listened as Dad told me all about his latest “gig.”
“Yeah … every Saturday morning for over a month now,” he said. “I take my trumpet with me when I go to the cemetery, and I play Mary’s favorite hymns for her. I hope you don’t think this is weird.”
“No … of course not, Dad.” I lied—it was more than weird. I tried to hide my true feelings while he continued with the saga of his graveside concerts.
Johnny, as Dad was called by his musician friends, was a well-respected, professional jazz trumpet player. Mom always loved to listen to him play his horn, especially her favorite hymns.
Since he’d taken her death very hard, I knew he was still going through the grieving process. With Dad in Florida and me in Kentucky, it was difficult to accurately monitor his mental and emotional condition. He sounded perfectly fine on the phone. He even spoke with an air of confidence. But I remained extremely skeptical.
After we finished our conversation and hung up, I sat and stared out the window for a while, trying to process everything he’d just told me. I didn’t know what to think about this new musical venture.
Unsettling images formed in my head—images of an old man standing all alone in the cemetery, playing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”—Dixieland style, no less, to a dead audience. Surely people would think he was a crazy old man. After all, this wasn’t exactly a New Orleans funeral procession. Worse yet, what if someone accused him of disturbing the peace? I worried that someone would say something to him and hurt his feelings. I knew that grieving the loss of a loved one could cause a person to behave strangely, but Dad’s new gig haunted me for weeks.
As the weeks went by, however, I realized that I had worried in vain, and I learned a valuable lesson from my dad about how to handle my own grief. Johnny McCoy had taken his trumpet and used it to build up an amazing, therapeutic cemetery ministry.
“My trumpet ministry,” he said to me one day on the phone. “People love it!”
What had originally struck me as the somewhat morbid endeavor of an elderly and slightly eccentric musician suddenly took on a whole new light. As I listened to him tell his heartwarming tale, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Johnny McCoy’s trumpet ministry in the cemetery had received God’s full blessing, with or without my approval.
The first time Dad had actually ministered to someone occurred one day as he stood by Mom’s grave, pouring his heart into his own soulful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” A young couple approached him and listened with tears in their eyes to the rich, full sound of the old man’s horn. He finished the song and acknowledged their presence.
“That was beautiful,” the woman said. Her husband nodded in agreement. Then they told him that their little daughter was buried just a few yards down the path and asked if he would mind playing a couple of songs at her grave.
He told me that something stirred deep in his soul as he walked with them to the tiny grave. Again, he poured out his heart through his trumpet, and both the couple and my dad received a blessing that day.
“See, Dad, I knew you were on to something good!” This time I really meant it.
During my next visit with Dad, I was fortunate enough to witness one of his graveside concerts. Saturday morning came, and Dad took my family and me to the cemetery where we gathered by Mom’s grave under the hot Florida sun. I watched as the old man wiped his brow and proceeded to get his horn out of its case. He played a few warm-up notes and went straight into “How Great Thou Art” followed by “Amazing Grace” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Every note was clean, rich, prayerful.
As he played his music, I noticed another family placing fresh flowers on a grave across the way. Sure enough, they inched their way closer to us and listened to the concert—just as Dad had been telling me all along. Before they left, they thanked him and let him know his music had lifted their spirits and helped ease their pain.
He ended this session with “When the Saints Go Marching In”—his usual finale.
“That’s so Mary will know not to give up on me,” he said. “I always told her I want to be in that number when the saints go marching in.”
Did I see a twinkle in Dad’s eye? Mom must have winked at us from heaven.