Two weeks ago, my father Thomas Joseph Willey died after a long decline at 80 years of age. In November of 2014 I got a call from my step-mother Barbara that my father had been hospitalized with critically low cardiac output and if I wished to see him alive I should get there as soon as possible. When I arrived the heart presser medications they had given him to keep his heart going had killed his kidneys with the resulting blood toxins rendering him mostly unconscious.
I slept on the floor by his bed for the next couple of days. Sometime in the middle of the second night, as dialysis began to clear out the toxins, I heard him say my name. Quickly I got off the ground and leaned over his bed. “Mark” he said, “get my ipad.” He then gave detailed instructions for me to put his headphones on his ears and play four hymns, sung by choirs that he had in a favorite playlist. I don’t remember what all of them were but I know one of them was “Amazing Grace” and that all of them were sturdy sacred hymns of faith. He listened to them all the way through, then fell peacefully to sleep.
The next day the story began to unfold. During the time when it seemed he was unresponsive and unconscious, he was actually in a kind of lucid dream. Elements from the world around him found their way into his dream; snippets of the conversations we were having by his bedside, even the TV that the neighbor in his room had playing. In his dream, he was taken down to hell where Jerry Springer, as the devil, was judging him and his family and friends. Scenes from his life were playing out, in excruciating, slow detail, all to be mocked and condemned by Jerry Springer, the devil. At times he would plead for mercy for one of his sons, or argue to defend one of his grandchildren, but to no avail. He was caught in this dream, and on the occasions when we had seen him wake, a wild, panicked look in his eyes, he was pleading with us to deliver him from the dream but he couldn’t form the words.
On the night when he asked for his iPad, he was beginning to break free from the torture, to rise from the hell of condemnation and Jerry Springer. He needed something to help him complete his journey and that’s when he asked for me to play him the four hymns on his headphones. He told me later they pulled him out of his torture and he slept, dreamless for the first time in several days.
My father died an agnostic, a skeptic about faith and God. But even though my father had long since let go of his faith in God, he turned to hymns to lift him from his hell into the light. There is great power in music. My father knew this, even when he didn’t believe the meaning of the words he was hearing. Those of us who do believe have all the more reason to sing, to celebrate the healing power of our sacred tunes and texts. I will miss my father, but he lives on in me through the personality traits I inherited from him and the many wise life lessons he taught me, including how to appreciate the simple, beautiful power of a great hymn of faith.