It was her last request.
The last thing on the list Joey gave me, of what she wanted at her funeral service... when the time came. And we both knew that time was coming soon.
“I’d like for someone to sing the hymn Leave It There at my graveside,” Joey said. And then she stopped and added, “no.. not someone,” and she looked at me and smiled, “I want Bradley Walker to sing it for me.”
There were other things that she’d requested too...“a simple service in our concert hall” so her hometown pastor could share the gospel... ‘a plain wooden box’ that our friend Thomas would build for her by hand,... ‘lined with a quilt’ made by her seventy-five year-old friend, Ms. Joan. Just those few things... and a song. Sung to her by one of the sweetest men, and voices she’d ever known.
A week-and-a-half later, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon in March, we all gathered together around the simple wooden box, lined with a quilt, and we said goodbye to my beautiful wife... with a song.
“When your body suffers pain, and your health you can’t regain. When your soul is slowly sinking in despair. Jesus knows the pain you feel. He can save and He can heal. Take your burden to the Lord, and leave it there.”
The first time that Joey and I ever heard that song was on our honeymoon in Darby, Montana. It was being sung by a mother and daughter in a little church at the base of the Bitterroot mountains. Something inside told us, “those words are gonna matter.” When hard times come and you don’t know what to do with your pain... just lay it down at the foot of the cross, and leave it there.
And so I do. Or at least I try to.
Tomorrow, it will be three months since Joey passed away, and most days, I do pretty well. But some. The harder ones. I find myself reaching down and picking up that hurt—the pain of knowing that she is really gone—and trying to carry it on my shoulders. But I can’t. I have something else on my shoulders now. Someone else...
And our little two-year-old desperately needs her Papa here. Not there. In the present. Not the past. So again, I lay my burden down and let Him have it. And I trust that His plan is better than mine. And I know it is. Because I can see it unfolding right in front of me.
When Bradley sang ‘Leave It There’ at Joey’s service that day, there were a lot of friends at her graveside. One of those was Bill Gaither. And somewhere in the service, I’m told... while Bradley’s deep baritone voice was singing my bride to heaven... Bill leaned over and asked someone, “who’s that?”
And just like that... Bradley’s life changed. Or at least, I think it’s about to.
Barry and Paul, the guys that run the Gaither record label, were also at the service and they too believed that they heard something special. Something the rest of the world needs to hear. So, in the past three months since then, I’ve had the privilege of helping Bradley record a whole album full of songs about his faith, and a few weeks ago, he even taped a television special on a specially-built riser at the front of the stage in our barn. The stage that Joey and I sang on.
They tell me that the album is gonna come out this fall. And our friend Bradley, who works at a power-plant in Athens, Alabama is gonna be all over his Mama’s television, and everyone else’s. All because he sang one song. All because of my wife’s last request.
I could tell you that it’s just coincidence or happenstance, but I’d be lying. I believe these things have come to be for a reason. That Joey somehow knew what was going to happen. Or at the very least, wanted to use her moment of being lifted up, to lift up someone else. I also think that maybe she’s up there somewhere, whispering in God’s ear“... I know you’re busy Sir... but you might want to hear this one.”
However it has happened, it’s pretty magical for Bradley. He can’t stop pinching himself. It’s the same kind of magic that Joey and my life has been filled with since the day we met. And just as I know she would be, I am so honored to be a small part of the big things that are coming together for Bradley. He so, so deserves it. Bradley has a story to tell. A unique story that God is telling with his life…and with his voice and his wheelchair and his muscular dystrophy and especially… his wonderful heart.
Early in the afternoon, on the day that he filmed his TV special in our concert hall—the same one that had stood empty since Joey’s funeral service—Bradley rolled out to the cemetery one more time. And there at foot of her cross, he and Carl Jackson and Val Storey sang to my wife.
He sang it once more for her. And for me. And for Indy. And everyone who wasn’t there to hear it at the funeral service.
This past weekend, Indiana and Hopie and I drove to Gatlinburg. We had a little mini-vacation together for a couple of days, but that’s not why we were there. I was there to introduce Bradley. The Gaither’s were having their annual Family Fest gathering at the convention center and they’d asked Bradley to come sing a song.
So in front of six-thousand people, I told the story of the song and Joey’s request and then I watched as our friend sang Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord”... to a sold-out auditorium full of complete strangers who listened and then did the one thing that Bradley couldn’t. They all stood... and gave him a standing ovation when the song was finished.
It was beautiful to see. To see that big smile on Bradley’s face up there on the stage. Still, I know he would trade it all in a heartbeat to have Joey still here with us. We all would. But if this had to be the next best choice... Joey would be so proud of him.
It’s been so good for me to get to be creative these last couple of months. To stay busy doing what I love to do. Telling stories. Especially other people’s stories. I look forward to helping Bradley get his album finished and being able to listen to and share more of his gift. And seeing the TV special when it’s all done. But mostly, I look forward to seeing where this all might lead for him in the future.
I think it’s gonna be a very special year for Bradley.
It already is.