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I missed my grandma terribly—but singing brought her back to me.
In all the years I knew her, Grandma's health was never good. She had rheumatoid arthritis and gout—a painful combination. She was in pain much of the time. I mean, really hurting. Not that she ever admitted to it.
Even if she'd been awake till 4 a.m. with her arthritis, she was always up the next day to get me ready for school, almost as if she drew some kind of strength from her pain. And don't think that we spent all our time out on that porch, either.
If she was feeling well enough she'd take me out back to pick apples or plant daffodils—our favorite flower. Daffodils, Grandma told me, are the flower of hope. We planted bulbs all around the house.
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"All you have to do to know that God is up there watching out for all of us," she told me, "is look at a daffodil in bloom."
But then Grandma was diagnosed in 2002 with an illness she couldn't smile her way through: lung cancer. I was 15 and a sophomore in high school when she passed away. After a funeral there's always tons of relatives milling around, tons of food.
But there comes a time when the last of the friends and guests have left, the last of the leftovers have been eaten and it's time to move on. Time to get back to life—or what's left of it.
For Grandpa and me life was Grandma—end of story. Everywhere we looked in that house there was something that reminded us of her. The night of our first real supper without Grandma neither of us could sit down at the dining room table. We both just sort of stood there, staring at it.
There was my chair. There was Grandpa's chair. In between was Grandma's. Empty. Like the house. Like our lives. "Grandpa, it's too lonely in here without Grandma," I finally said. "Let's just go eat in the living room."
That's what we did too—that night and the ones after it. If I thought I knew what emptiness felt like before, I was wrong.
When I came home from my first day of school after the funeral, I looked down that dirt driveway. For the first time no one was waiting for me. I loved Grandpa dearly, but Grandma looked after him just as much as she did me. Who on earth would care for us now?
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It was a long time before Grandpa and I moved our meals back into the kitchen. And just as long before I could walk down that long driveway and feel at peace. But in time, I could.
Along with everything else, it turned out Grandma had been passing along another gift to me over those years. Something I didn't know I was getting, but that was flowing into me with every song we sang on that porch.
Strength. The kind of strength that comes from only one place. The peaceful place I lost myself in when Grandma and I were singing those hymns. The strength of faith.
Another spring came, and one day, walking down that long dirt driveway, I could see that the daffodils were up again, bright and cheerful as ever, all around the house. Grandma's flower of hope.
In the fall of 2005, with the memory of all those porch songs in my heart, I made the long drive to Greensboro, North Carolina, to try out for American Idol. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Much as he hates to travel, Grandpa flew to Los Angeles to watch me perform. How much do I wish Grandma could've been there too? Well, I don't need to tell you. But, in a way—a very real way—she was. There isn't a time I open my mouth to sing I don't feel her right there beside me.