In this story from August 1990, the country music legend muses on faith, family and loss.
Nov 26, 2013
If I'm anything in this world, I'm a wife and mother. I do enjoy my performing and musical career, but it's my family that means most. We had six kids, and my husband and I have a special, mystical bond with each of them. That bond is the only way I can explain what happened with me and my boy Jack.
The strange story started with my mystery illness on a summer Sunday a few years back. I'd done a concert at the Kansas City Opera, the last stop on the tour. We were on the bus heading home for Tennessee when out of the blue I started feeling bad and went to lie down.
Early the next morning, my friend Lorene Allen woke up with the feeling she should check on me, and it was a good thing she did: I was having trouble breathing. The bus had pulled into a truck stop in Illinois, and Lorene got off, hollering, "Call an ambulance!"
At the emergency room they thought I was already dead, but the doctors didn't give up. They worked till I started breathing again, then admitted me to intensive care.
I hardly remember anything in intensive care until the fourth day. My husband, Doolittle, had come up from Tennessee to tell me what had to be told. "I got news, Loretta, and it's bad," he said. "Jack's dead."
And it was like I died all over again. There's no pain on this earth like losing a child.
Jack was different from my other kids in one way. The others all wanted to follow me in their own singing careers. But Jack's main interest was farming. He had the same love I do for planting and doing with my hands.
Jack, who'd married a pretty little girl named Barbara, had a girl and a boy—and had a new little redheaded baby girl named Jenny. They lived on Barbara's grandmother's farm just up the road from our ranch, so Jack was over at our place often, helping out with the planting or in the stables.
To this day I believe the moment I collapsed on that bus was the moment my boy died. And when Jack died, a piece of me left with him.
On the Sunday I got sick, Jack had been visiting campers on our ranch. By the time he was ready to saddle up and ride home, it was dusk, so he decided to take the shorter way back and ford the river. But there'd been heavy rains and Duck River was swollen. Jack and his horse never did make it across.
They didn't find my boy for three days after he drowned.
Little things came back to me, like the honeybees when Jack was just a tyke. Back then we lived in Washington State in a house that was real tiny. It had two bedrooms and the bathroom was back outside. I mean country. Jack was 2 then, and Betty, our oldest, was 3. Those kids loved to play outside.
The man we rented the house from had honeybees. Well, those kids were fascinated, and so Betty took a stick and stirred up those doggone bees. I was in the kitchen when I heard the commotion. And here comes those two little kids across the yard, lickety-split, hollerin' and cryin'. Jack's little legs weren't long enough to get moving right. So he got stung up the worst. Thing is, I felt those stings worse than Jack did.
If, 30 years later, I could still smart from those bees, how could I ever get past the sting of knowing my boy had suffered and died all by himself?
I tried hard to remember the good times, how Jack was no trouble growing up. He did good in school. He liked football, but baseball was his favorite. He was big and strong and happy. Just like his daddy. The spittin' image. In fact, in some ways, he and his daddy were too much alike. Sometimes they'd just butt heads.
I couldn't help but remember the bad times, too, like when Jack got older and began drinking too much. When I tried to talk to him about it, he said, "Momma, I just drink till it stops hurtin'." It made things real hard for him and for the people who loved him.
Finally I just had to leave Jack and his alcohol problem in the hands of God. That's where I'd learned to leave problems ever since I was little, going to a Baptist church in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky. And I do believe God was watching Jack carefully, because his life changed. For one thing, he met Barbara. But it was more than that.
Shortly before he died, Jack had a doctor's appointment in Nashville and I drove in with him. On the way, I remarked that he seemed different and happier. His eyes sparkled and he said, "Momma, I've quit drinking. I've been sober for nine months and I'm never gonna have another drink." That was part of my pain. Things were going so good for Jack. He was just starting to live. How could he be gone?
They flew me back to a hospital in Nashville. The doctors said I couldn't get up to go to Jack's funeral, but I did. But it wasn't me who was there, really. I went through the service in a haze.
Even after I got out of the hospital, it was like I wasn't living my life, just going through the motions. The one conscious thing I did do was reach for my Bible. It was like a life preserver floating in the water.
As I said, I grew up going to a little Baptist church. We didn't have a proper church in Butcher Hollow, but my daddy's first cousin preached in the little one-room schoolhouse that my great-grandfather built. We all went, and we all were raised on the Bible, and I've always carried one with me everywhere I went.
So after Jack died, when I was reaching for answers it made sense to reach for my Bible. Only then did I realize that although I'd read it, I hadn't really searched it, asking the hard questions and listening to the answers. So I started searching.
One verse that stood out for me was, "You are not your own, you were bought with a price." If I'm not my own, it's pretty clear my kids aren't mine, either; they're God's. Or put another way, children are loaned to us; they really belong to God.
So if Jack was God's, was God looking out for him?
As I thought about these things, I became more certain than ever that Jack was in God's care, and gradually I began to find more proof of that. I began to remember things that had passed over me before, like the minister, Elzie Banks, who told a strange story at Jack's funeral.
He was a pleasant-looking man from a little church there in Waverly, Tennessee, and he told how, about nine months before Jack died, he'd been out on a sick call. Waverly isn't that big, and there aren't many roads to choose from, but he got lost. When he drove over Duck River, he knew for sure he'd taken a wrong turn and he'd better ask directions. So he pulled up at a little house and went to the door.
It was Jack who opened that door and invited him in for coffee. As the two of them sat talking, Jack told the pastor he'd been raised in a church and baptized, but he'd been away for a while.
When it came time for the pastor to leave, he said, "Let's pray, Jack."
And Jack said, "I don't know how."
So the pastor prayed, and Jack prayed after him.
Looking back, I know what the meaning of the minister's story was. It was no coincidence that Jack had stopped drinking when he did. Although that minister thought he'd taken a wrong turn and he was lost, he was right where God sent him to be. God was looking after his boy Jack in ways that I never could.
It's been around five years now since Jack died. And I'll tell you something: The bond I have with him is still as strong as the bond I have with my living children. Anyone who knows me will tell you that Jack's death has changed my life, and the biggest way is this: My dreams are not here on earth anymore. Why spend precious time running around chasing after money or fame when we're not going to be here that long? A blink of an eye and we're gone.
There are wonderful things here, all right. There's Doo, and our family, and there's music and flowers, lots of things that I love. Things are pretty good these days. My girl Betty's married and runs a real nice country place in Conover, Wisconsin. Sissy's got a band of her own now, and my boy Ernest Ray and the twins, Patsy and Peggy, are playing and singing with me. I'm working on albums with some wonderful folks, and planning a gospel album myself.
But my biggest dream is living with God and what happens when we get there. The time we're gonna have! Whether you're ill or crippled or have emotional problems, you'll be whole there. Momma and Daddy and Patsy Cline and Jack...the parts of me that have been missing won't be missing anymore. And best of all, we'll see God, who we really belong to, face-to-face.
The Bible tells us to store up our treasure in heaven, "for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." When the time comes for me to cross that ol' river myself, don't fret too much for me. It'll be an easy trip—'cause you see, I've sent my heart on ahead.
Did you enjoy this story? Subscribe to Guideposts magazine.