Jesus Loves Me.
A few nights before my dad died we were gathered around him, wondering just how close the end was. I was playing hymns for him on my phone, and we were singing along to Johnny Cash singing Just As I Am, his favorite, Billy Graham’s altar call song.
“Ash,” he said, his voice gravelly between short, hard-won breaths, “you know what song I really like lately? That one… about 'the Bible tells me so.'”
Thinking he was referring to a song with that title, I grabbed my phone and searched, eager to fulfill his request. I found one and played it, but about ten seconds in to the jaunty, upbeat country tune, he shook his head weakly.
“No, no… that’s not the one. You know, that one – the one that says ‘Jesus loves me’.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry but I didn’t have time to decide because I lost it. The tears came fast and freely in a polyphonic deluge of emotion, overpowering mirth and tender joy and sweet marveling at the miracle of the simple, of a faith that no longer needs to indulge theological speculation, anxious questions, urgent doubts, the multiplicity of distractions that crowd daily life and hem in the holy. Unless you become like a little child, Jesus says. And so we sang: me, my mom, my cousin Jana, my brother Sean, Izzy and Arrow: believers and doubters alike, we sang. We sang there in that fluorescent-lit hospital room redolent of antiseptic and humming with the digital pings of the machines sustaining his life while his lungs wasted. We sang the simplest, most childlike, most foundational Sunday School song that everyone knows, that everyone has heard a thousand times, with its stark major notes and the kind of adamant lyrical certainty that seems ever farther beyond reach as life takes its labyrinthine course and cynicism pollutes, with words the world deems naive but which now seemed bold, defiant and achingly tender at all once:
Jesus loves me, this I know,
for the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong,
they are weak but He is strong
Yes, Jesus loves me, yes Jesus loves me.
Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so.
I held his hand and sang, at least the words I could get out amidst sobs, and I remembered how I when I was little I loved to pull on the weathered skin, browned and freckled with age spots, cured by tobacco smoke. I would pinch the skin with its waning elasticity between my fingers, making little mountains that sank back down ever so slowly. He didn’t seem to mind or be annoyed. And I remembered the time he gingerly kissed the top of my head in the backseat of a cab in New York City just when I was on the cusp of adolescence and fatherly affection was becoming difficult to receive as artlessly as it was once, subject to that bipolar dance of teenagehood with one’s parents: I need you, get away from me, I need you. But for one moment I felt little again. I felt like a child: safe, protected, loved. For a moment, amid the swirling squall of hormones and catastrophic emotions of puberty, life was simple again.
And here was my dad, so close to the kingdom, and life was simple again. He had become like a little child: safe, protected, loved.
Jesus loves me, this I know.