Julia had been singing "softly and Tenderly" by her father’s bedside. As the last word hummed in her throat, her father reached toward her. "I want that one," he said. His eyes rose to Julia in an urgent glare. "At the funeral?" she asked. He blinked slowly. "I’ll tell Reverend Walton," she said. "You," he whispered. "You."
She thought it was because of the chorus, where Jesus asks the weary sinner to come home. She thought her father was exhausted and wanted it to be over. After all of the pain, and the morphine, and the embarrassment of his own daughter changing his soiled bed sheets, he wanted to slip away softly and tenderly. So she told him she’d sing it.
Then her father had muttered something about Jack, that he’d like to see Jack, and Julia said, "I’ll sing at the service, I can guarantee that, but there’s not a lot I can do about Jack."
In the last few weeks of her father’s life, Julia had been asked again and again to call Jack on the phone. Jack never returned Julia’s message, but an hour after the viewing began, he walked into the funeral parlor, his eyes squinting as if he were entering bright light. His hair was pulled into a tail in the back, his face unshaven. Certainly, he could have worn a proper suit and tie instead of a black tweed jacket over a collarless shirt. The woman he lived with--a nurse he met while he was in some hospital for addictions--was supposedly keeping Jack straight, as he had put it, but evidently not straight enough to dress properly and get a haircut.
Jack sat next to their mother on the sofa and said something to her. She put her hand to his cheek, and he bent over, laying his head on her shoulder. He began to cry and leaned into her. She put her arms around him. He sobbed while their mother held him close. Julia moved toward the sofa, close enough to hear the rapid breathing that shook her brother’s shoulders. "I should have come home," he said between sobs. "I should have come home sooner."
"You’re here now," Anna said. "It’s okay. You’re here now." Julia watched her little brother--a grown man, forty-eight years old--curled on the couch next to their mother, his face in her shoulder. Their mother’s arms were around him, her cheek rested on his bowed head, her fingers stroked his hair.
She could hardly remember the feel of her mother’s arms around her, the caress of her hands, her lips pressed to Julia’s hair. She could not recall the last time her mother had comforted her. In all the weeks Julia had taken care of her parents, there was never as much as a pat or caress from her mother. And she knew--for the rest of her mother’s life, even the rest of her own--she would never be so completely at home as Jack was on that sofa, his head resting in the curve of their mother’s neck, his tears dampening the shoulder of her cotton dress.
As she stared at Jack, she suddenly realized that the hymn had nothing to do with her father. He hadn’t been thinking of himself at all while she sang beside the hospital bed; he was thinking of Jack. The hymn was a way of asking to see Jack, a prayer to call him home.
Julia didn’t understand what it was that made her face burn. It started with a suck of air in her chest, then a rushing flame, like gas hitting a pilot light, the heat rising to her cheeks with each exhale. She decided then and there not to sing. It was too much to ask of her. A hymn to welcome home her brother was more than should be required. She turned from her brother and mother and knew with certainty that her decision was final. She’d have the bulletins recopied to omit the song. The moment would come and go at the funeral, and she would be the only one to feel the absence. The moment came and went, and she didn’t sing.
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