I have a fifteen-year-old son who, like many teenage boys, listens to rap (or as I call the current incarnation – ‘mumble rap’). These songs are of course littered with ‘F Bombs’, ‘MF Bombs’ and the ‘N word’ (“But Dad – it’s ok if they say it”). I hear these mumbled profanities through the bathroom door – that room being my son’s sanctuary. So you can imagine my shock when, one evening, I heard him singing along to a very different tune. “Almost heaven, West Virginia…” What the??? When questioned he claimed that this was his new favourite song and subsequently still enjoys belting out: “Country roads, take me home, to the place where I belong…”. Rather ironic for a city boy who has only ever known one home. Hearing your song again with such regularity has stirred my own memories of you. Three stand out. The first hails back to the mid seventies when I was in in a car that happened to be on a country road as your hit blared through the radio. We may have even been travelling through Colorado (where there actually are roads that can “take me back to the place where I was born…”). It felt like a significant moment. A few years later I laughed as your gormless nice guy character saw God (the hilarious cigar sucking George Burns). But the most mind blowing moment occurred in the early nineties. I just got off a plane at Denver airport. And there you were. The first person I see in Denver happens to be Mr. Denver himself. What. Are. The. Chances??? You were probably there to fly one of your own planes, as you loved to do. Of course this memory came rushing back when I heard about your crash years later. It seemed such a waste. So, wherever you may be now (heaven – or “almost heaven”), perhaps sitting with your friend George (laughing at how much funnier he is than the real God), I hope it warms your heart to know that, all these years later, your music still resonates with at least one teenage city slicker.
I am looking for a parking space on a rainy Wednesday. I see the church but there’s no spots nearby. I go further up the road, turn and see what looks like a space at the street’s end. I park and debate whether or not to bring an umbrella. It’s no longer raining but the grey blanket above looks ominous. I discover my collapsible umbrella fits almost neatly into my suit pocket. Better safe. I walk up the road and see a dark skinned man and his two boys. They are carrying a long black case – too big to fit into any suit pocket. Given their formal dress, I assume we are all headed to the same destination. Sure enough, they enter the church. I go in hesitantly, my first visit to a church in who knows how long. There are people already seated, with some milling around a woman. My friend Jackie. Last time I saw her, only a matter of weeks ago, we had one of our occasional Vietnamese lunches near our sometimes shared workplace. All was relatively right with the world then. Now it’s not. Her husband Bill is dead. Gone just over a month after diagnosis. A year younger than me. Bloody hell. I wait my turn to greet Jackie. We embrace. I express my condolences. She nods, smiling slightly, sadly. I can not begin to imagine how surreal this is for her. I then sit with some of her workmates and watch the church slowly fill. When Jackie takes her seat on the front pew, I notice her nine-year old son. I’ve met him briefly once or twice and have heard numerous stories about his sporting prowess. He seems fairly animated at the moment, perhaps a bit swept away by excitement. The service begins with “Amazing Grace”. If I were forced to nominate a favourite hymn – this would be it. I’m surprised to hear myself sing in a not too wayward baritone (or so I assume – some low register at any rate). Then the dark skinned man and his boys get up to do a welcome to country, revealing the object in the mysterious bag to be a didgeridoo. I feel slightly embarrassed, having assumed they were Indian on first sighting. Once welcomed, the eulogies begin. First Bill’s brother, revealing an interesting family history spent in a house on the harbour and a boy who became obsessed with sailing. Then of an inquisitive, witty and somewhat contrary young man who drifted through a number of careers but whose true passions lay in music and, of course, sailing. Jackie is up next. I’m impressed with how calm she seems as she delivers a beautiful and heartfelt account of a trans-continental love affair. Perhaps it’s her English stoicism coming to the fore. There are a few laughs as she recounts Bill’s somewhat mad scheme for them to sail from England to Australia in a rundown old tub that one seafarer denounced as a death trap. But such was Bill’s contrary determination that he breathed new life into the dodgy vessel and, despite needing considerable coaxing, Jackie accompanied him on the trip of a lifetime. Once back in Sydney, the boat remained their home for some time – a peculiarity I recall from when I first met her. She then tells of their joy at the arrival of their son and the transformation of her husband into a sports nut. Slides are projected of a father and son dressed in footy gear. This is now familiar territory, echoing my shared footy obsession with my own son. Perhaps this makes me especially vulnerable to what happens next. The nine-year old, who only minutes earlier had seemed fairly happy, is now sobbing loudly. I can feel a wave of helpless grief sweep through the room. Jackie, though still calm, cuts her eulogy short to attend to her heartbroken boy. As an interlude, there’s a musical performance – a double bass solo (my first at a funeral – or anywhere else). Somehow it seems to make sense, an unusual tribute to an unusual man. Then comes the final eulogy from a long time friend. It is full of warm and wry observations about a true individual. There’s another hymn but this time without my baritonal contribution. The service comes to a close with the pallbearers lifting the casket. I notice the son has changed into a blue Superman tee-shirt with ‘Dad’ below the symbol. I choke up. Music begins as the the procession slowly walks up the aisle. Deep toned bells. I think it must be some obscure musical piece – in keeping with the double bass solo. Then – guitar riffs. Oh – is it heavy metal? This is confirmed with the first screaming vocal. I smile. ACDC? Or Rose Tattoo? No matter. It’s a great send off for a true contrarian. (I discover later that it’s in fact ACDC’s “Hell’s Bell’s” – the son having chosen it to acknowledge his dad’s love for the iconic Aussie rockers. When the choice was put to the church minister, he replied, “Well, that’ll be a first”). I follow the procession outside and stand around until the hearse slowly pulls away. I then wait my turn to say good-bye to Jackie. As I approach, she puts out her hand. I’m thrown by this, assuming that we will embrace like we did earlier. I do so anyways, despite thinking perhaps she’s simply all hugged out and just wanted a bit of relief. I again offer condolences and say we’ll catch up at some stage. As I walk back to the car, I am heavy with grief. Though I never met him, I not only feel I now know Bill, I almost feel like I am Bill. Similar age, never locked into a particular job, fiercely individual and a devoted dad fairly late in life. That could have been me. Later that night I give my son a long, loving hug.