Robbie and I got to the studio late Friday, June 7th. We tracked drums all day Saturday and Sunday. On Monday, we began bass. That day I called home to see how my dad’s appointment with the oncologist went. I could tell immediately from my mom’s voice that it wasn’t good news.
It was worse than any of us thought, although in some ways it was the news I had been expecting to hear for a few months. The doctors had done all they could do for Dad. They could do another round of chemo, but it would only be to extend his life a little longer—maybe a month. We had a decision to make.
I sat on the steps outside the studio in the hot, Atlanta sun as Mom told me about the options. They had more or less decided not to do anymore chemo. It just made Dad feel sick, and they reasoned that a prolonged life of pain didn’t make much sense. The only option left was hospice. No more treatments—just pain management. Mom asked me if I felt okay with that, and I told her I did. It didn’t seem real.
For the past six weeks or so, Dad had felt so bad that I usually didn’t get to talk to him when I called home. But that day, I did. His voice sounded so weak and quiet. He began asking how I was doing, how Brandy was doing, how recording was going. He never liked talking about his health. He didn’t want me to worry. I asked him how he was doing. He said, “Well, do you mean how am I feeling or how am I doing with what the doctor said? “ I said both.
He said he was okay. I think he had expected it more than any of us. He had been telling me for months that he felt like he was dying—even when the doctor gave us hope that there were “still more options.” Even so, Dad didn’t sound okay. He started to cry. I had never really told him how his sickness had affected me because I didn’t want to upset him. But I started to cry, too. I told him it was really hard to know what to think. I told him it was hard being away. He started sobbing loudly, and I could hardly understand him. He told me that I didn’t need to think about him. He said he didn’t want to upset me, and he would let me go so I could work.
Being in Atlanta recording with Steven had been something to look forward to for well over a year. It almost didn’t happen for a number of reasons. Money, time, seminary, the Kickstarter, logistics. But it all worked out, finally. I remember tracking drums and thinking, “I can still do this! This is what I was created to do.” As I tracked drums to the last song, I looked in the control room at Steven and Robbie. My eyes started to tear up. I said, “Guys, what if this is the last time I get to do this?”
There was no place I would rather be than in the studio with two good friends recording music that I was passionate about. And yet, part of my heart was back in Orlando with Brandy. Part of my heart was in Nashville with my parents. There was no way that this new information could not deeply affect the recording process and the record itself.
The next days were very difficult. We laughed a lot. We told a lot of stories. We worked long hours. I slept very little. We’d get in bed at 1 or 2 am, but I would lie there for hours, thinking. That is how I carry stress. That is what I am literally doing right now at 3:22am.
I was up before the sun every morning. I’d read a little. Pray a little. Work on finishing lyrics. There were so many things going through my head that I wanted my dad to know, but I didn’t want to tell him parting words prematurely. I didn’t want to give him the impression that I had given up on him. The following Sunday was going to be Father’s Day. Father’s Day. The worst one I could imagine. What do you get for a father who is dying? I decided to send him a letter.
On Thursday morning, I woke up early, brewed some coffee, and sat down with a yellow legal pad. I’m not sure how long it took me to write that letter. I had to stop every few lines to blow my nose and blot my eyes. It was all I could do not to get tears on the paper. In that letter, I told Dad literally everything I wanted to tell him. I told him what he meant to me. I told him how hard being in Orlando away from him had been. I told him how badly I wish he could have felt well enough to come visit. I told him about all the things I wish I could have done with him: to see the seminary, to meet my professors, to meet all of our great friends, to play with our cat Luna, to go to the Farmer’s Market, to get sandwiches from Cavalari’s—to see our life in Florida. I told him that the hardest thing for me was that he would never get to meet my children. I asked him if he could write them a letter if he ever had a day that he felt up to it.
The end of the letter was the most important. I told him what a great dad he was and that I was proud of him. I told him I had long since forgiven him for anything and everything he had ever done to hurt me. I told him that more than that Jesus had forgiven him, and that he has the very righteousness of Christ. On our lunch break that day, I took the letter to the post office. I got the postal worker to weigh the letter so that I knew I had the appropriate postage. He assured me that the letter would arrive before Father’s Day.
On Father’s Day, I called home in the afternoon. Mom told me that Dad was having a better day than he had had in a few weeks. That is exactly what I had prayed for. She said he even walked in the backyard with Tori, my niece. I only got to talk to him for a moment, and it was nothing profound. He was already tired by then, so we didn’t say much. I asked Mom if he had gotten anything in the mail from me, and she said he hadn’t.
I had written a song for Dad. It was not so much a song about him as it was a song to him, much like my letter. Upon discovering that he had not gotten my letter, I changed some lyrics and added some lines. I thought it would be a good way to say some of the things I had said in the letter.
Tracking vocals for that song was something that we had put off for a bit, and I think we all secretly dreaded it. Steven and Robbie had seen me cry a lot. We talked about Dad and hospice and goodbyes. I knew Steven from touring with his band the Myriad. They were all good friends of mine. Their drummer, Randy, had died of cancer a few years prior. In fact, he died while I was in Atlanta at the same studio recording the final Cool Hand Luke record—and Robbie played bass on some of it. Steven told me stories about his final days and conversations with Randy. We anticipated what it might be like with my Dad. It was really good to just sit with Robbie and Steven and allow them to share my grief.
The vocals for Dad’s song, Woke Up on a Highway, didn’t take as long as I had imagined they would, but it was a difficult process. I sang until my words were inaudible from crying. Then I’d stop, we’d back up and start where I had lost it. Steven wept with me as we waded through that song. We didn’t get the perfect takes or anything like that. When I sang a line that was in the ballpark and my voice didn’t waver too much, we moved on.
If I had to lose my father, I was really glad that I got to process it in such a unique way. It was a very odd, profound thing to have such a distinct snapshot of that moment of my life. I felt like I got to honor Dad while he was still alive. And I got to acknowledge the deep longing and the deep loss that I was feeling. Most of us don’t have time to sit and think, “How do I feel about what is happening?” I consider not only that song, but also the whole recording process as a gift and privilege.
The days in the studio are kind of a blur now. I wish I had kept a journal, but I’ve never been good at things like that. I was writing lyrics in the morning, sitting with Robbie as he tracked guitars, and recording vocals intermittently. But that night, Robbie, Steven and I got into a conversation about ghosts and aliens and all the dorky stuff that guys secretly love sitting around and talking about. We decided that we would knock out one more vocal and then pop popcorn and watch a documentary on UFO’s. I think after the heaviness of singing Dad’s song, Robbie and Steven just wanted me to have fun. That meant a lot to me.
To fuel our boyish adventure, we went to CVS to get energy drinks. Yes, I know that energy drinks are horrible for you, but sometimes you’ve just got to embrace the moment. So we were in CVS, standing in front of the coolers, overwhelmed by the amount of options. We were all giddy with excitement, and Steven and I just started running up and down the aisles acting like we were the singer for Converge. I don’t remember why. And you have to understand that Steven is freaking tall, and we are both grown men. I mean, we both round up to 40. I’m sure the lady at CVS was thinking, “These dudes do not need energy drinks.”
We went back to the studio, tracked the song, popped the popcorn, and fell asleep within the first twenty minutes of watching the movie. That’s how it goes. There were lots of sober moments in the studio when it hit me, “I’m not 22 and on tour any more. I’m getting old and I’m feeling it.”
I felt a sense of sadness and dread come over me as our brief time in the studio slowly came to an end. I was really excited about how the songs were turning out. Everything had come pretty easily and naturally. The three of us worked really well together. We had worked hard, but it felt like we had time to have good conversations, too. Plus, I got to see a lot of friends that I don’t normally see. It had been an overwhelmingly good experience. Yet, my Dad grew worse, and I had decided instead of returning home to Orlando, to take a bus to Nashville to be with my parents. I knew that all the fun would end abruptly and I would walk into something very, very painful.
We wrapped up on Sunday, June 16. The next day, Robbie would drive to Orlando, Steven would drive to Arizona, and I would take a bus to Nashville. We had made it a goal to finish by dinner on that day so that we could spend our last night together eating, watching a movie, praying, and being friends. To our delight, we met our goal and I finished the last vocal around 5. But when we were deciding where to pick up dinner, some people showed up and wanted to go to dinner with us also. That, of course, changed the dynamic of our evening. It changed the shape of our conversations. It frankly, disappointed the three of us. Our evening together ended up being a few minutes at the end of the night when we were exhausted.
That was the beginning of a peculiar lesson that God would teach me over the next few weeks. Until Christ returns and redeems all things, we live in a broken world and even goodbyes are broken. I always envision cinematic endings with montages of meaningful times flashing by as great music plays. But this side of heaven, it rarely happens that way. The phone rings, a stranger walks in, the flight is delayed, it’s so noisy you can’t hear, and on and on. Those little annoyances are indicators that things are not what they are supposed to be. People die. Guitars won’t stay in tune. And the long goodbye is truncated to, “See you later.” But it’s not the end, friends.
Some of you played a part in helping Robbie and me get to the studio to make a record. Some of you will support us once it is out. I can’t thank you enough. Making this record was one of the most meaningful, life-giving things I have ever done. I hope the end result will be that to many of you.
Dad never got to hear his song. He never got to read his letter. The last time I talked to him, I had no idea it was going to be the last time I talked to him. Goodbyes are broken. But praise God that it is not a goodbye, but a “see you later.”