Springsteen in the waiting room: Drop the needle and pray


“This too shall pass, I’m gonna pray
Right now all I got’s this lonesome day”

By Joel Francis

I didn’t make it to Bruce Springsteen’s concert at the Sprint Center Sunday night. Around the time he was going onstage – about 8:50 – most of my extended family was leaving the hospital. It had been a long day. Grandma started aspirating about noon, and for the third time that week we all descended upon her intensive care room. At 10:30, about the time Bruce was ripping into “Spirit in the Night,” the nurse told us Grandma’s heart was working harder because her oxygen levels were falling. It didn’t look good. The nurse said it was unlikely Grandma would survive the night.

Hard times baby, well they come to tell us all
Sure as the tickin’ of the clock on the wall
Sure as the turnin’ of the night into day
Your smile girl, brings the morni
n’ light to my eyes
Lifts away the blues when I rise
I hope that you’re coming to stay”

Even before he took the stage, Springsteen was my release. My wife and I saw him last March in Omaha, so we didn’t buy tickets when this show was announced. Even so, the possibility of grabbing tickets from a scalper just before showtime was always open. I even bought a pair of earplugs to the hospital with me, just in case. I pulled them out of my pocket every so often and wondered “Where would the band eat dinner?” Knowing this was the final concert of the tour I imagined how long they’d play. “Hey,” I’d say to no one in particular, “what song are they going to open with?” or, later, “What song do you think they are playing right now?”

“A dream of life comes to me
Like a catfish dancin’ on the end of the line”

Helen Kelley was born in Minneapolis in 1920. The sixth of seven children, she met my grandpa at church. After Grandpa returned from World War II they moved to Manhattan, Kan. where he attended Kansas State on the G.I. Bill. After earning his doctor of veterinary medicine the couple and their young daughter, my mother, relocated to Independence, Mo., where he opened a pet hospital on 23rd Street.

My favorite memories of Grandma take place in the children’s clothing store she opened next door to Grandpa’s pet hospital. Ostensibly hired to help with inventory, she grew to appreciate the Beatles, B.B. King and Ray Charles CDs I brought along. We would talk for hours, solving all the world’s problems before taking the obligatory break for “Oprah.”

“I got a picture of you in my locket
I keep it close to my heart
A light shining in my breast
Leading me through the dark
Seven days, seven candles
In my window light your way
Your favorite record’s on the turntable
I drop the needle and pray”

On the trips back and forth from the hospital in the week leading up to Grandma’s death Springsteen was my passenger. The titles alone were testimonies: “Reason to Believe,” “Counting on a Miracle,” “Land of Hope and Dreams,” “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” “The Promised Land,” “Lift Me Up,” “Lonesome Day.”

We finally left the hospital Sunday night after Grandma’s condition had plateaued and we had collected promises of a phone call if anything changed. As we sailed up U.S. 71 I rolled down the windows and gave the speakers a workout. “Rosalita,” “Backstreets” and “Thunder Road” from the 1975 Hammersmith Odeon concert. When we arrived at the house around midnight, the E Street Band was finally leaving the Sprint Center stage after a three-hour marathon set.

“May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love”

Grandma died shortly after 8 p.m. Monday. Her family huddled around the hospital bed and sang the old hymns she loved so much. I doubt she heard them, but if she did, one of the last sounds Grandma would have heard was “Jacob’s Ladder.” This 19th century hymn has its origins in the slave churches, but was popularized by Paul Robeson in the 1920s and Pete Seeger in the 1950s. Springsteen recorded it on his “Seeger Sessions” album. Another of Grandma’s favorite hymns came from those same sessions.

I got into Springsteen too late to share him with Grandma, but I think she would have enjoyed him. If not, she would see how happy his songs made me and gamely smile along. As I made my final trip home from the hospital, I knew Grandma was enjoying the Boss’ performance of “How Can I Keep From Singing.”

“My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation…
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of Heaven and earth
How can I keep from singing?”

12 thoughts on “Springsteen in the waiting room: Drop the needle and pray

  1. Joel,

    What a beautiful and moving reflection of your grandmother and her last bit of struggle. Our family is praying for you, Rachel and our family as you grieve. We join in singing some of those songs with you, hoping that it brings a measure of comfort and peace. If there’s anything more that I can do . . .

    Blessings,
    Deth

  2. Take comfort in knowing that this kind of love and support is what we all hope for at the time of passing, Joel. It was a beautiful send-off, and thank you for sharing your relationship with her, woven together with your experience and comfort through music, with all of us. What a wonderful thing for Grandma to have a grandson like you. A lovely life. Lucky lady.

    Thinking of you today — Kirsten

  3. Joel –

    What a beautiful writing about your grandmother. You have memories that you will cherish forever.

    My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

    Ruth

  4. Joel

    How you managed to write such a moving piece at what must be such a sad time I don’t know. Such love for your grandmother.

    Our thoughts and prayers go with you

    Chris

  5. Joel…

    What a wonderful tribute to your Grandmother! You all are in my thoughts and prayers at this difficult time.

    Pat

  6. I want to extend my continue prayers out to you and your family. What you did here was a great tribute to your grandmother, and what a great person to take your inspirations off of. Let me know if you need anything.

  7. Joel:

    I am sorry to hear about your Grandma, and the tough times you and Rachel have had lately. Your Grandma was fortunate to have a grandson who loved her so much.

    Celia

  8. I don’t know you, or your Grandmother, but I am grieving with you because of your beautiful words. Thanks for touching me like this, and I hope to meet you at some of Bruce’s concerts in the future.

    This is one of Springsteen’s greatest gifts – to be able to touch people who are most in need of comfort.

  9. We’re sorry to hear of your Grandmother’s passing but rejoice, with you both, in the knowledge that she is truly enjoying the glow in the next world. May God richly bless you and Rachel, now and for always. You are always in our thoughts and prayers.

    Love,
    Mike and Mary

  10. Joel,

    Thank you for sharing this with all of us. Your words are so beautiful. I believe you can measure the goodness in an individual based on the love that they are able to ripple out in to the world. It is clear to me that your grandmother was a great woman, full of love and warmth and that her goodness will continue to create waves through you and your family.

    Thinking of you and yours,

    Sarah A.

  11. It’s evident that your grandmother’s love of music and family relationships continues to play on in your life, just as we can see and hear variations and reflections of her unique life song throughout your family. Thanks for sharing those special memories. We’ll be thinking of all of you in the days ahead.

    Love,
    Marsha & Larry

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