Composerly Thoughts

Henry and Kate and Grace

Henry and Kate and Grace

I’m not one of those composer/lyricists who can write a song in one day. If I’m really on a roll I might draft 90% of it, but it may take a steamy shower two days later to make me realize that the chorus needs one more phrase. It may take a frustrating car trip to make me realize that a song has more expressive potential than I thought. And every once in a while, it takes significantly more than that. Until I wrote Grace, I didn’t know how much more.

Admittedly, I’d assigned myself a challenging task. Many of my previous songs touched on ideas like forgiveness, compassion and grace, but writing an entire song about such a concept was a whole different matter. In addition, the grace I wanted to sing about is not what people usually consider grace to be, namely a gift bestowed upon humans by God. To me, grace is much broader than that. It is something we offer to each other and ourselves and the whole unpredictable and often disappointing world, over and over again, so that we can stay awake and alive and — somehow, against all odds — in a state of love. How to say all that in a song?

After five years of sporadic writing and rewriting and re-rewriting, I had pretty much given up on the project. Then three years ago — suddenly, devastatingly — on the most beautiful April day, my son Simon’s friend Henry became infected by a strain of meningitis for which no vaccine existed, and nobody realized it until it was too late to save his life. The shock was abrupt and fathomless and impossible. I wandered around the house and made cup after cup of tea I didn’t drink, remembering those two boys jamming their hearts out in the rock bands they had formed together in middle and high school. And then after a while I sat down at the piano. I knew exactly what I wanted to say about grace.

I hated it that finally completing Grace made me happy, even a little bit. I hated it that something unthinkable had to happen in order for me to create this beautiful song. Simon also composed music in the days after Henry’s death, a piano elegy both sparkling and solemn which he played at the memorial service. But I couldn’t find a way to make my song public. I sang it for Simon and my husband and my friend across the street, but I didn’t share it with anyone else for a long time.

I eventually allowed Grace to be premiered at an out-of-town church service. Despite a stellar performance and a warm reception, another year passed before I arranged another public performance, this time at a summer gathering of church musicians whom I knew well. The singer was phenomenal and the audience was responsive — but I still couldn’t shake the awful feeling that I had benefited from someone else’s loss.

Then a couple of months later, one of those church musicians sent me a link to a video. Her teenage daughter Kate was singing Grace in her living room, her voice as pure and expressive as it was earnest, with her mother at the piano. Kate was only a few years younger than Henry had been when he died; in fact, in just a few weeks she would be heading off to college for the first time. I loved everything about this intimate video. I watched it over and over again.

Composers don’t always know exactly what they’ve created until a certain performer at a certain time comes along and shows them. Thank you, Kate. I don’t imagine that I’ll ever hear Grace without being reminded of the unbearable fragility of life, but I no longer feel angry that something beautiful was conceived because of Henry’s death. The only alternative to that would be for nothing beautiful to have happened. To be left with only pain and fear and grief.

This way, instead: music, compassion, love, grace.


When I asked Kate if I might share her performance with others, she created another video for that purpose, no longer in her living room but with the same open heart:

Take care, and keep believing impossible things —