Back in 1932, I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie, and I had a little apartment on Chicago’s south side. One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I didn’t want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child. I kissed Nettie good-bye, clattered downstairs to our Model A and, in a fresh Lake Michigan breeze chugged out of Chicago on Route 66.
However, outside the city, I discovered that in my anxiety at leaving, I had forgotten my music case. I wheeled around and headed back. I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. Not wanting to disturb her, I shrugged off the feeling and slipped out with my music.
The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: Your wife just died.
People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out. I rushed to a phone and called home. All I could hear on the other end was, “Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead.”
When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket.
Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to write anymore gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well. But then, as I hunched alone in that dark apartment those first sad days, I thought back to the afternoon I went to St. Louis. Something kept telling me to stay with Nettie. Was that something God?
If I had paid more attention that day, I would have been with Nettie when she died. From that moment on I vowed to listen more closely to God. But still I was lost in grief.
Everyone was kind to me, especially a friend, Professor Fry, who seemed to know what I needed. On the following Saturday evening he took me up to a neighborhood music school. It was quiet; the late evening sun crept through the curtained windows. I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys.
Something happened to me then. I felt at peace. I felt as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one in my head – it just seemed to fall into place: Precious Lord take my hand. Lead me on, let me stand, I am tired, I am weak, I am worn, Through the storm, through the night, Lead me on to the light, Take my hand, precious Lord. Lead me home.
As the Lord gave me these words and melody, my spirit healed. I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when God is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power. And so, I go on living for God willingly and joyfully, until that day comes when God will take me and gently lead me home.