The rodeo arena began to empty out as the bull riding ended, and a cavalcade of tractors arrived, towing behind them what would become a concert stage. A country legend, Glen Campbell, was performing, and his name Jeni only vaguely recognized. When Nathan and Zach disappeared with Eric, Zach’s dad, and returned later with a corn dog and a funnel cake, the lights soon dimmed, and a white pickup truck made its entrance. The back of the cab opened, and a crowd of people helped Campbell to the stage.
The lights went up, and we caught our first glimpse of Glen Campbell, wearing his sequinned blue blazer and cowboy shirt, a comfortable pair of jeans, a thick belt and Texas-sized buckle, and of course, cowboy boots. An electric guitar hung from his neck, but for the opening song, he couldn’t seem to decide whether or not he wanted to play it. He’d strum a cord, abandon the guitar and grab the microphone instead, taking an awkward couple of steps in either direction of center stage. A verse or two later, Campbell would reverse the process, clumsily returning the microphone to its stand and trying once again to figure out which cord to strum in order to join the band behind him.
Three teleprompters scrolled at Campbell’s feet: he’d watch them as often as he would watch the crowd. And periodically, he’d turn over his left shoulder to cast a searching look at the young blond girl at the keyboard. She’d send him a reassuring smile. Campbell’s movements were like a child’s, walking the stage awkwardly, sometimes shooting his arms into the air, sometimes swaying his hips to the beat, but usually fumbling with either the guitar or the microphone, never knowing which to pick up when.
Three songs into the concert, Jeni remembers the tribute to Campbell she had watched on the Grammy’s. “I think he was diagnosed with Alzheimers.” And everything starts to make sense: this isn’t a drunk seventy year old man hanging on to his career with liquor and a loyal band. This was Glen Campbell, a man’s whose mind was growing increasingly confused, performing here at the Austin Rodeo as part of his farewell tour.
There were moments of sheer miracle in the concert. When it came time for Campbell to play a guitar solo, he grabbed his guitar decisively, and the camera would zoom in on the wrinkled hand that flew up and down the neck of the guitar. For the trouble he sometimes had with the lyrics and even the beginning pitch of a song, those guitar solos played themselves from the muscle memory of his aged hands.
And his voice. Campbell is seventy-five years old, and his voice, while not necessarily strong, is beautifully toned. He yodelled in one of his songs, hit notes low and high. I couldn’t wait to get home and hear the young Campbell sing. I knew I must have been missing out. “Galveston,” “Gentle on my Mind,” “Didn’t We,” and “Rhinestone Cowboy.” We heard the songs that made Campbell rightfully famous.
It was last summer that I think I heard the first sermon I’d ever heard on aging. It came from the text of Ecclesiastes 12: “Remember also the Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them.” I’m grateful to have had this text brought before me for reflection: we don’t talk enough about aging, and as a Christian, I’d like to know how to do it well.
Campbell’s courage last night on that stage inspired what I hope will be my own growing old, if that is something the Lord chooses to allow me. I’d like to face my greying and wrinkling as he is, continuing the things I love into the autumn and winter of my years, rallied by the people I cherish most. The young blond at the keyboard last night? Campbell’s daughter. And as it turns out, two sons also took that stage with him. If my 75 finds me confused or physically challenged in some way, I can only hope to be as blessed as Campbell to have at my side the reassuring smiles of my sons and daughters and husband.
I can only hope to have lived this life well and to face death without fear, but hope. This is most fundamentally what it means to be a Christian and to live in light of a resurrected Jesus.
“Learning how to say ‘God’ is hard but good work. It is good work because the training necessary to say ‘God’ forces us to be honest with ourselves about the way things are. Our lives are but a flicker. We are creatures destined to die.”
-Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child