Thursday, June 28, 2018

Beside the Barn

It was my first big trip to Nashville, Tennessee, as a songwriter, planning to record an album with a new producer I had met previously at a music conference. His name was Eric Copeland and he was president of Creative Soul Records. From the first time I met him and heard some of his artists perform their songs and share their heart, I knew it was a divine appointment. I made a mental note that the next time I needed a producer I would call him. That time had come.

Now, I was preparing to meet with Eric at a prestigious recording studio called Dark Horse Recording in Nashville. The plan was for him to listen through all the songs I had been writing and help me determine if I had any material that was worthy of recording.

Eric sat at a big recording console with his back to me as he listened through all my songs. As soon as the demo of the song "Beside the Barn" started playing, the tears began to trickle down my face. I hadn't expected any emotion that day, only nerves, so the tears took me by surprise. He turned around from the big studio console with all the fancy knobs and lights and was about to ask me if the song was a true story, but he stopped mid-sentence when he saw my glistening face. He simply nodded as if to say, "I see the answer to my question". He swung back around in his chair and nothing more was said until the song finished.

"Beside the Barn" was an immediate "yes" for the album. I still remember Eric saying, "Well THAT song will sell a CD for sure." But THAT seemed like a long way off.

At the end of the day, Eric made an observation that I wrote a lot of songs about death; something I had never noticed, ever. I went home pondering why. Though it certainly seems obvious to me now, at that point in my life I had no answer.

Working on songs at Dark Horse Recording with Eric Copeland.
Lots to think about!
The song went through many re-writes before we recorded it and some of those re-writes wrote the emotions right out of the song, so in the end, we went back to one of the original versions.

"Beside the Barn" is about this next story that has touched our family in a way that I'm not sure any other event in our lives ever did, from my point of view. At least, speaking for myself, it left an imprint so deep in my psyche that it showed up in many of my songs late into my 30's and 40's. It became apparent, from my writing, that I had an issue with death—and it's no wonder.

It's at this point we'll continue on with the story in my mother's own words.

"Nathan was born on October 7, 1964. He was a little clown and he made us all laugh, especially his baby sister, Frances. She would sit in her toddler chair, bouncing herself up and down with delight, as Nathan danced around in his 2-year old way, getting her to respond. Frances would put her head back and laugh and laugh! They were quite a pair.

Nathan C. Heisey October 7, 1964 - October 11, 1966

Just the weekend before the tragic day, we had gone to Ohio to visit Grandpa and Grandma Heisey (Henry P. and Lela Fern—Orville's folks). We had been planning to leave Nathan with friends and not take him along, but Brenda and Adriel put up such a fuss about it and said if Nathan wasn't going, they didn't want to go either. So Nathan went along. I was so glad we took him.
Brenda (Aspen), Orville (holding Nathan), Bertha (holding Frances) and Adriel.
(Doug was now in Africa, serving as a missionary.)
On the way driving home from Ohio, we had seen the results of a bad accident on the highway—there were people lying on the grassy banks, covered with sheets. That night, I had a dream or a vision, was I sleeping or awake? I saw plainly our two families—the Sollenberger and Heisey families in the basement of Air Hill church, waiting to be ushered upstairs for the seating at a funeral as was the custom...and I said in the dream—"That means there is someone in our family—Orville's and mine, that has died".

It was Tuesday, October 11, 1966, a few days after Nathan's 2nd birthday, later in the afternoon, and Nathan was tired (it had been a big weekend going to Ohio) and I should have put him to bed for a nap, but he wanted to go outside so badly. It was chilly, so I dressed him up in a couple of layers and he went out. He must have headed straight for the farm pond—he had recently discovered it, playing fetch-the-ball with his older siblings. It hadn't been very long at all but when I went to check on him, I couldn't find him. He was nowhere to be seen...

And then, I saw something in the water, floating.

My heart sank.

I could see his plaid flannel shirt—white and black and red.

I ran in and took him from the pond; carried him quickly down to the end of the lane. I thought maybe there was a chance we could revive him. I flagged down a car and asked them to hurry and get a doctor.

The doctor seemed to come fairly quickly.

We gave him artificial respiration.

But Nathan was gone.

They wanted to give me something to keep me calm but I wouldn't take anything.

They wanted me to get in the car and ride up the lane but I wouldn't get in.

I carried him in my arms, up the long lane to the house.

I wanted to carry him myself.

I needed to carry him.

We laid Nathan in the living room. When they asked me who we wanted for an undertaker, they were shocking words. I resisted allowing them to take my child saying, "you can't have him; his father is not even here!"

I wanted Orville to get home...didn't want to do anything else until he was there, but he was not reachable by phone as he had gone to Bucknell University for the day to a conference, and wouldn't be back until 8 or 9 o'clock.

Orville got there just in time before the undertaker took Nathan away."

Frances here:

I'm 52 years old and I still cry as I type this story.

I don't know if there was ever a time that mother told this story that we didn't all cry.

I guess that's how the story became so alive in my own heart and sank deep into the place from which I write songs. I can see now, as I look back in my songwriting, that every time I felt I needed a scenario in a song to express the dark side of life and how to deal with it, I went right to the topic of death to help me cope with my overwhelming sense of sadness that I seemed to live with, even as a believer in Jesus. The problem is, I wasn't really facing it head-on.

It wasn't until I went through some counseling that I realized how the story of not only Nathan's death, but all the deaths my mother would talk about (such as her first husband...and more deaths to come, as you'll see), would continually remind me that death is a part of life, but amplified in ways most children would never have to think about, because it happened so much in our family.

There's one line in the chorus of the song that is even more powerful now than I realized at the time I wrote it...

"Still my heart is where that home was."

Now I see, in part, the reason for my struggle. My heart could never quite leave that 'place' of mourning.

The pond beside the barn where Nathan drowned.
I have no video to point you to for this song. I've considered creating one with old photos of Nathan and the farm, but my producer (Eric) and I feel like the best way to capture this song is to go back to the farm and do a music video.  Plans are currently in motion for this to happen. For now, it is available on iTunes if you type in the title, "Beside The Barn".