Songs in the Key of Amy

The memorial service wasn’t the story of her life, it was her parting gift—her musical love letter to them all

I was just there to deliver her songs.

The casting call found its way to me by email, a strange, urgent request from a booking agent who'd previously altogether ignored me. A beautiful young woman was planning her memorial service, he wrote. She was just weeks, if not days, from her death, and she wished for the story of her life to be told through a series of her favorite songs, and for those songs to be sung by an Eva Cassidy-ish singer.

I'd recently returned to Boston from a doomed stint in Nashville. A development deal with a major label went south, and I fled north with my hat in my hand. I joined a wedding band upon my return and was promptly fired for refusing to sing a Destiny's Child cover. I sulked at a copyediting job by day and played a few divey gigs singing sad Dinah Washington songs by night. I was bummed out and broke, the subject of me and my tanked music career a sore one, my future a big, hazy question mark. Even 1,100 miles from Music Row, I felt surrounded by singer-songwriter types bent on making it, frenetically promoting shows and breathlessly extolling their latest recording projects. They made me tired. I didn't see the point in singing, for fun or profit. I didn't have the heart for it anymore.

When the agent offered me the memorial service performance, I took it anyway. It was a sad way to make rent, but beggars can't be choosers. I assumed it would be just another weird, unfulfilling rent gig on my resume, like the time I sang the national anthem at a near-deserted horse track. Nothing I'd ever want to tell anyone about, and certainly not a game changer.

But when the agent forwarded me the list of songs the young woman chose for her funeral, I felt a stirring in a small corner of my cold little heart, the part I'd let Nashville bruise. There was an uncanny kinship in this list, in these seven songs chosen by this woman I'd never meet. It was as if I'd picked them myself. I knew these songs, I loved them, and I'd sung them long before I ever got the harebrained idea to make a go at a music career.

I felt called. If these songs mattered enough to her to stand as her final statement to the world, the singing of them mattered too. I would be her voice when she could no longer speak. I felt responsible, and more serious about singing than ever before. I'll do you proud, lady, I thought. I hired a band, I practiced, and I fretted. I re-memorized lyrics I could already recite in my sleep, and re-learned melodies I already knew by heart. I had to be better than good. It wasn't a gig, it was the story of someone's life.

Two weeks later, I got the call: She'd passed away.

The day of the memorial service, I got to the chapel early, afraid to see her family and friends before I'd tucked myself safely behind the microphone. I felt intimately attached to this woman, this stranger, and I wanted to cry when I saw her photos hanging around the chapel. She was indeed young, and strikingly beautiful. A Celebration of Amy's Life, the program proclaimed. She finally had a face and a name.

The lump in my throat was insistent, and my eyes welled up, but I steeled myself. It wouldn't be fair of me to cry in front of the people who really knew her—I was just there to deliver her songs. I took a deep breath and looked at her photos again, praying some of her poise would find me.

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The service began, and the master of ceremonies, Amy's college dean, pinned a white lily to my collar. He explained to the solemn crowd of family and friends that I was standing in for her, and she'd planned it that way. I was speaking Amy's last wishes for all of the people she loved by singing these songs she'd chosen specifically for them.

The lump in my throat was back. This wasn't high stakes, it was the highest stakes. I looked at my band, but they couldn't help me now, nobody could—this was happening. Then the pianist played the intro to the first song, and as I sang the first lyric: "You'll remember me when the west wind moves", a wave of calm washed over me. I remembered. This was Amy's show, not mine.

I made it through the songs, and the eulogy that accompanied each one without crying, determined to sing beautifully for Amy, no matter what. I didn't know these people, Amy's people, but I felt their love for her and their grief pulsate through the chapel. Through "The Water is Wide," and "Songbird," and "Since You Asked Me," we all held it together, band and congregation. When a group of Amy's girlfriends in the front pews began a collective wail at the first chorus of "Lean on Me," my bassist shot me a worried look, but we kept on. Sometimes upbeat songs hurt the most.

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I hoped down to the marrow in my bones that the music was comforting them. And then I realized: I wasn't the one comforting them, Amy was. Her service wasn't the story of her life—it was her parting gift. It was her musical love letter to them all. She even thought to end the service on a high note, with the simple refrain of "Stand By Me" escorting her family and friends out of the chapel.

Afterward, alone in my car, I spoke to her out loud, like a crazy person. Hey, Amy, I know we never met, but I hope you're resting now. I hope you liked the music. I hope I did what you needed me to do. I hope it's okay I wore a suit and not a dress. Thank you for letting me sing for you.

I felt sad and grateful. I was lucky to sing those songs for her. And I was lucky to be reminded that music is more timelessly powerful and endlessly meaningful than the music business will ever be.

It's been five years since that day, but I've kept the memory of it close. I've had more zigs and zags in my career, but I've struck my own deal with music. I don't let the business get in the way of the joy I get from singing. I've kept my heart in it. And I've rarely played a gig without thinking of Amy, of the gift she gave me without ever meeting me.

She was 39 when she died. Her obituary said she fought a hard battle with breast cancer, but I don't remember anyone talking about that at her service. Her friends and family only spoke about how she lived the rest of her life; of her compassion, her strength, her elegance. Of how she'd changed their lives. If I could, I'd tell them she changed mine, too.

I'm in the thick of my own battle with breast cancer now. I keep the program from Amy's service in the old jewelry box where I keep the things that matter most to me. It's there with cards from my grandmother, old photos of my brothers and I, my parent's wedding picture—all the puzzle pieces that remind me who I am.

My prognosis looks good, but if I ever have to face down the worst, I hope I'll do what Amy did. I hope I'll leave the people I love better for having known me. And I hope I'll leave them with a love letter told in song.

Until then, I'm never going to stop singing.

Jess Tardy is a writer and singer living in Boston. Her latest record, "Sky City Lullaby" can be downloaded here.