Why My Dad Wants Tim McGraw Played At His Funeral

Tim McGraw
Courtesy of the artist

I went sky divin'
I went rocky mountain climbin'
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull name Fu Manchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
-Tim McGraw, "Live Like You Were Dying"

It was a normal Thursday afternoon about ten years ago. My dad was driving me home from high school in his big red Chevy Avalanche. The truck rolled up to the stoplight and my father reached for the volume knob. His hand hovered over it for just a moment as he looked at me.

"Remember," he said. "I want this played at my funeral." Then he turned it up. The massive opening piano chords to Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying" rang through the cabin, a string section and guitar arpeggios joining the mix.

We rolled down the two-lane northern Arizona highway, driving into the harsh winter sun as McGraw sang.

He said, 'I was in my early 40s with a lot of life before me
When a moment came and stopped me on a dime
I spent most of the next days lookin' at the X-rays 
Talking about the options and talking 'bout sweet time'

Only 15, I didn't fully grasp what my father was trying to tell me. 

After a massive heart attack at age 28, my dad was diagnosed with hypertrophic ventricular cardiomyopathy - meaning that the lower chambers of his heart had abnormally thickened, so there's no room for the heart to hold the blood it's pumping through.

He was a police officer in Inglewood at the time, and was subsequently retired on disability two years before I was born. He has lived with his disease for my entire life. I've never known what it's like to have a healthy father, yet he never quite let on how sick he could actually become.

Not to mention that, when people tell you what they want played at their funeral, you assume they just mean, "I really love this song," not "No, seriously, this is a song I want to be remembered by."

Fast forward to eight years later, in November 2013. My dad and I are standing alone in the kitchen on a sunny Saturday morning. His disease has progressed much faster than anyone expected, and he's been given a survival timeframe of less than six months. He stoops over the counter, with a nasal cannula - also known as an oxygen tube - feeding him five liters of air per minute. His legs are as big around as tree trunks from the water weight that is indicative of congestive heart failure.

 Tim McGraw is playing on the surround sound as I skip through his hits album; my dad raised my brother and me on country music, and I count myself a fan. "Live Like You Were Dying" comes on and my dad stops me. "This song," he says, struggling to get the words out, "I want to listen to this song." I let it play, and McGraw reaches that soaring chorus: "I went skydiving...."

It's obvious. My dad can't do these things anymore. He can hardly walk around the house, much less ride a bucking bull. More to the point, he can't do the things he loves: no more hiking, no more motorcycle riding, no more running. "Live Like You Were Dying" embodies all the moments he wasn't able to take advantage of, and now serves as a reminder to me to do just that. 

As these last few months draw to a close, my father is making amends where he can. At the same time, he's waiting for some miracle in which he ends up on a transplant list. That's the only thing that will save him. We're now racing the clock.

McGraw's message may seem like a simple one - carpe diem - but it's taken on a much more vivid meaning to my dad. In his words, "Live Like You Were Dying" is about "achieving and completing that bucket list," even if it's just in his thoughts.

"Live Like You Were Dying" brings us to tears every time. As he intended, it's taking on meaning for me, too; I've taken up residence in Phoenix so I can be close to him. It's upended my life, and it's not certainly not ideal. But we've still got time together - and for that alone, I'm grateful.

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