Our friendship goes back to high school. We were roommates, straight out of college. We were bridesmaids in each other’s wedding. She knows the worst of me and, usually, finds it funny rather than off-putting.
In 40 years of friendship, I don’t recall that Karen Peck, a member of the Gospel Music Hall of Fame, has ever asked for a special favor. Perhaps nothing more than to ask me to keep a secret.
“I want you to call my friend, Bob Brumley,” she said one day. “I’ve told him about you and he wants to talk to you.”
“OK,” I replied. I meant to call but I didn’t.
For months, Karen campaigned to get me on the phone with Bob. She persistently reminded me.
One day, while waiting for a flight in Atlanta, she called. “Now, listen, I want you to call Bob. I just talked to him and he said he hasn’t heard from you. His wife has died. He is lonely and sad. And Ronda, you know that ‘I’ll Fly Away’ is your favorite song.”
Yes, my favorite childhood hymn was written by Bob’s father, Albert E. Brumley. The elder Brumley wrote a good portion of the older songs found in the Stamps-Baxter catalog including “I’m Bound For That City,” “Turn The Radio On,” “He Set Me Free,” “Victory in Jesus,” and many more.
During one conversation, after I finally called and launched our friendship, I asked, “Did you know that ‘If We Never Meet Again (This Side of Heaven)’ is Dolly Parton’s favorite hymn? And it was her daddy’s, too.”
Joy sprang into his voice. “No, I did not know that but I sure would like to hear her sing it.”
I found an old clip from the Porter Wagoner Show of Dolly beautifully singing the song and sent it to him. He called immediately. “That’s the prettiest I ever heard that song sung.”
He explained that his father had written it as a tribute to his friends who gathered in various places for convention singings. After one convention ended and good-byes were being said, Albert Brumley realized his friends were getting older so there were probably some he would not see again on earth.
“So, he wrote that song for his friends. If he didn’t see them again in this world, he’d see them across the River Jordan on heaven’s sweet shores.”
Bob’s wife passed away a couple of months before our telephone calls began. She died in April, making the summer days that followed a mix of sadness, grief and sweet memories.
A couple of times last summer, I went out on the back porch after the sun dropped behind the trees, leaving the beauty of a dusky sky and the cooling of night that arrives with fireflies in tow.
A small, still voice whispered, “Call Bob Brumley.” Each time I did, he was grateful and I was blessed: I was captivated by the history he shared concerning the church songs that had formed my earlier life.
“I sure would like to meet you in person. Get on the bus with Karen and ride out here. And bring your husband.”
As Christmas Eve hovered, Tink and I were having dinner in Memphis. My phone buzzed. I checked it to make sure all was well on the Rondarosa.
It was Bob Brumley, texting, wishing me a Merry Christmas and telling me how precious my friendship had become to him. I responded the next morning but he never saw it. Karen called with the news that he had died sweetly in his sleep after sending the text.
It was the words from one of his father’s songs that comforted me most: “When I travel through the valley dim toward the setting of the sun; lead me safely to a land of rest if I a crown of life have won … Blessed Jesus, hold my hand.”
I believe Jesus was holding Bob Brumley’s hand.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of What Southern Women Know About Faith. Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.