My son, Jax, and I were in the back of an Uber car heading to the airport. It was early, and although we were leaving for Colorado, Jax’s favorite place in the world, he was so, so nervous. His autism and anxiety were in full swing, and the What Ifs that have taken up a full-time residence in his brain had joined together in unison to shout out scary thoughts, drowning out the fragile “it’s going to be ok” voices that can never seem to rise up and conquer. What if the plane crashes, what if there is a car accident, what if a meteor crashes on top of us. What if… they went on and on as we left our driveway and pulled out onto the street.
“Mom, I’m going to sing Amazing Grace to make myself feel better.”
My eyebrows lifted. Really, Jax? Now? We’re going to have a mini church service in the backseat of this Town Car?
I am not religious. I have my beliefs, and while they seem sort of organized in my head, they are definitely not organized enough to be called a religion. I certainly wouldn’t belt out Christianity’s most beloved song in the backseat of an Uber, and Jax’s religious education so far has been some generic statements about kindness, love and respect. (Although the other day, we saw a Christmas tree displayed on a rotating base and Jax said, “Hey, it’s like a dreidel tree!” So three holy cheers for me.)
Suffice it to say, Jax did not learn Amazing Grace from me. He learned it from a World War II movie, that he probably shouldn’t have been watching, called Memphis Belle. In the movie, the song Amazing Grace plays while the young American military crew drive in a rugged jeep – past other enlisted men, aircraft, and transport vehicles – to the B-29 bomber that will fly them into war.
The crew was in a jeep, we were in a Town Car. They were flying into war, we were flying to a Colorado dude ranch. Jax thought the similarities were uncanny, and if Amazing Grace made the crew of the Memphis Belle feel better, he was pretty sure it would work for him.
In my head, the image of me and my son singing Amazing Grace in public to soothe his frayed nerves felt fraudulently cliché. I choked down the suggestion that maybe he consider some deep breathing instead, and said, “Go for it, Jax. Sing away.”
He started soft – “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound” – eyes looking down at his lap, his right hand fidgeting with the ice bucket in the middle console. My son isn’t about to audition for America’s Got Talent, but he has a sweet, innocent voice, and he can carry a tune. He got a little louder, a little braver, and at “I once was lost,” he looked me in the eyes and had the start of a smile on his face.
I looked up at the driver to see if he was ignoring us or perhaps rolling his eyes at the fanatics in the back seat. Neither. He was crying. He looked at Jax in the rearview mirror with big silent tears hovering at the lower brim of his eyes. All of a sudden, he hit the steering wheel with the palm of his hand as if to say I’m in! and he started singing.
The driver had a rich, controlled bass voice, rife with vibrato. It resonated and rang around the car like an echo, but he kept it soft enough that Jax’s voice could still be heard loud and clear. Before we got out of his car, I learned that he was Nigerian and arranges American tours to his home country that combine photographic safaris with charitable work for his country’s orphans. This man knew how to be a back-up singer for an anxious child.
This new choir member made Jax grin from ear to ear. He waved his arms around like a conductor and yelled, “Everybody!” I wasn’t going to argue, I know magic when I see it. Jax and the driver sang the melody, I added the alto harmony, and the most unlikely trio in the world belted out Amazing Grace as we drove down Arizona State Route 51 like a traveling revival.
I am not religious. But I believe that every once in a while we are shown something special, something to take and keep with us as we travel along. I believe if we can leave our comfort zone for a moment and open our eyes, even if it is hesitantly and with great uncertainty, we might experience a little magic. I believe in amazing grace.