FIVE YEARS AGO

Jake paced the green room, back and forth… back and forth… back and forth...

Even after four years in this business, he was still unable to shake the jitters of walking on stage; the lights, the smoke, the adrenaline.

To an outsider, possibly one of the many who would travel multiple hours to watch Jake work, he might look like a nervous wreck… like a man who wasn’t prepared to handle the pressure of the crowd that was waiting on the other side of the stage.

“Is he always like this?”

Alex had worked for Jake his entire career, and he’d had this conversation with almost every session player, fill in, and roadie who had joined the team.

“Only back here,” Alex replied softly to the longhaired, baby-faced 20-something who had been hired to cover the low end.

Across the room, while Jake’s feet were walking from the table filled with snacks to the wall that held the event’s schedule, his mind raced with thoughts of arrangements and parts and words to say.

Most of the others who shared this green room didn’t understand the compulsion. The set rarely changed. The arrangements never changed. Neither did the words. In fact, the faces in the crowd were about the only thing that differed from set to set.

“It’s so weird,” the new guy said to Alex. “That’s not the same Jake that we all see from the other side of the microphone.”

“Well,” Alex suddenly felt the need to defend his boss and best friend. “It’s not always this bad. He’s just not used to doing this without Kira.”

“Who?”

“His wife.”

“Ah,” his face showed that the light had clicked on. “Gotcha.”

On the other side of the room, Jake continued his pace, trying to focus on the task ahead of him.

IV – vi– I – V – V/VII

Bridge // Interlude // Transition

The heads of everyone in the room spun around when the door swung open.

“Three minutes, guys…”

Alex had never understood the point of this warning. Without fail, the man with the headset came in and told the room what they already knew, what the countdown on the green room’s large television already told them.

But for some reason, the frantic stage manager found comfort in assuming that the six bodies that sat here staring at the clock had an extra babysitter.

Despite the three-minute warning, the room continued their conversations and their pacing and their snacking on pretzels.

It was true. Jake wasn’t used to doing this without his wife. She’d made the inevitable decision to leave the spotlight a few weeks before, and though Jake understood, he couldn’t help but feeling a bit abandoned. She’d been his anchor this past year, as he’d gone from just another voice in a very noisy industry to one of the more successful in his craft.

But she wasn’t here today…

When the countdown hit 90 seconds, Jake took a deep breath, rubbed his face with his palms, and turned it on.

“Alright guys, let’s do this.”

The same people who had ignored the stage manager a minute and a half ago now sprung into action, pulling the little in-ear monitor buds from their shoulders and inserting them into their ears, checking for the green light on the wireless packs that hung from their back pockets.

Outside the door, the same stage manager was waiting to lead them on the path that they’d already walked three times today. He was only as useful as his flashlight, which kept them from stumbling on the cables and unused lights that lived backstage.

As they neared the large auditorium, the energy coming from the room could be felt more with every step. The stage manager stopped, turned around, and held up his hand, which contrasted surprisingly well in the dark against his black shirt and jeans. He scrunched his face, trying to concentrate to the voice that was transmitting into his earpiece.

“Wait…”

Though they couldn’t see the other side of the curtain, their ears told them of the excitement that was brewing in the room.

Alex stretched his right forearm across his left and shook out his hands, as if preparing to work out or throw a baseball.

A few more deep breaths…

One more check of the wireless pack…

The stage manager spread out his fingers before folding his thumb into his palm.

“Here we go… Five… Four… Three…”

And with that, the entire room went black, and the entire crowd went wild.

The bass began busting from the subs, a pre-made synth track that had been created for the sole purpose of getting the crowd moving.

Jake let the other five go out in front of him, waiting until they were out of sight before taking a step through the curtain.

The stage manager flipped his flashlight off. “Go get ‘em, Jake.”

The room was still dark, but the sight of Jake’s silhouette caused another cheer. Another flashlight-sporting stagehand placed an already tuned, already ready Fender telecaster around Jake’s neck.

The automated voice inside his in-ear monitors told him that he had eight beats until the lights would come up and the show would begin.

He took a few steps toward the front of the stage, his Beta 87 waiting there for him.

His in-ears signaled for him to begin.

Intro… two… three… four…

Boom.

A chill went down Jake’s spine every time they hit that opening E. The lights blared onto the six who had just three minutes ago been stuffing the last of the pistachios into their mouths in the green room.

“Hello Dallas,” Jake screamed, the microphone making his voice bellow above the crowd that was still roaring at the overload that was happening to their senses.

“I’m Jake.” The scream got louder.

“You ready to do this?”

And louder.

The new guy, Lawrence, flung his hair back, like so many do in their bedrooms in front of mirrors and while playing Guitar Hero. He looked at Jake, and instantly knew that Alex was right… only in here, he’d said. The 27 year-old man that stood at the front of the spotlight was an entirely different human than the nervous, pacing basket case that he’d watched backstage.

Up here, on this stage, Jake Whitley was in his element. His Fender Telecaster fit him so perfectly, the flow of his body naturally hitting every beat.

Jake turned and looked at the band around him, the pulsing rhythm causing the crowd that was now at his back to move to the sound.

He took it all in… the room, the band, the audience. He locked eyes with Alex, who was pounding on the cymbals and kick drum, and they both laughed. The joy on the stage was evident and infectious. They’d been working toward this for years together; since the first weeks of high school, and here they were, in front of at least 7,000 in their hometown.

The anticipation had been building since the doors of the venue had opened almost an hour earlier. There was a line outside, there always was… and then the room filled, the front filling first, everyone finding their seat. Then the countdown achieved its intended affect… more anticipation. The blackened room, the silhouettes of the band, the synth intro, the perfectly timed light show that went with the perfectly executed musical intro… it all led to this moment.

Jake stepped up to the Beta 87, opened his mouth, and began singing.

The crowd recognized the first lyrics, inciting another cheer, before they began singing along.

There’s something special about hearing an arena-sized crowd sing a song you wrote in your bedroom, and for Jake, it never got old. He joined the thousands in the room in belting out the perfect opener. 

The band was well trained. They mouthed the words, as if the catchy melody couldn’t help but be sung. Their stage presence matched the intensity of the music, pulling back in the verses, and going crazy during the sing-a-long choruses.

Lawrence was in awe. He was in awe of Jake and his charisma, of the way he worked the crowd as if they were sitting with him in his living room, as if this stage and lights and smoke and echo were the most natural thing in the world. Lawrence was also in awe that he had gotten the gig; that he was given the opportunity to play in Jake’s band.

The second chorus was in full swing, and now even those who didn’t know the song two minutes ago were singing along. The final words rang out, and the entire band stepped back, attempting to divert the attention of the crowd to the lead guitar player who was now taking the spotlight.

In this moment, Jake again caught Alex’s attention, the sweat already running down both of their faces as their bodies moved to the beat that Alex and Lawrence were providing. The two had a language of looks, a communication system that could be used despite the 105 decibels in the room. And they both knew it… this was what they’d longed for, and it was finally happening.

The set went exactly as planned. The first three songs were all energy and melody. It was a wonder Jake hadn’t already lost his voice from the intensity of his singing. But here he was, the final note of the third song ringing throughout the venue, and it was stronger than it had been three songs before.

The lights went down, and the stagehand walked to Jake, exchanging his Telecaster for his Martin auditorium. The lights came back, but far less intrusive than they’d been for the previous 17 minutes. The spots focused in on center stage, where Jake was now softly strumming the acoustic guitar.

He looked out at the crowd, watching as they swayed from side to side, taking in the sound of the guitar that Kira had bought for him as a wedding present.

The lights of the stage faded slowly from yellow to blue as Jake began singing, another song that he’d written in his bedroom. He closed his eyes and let the words fall from his lips, listening to the droves of people singing his song.

The rest of the band took this time to rehydrate and wipe the sweat from their faces. Lawrence again watched from the darkness of the side of the stage; he stared at his front man, who was appearing as if this were the first time he’d sung this rollercoaster of emotion. He was amazed at the authenticity of the passion on Jake’s face as he sang. How could he sing this song every night and still have this level of sentiment about it?

 As soon as the first chorus was out of his mouth, Jake opened his eyes for the first time since beginning the song. Lawrence wiped his face with his towel again, trying to decipher whether the moisture under Jake’s eyes were actual tears, or just the residue of 20 minutes of giving it his all. Surely this song that he’s sung hundreds of times over the years isn’t causing him to cry.

This thought was quickly gone, however, as Lawrence found himself belting out the 2nd chorus from next to his bass amp.

God, this was a good song…

Lawrence knew that it wasn’t difficult for six musicians to create a dynamic landscape; to have peaks and valleys in four minutes of sound. Simply bringing down the volume or pulling the drums from a section could usually do the trick. But this, what Jake was doing with just his voice and the six strings of his acoustic guitar, was quite a feat.

The chorus ended, the G flat acting as the only transition to the bridge.

“Let me hear you sing it,” Jake said before taking two steps back from the microphone, allowing the voices of the crowd to take the lead.

This was the instant that Lawrence wished he could capture… the moment he would look back on as an old man, the time where everything just felt right. He wondered how many in the room had the same thought, that when having a bad day, or when life was rough, that they’d recall this moment during the fourth song of Jake Whitley’s set.

Why was that? Was it the fact that Jake was successfully telling the story of the people in the room? Or was it that by stepping off the mic, he made them feel like they were the superstars? Or was it that it made Jake seem like a normal guy?

It didn’t matter. The moment was perfect, the voices of 7,000 passionate fans at the top of their lungs with the words that had first come to life in one of Jake’s notebooks.

He must’ve noticed the magic of the moment, because Jake didn’t return to the microphone when it was time for the last chorus. He simply strummed his guitar, providing the soundtrack for the room to finish its song.

The crowd showed its gratitude at song’s end by giving Jake the loudest cheer of the entire set. The stage lights dimmed, the house lights rose, and a man appeared from the same curtain that the band had entered from 22 minutes before.

He looked to be about 40, though he was dressed like he was attempting to appeal to the generation below him. His short hair was precisely messy, as if he’d used fifty dollars worth of product to make it look out of place. He wore a pearl-snap collared shirt and jeans with a design on the back pocket. The small, flesh colored microphone could barely be seen next to his goatee.

He walked toward the front of the stage as Jake, Alex, Lawrence, and the rest of the band exited.

The stage manager handed Jake a towel as soon as he was past the curtain and out of sight.

“Great job."

Jake pulled the monitors from his ears without responding. He wiped his face with the towel as the man on the stage began speaking, his flesh-colored headset microphone now the only noise filling the room.

“Bow your heads. Let’s pray."

// INSERT BREAK HERE // 

Back in his office, Jake removed his now sweat-drenched shirt and opened the wardrobe to find another for the drive home. He walked past the desk and the bookshelves and the sofa and turned on the closed-circuit television that gave him a look into the auditorium, where the fourth and final service of the day was about to end.

Jake’s boss, Tyson Dallas, the 40-something goateed man with the headset microphone, was in the middle of his weekly passionate plea. Together, the two of them had built this empire. Well, Tyson had built it, but Jake had caused it to explode. What started 16 years ago as a Bible study in Tyson’s living room had turned into a church of 7,000 in the first decade. But when Jake had started, that’s when it really became a powerhouse. The white board in the main office had just been updated with the day’s numbers; over 24,000 people had been in the building today, with another estimated 55,000 watching on TV.

Jake liked to get out of the parking lot before the last service ended. The lines of people in the lobby wanting a picture and just a moment of his time wore him out after spending all of his morning singing for four separate crowds.

He slipped the t-shirt over his head and glanced at his phone for the first time since sound check.

The text messages that he’d missed filled his screen. They were all from Kira.

It’s time.

Jake, it’s for real now.  

Can you get here ASAP?

I don’t know how much longer I can wait.

Ok. My mom’s picking me up. I’m going to the hospital. Get there as soon as you’re done. Ok?

I’m in Room 406. You close? 

Nurse says I’m already at a 7. It’s not gonna be long. Doctor is on her way. Please hurry. 

Jake’s heart rate went through the roof. Had he seen any of these texts, he would’ve been gone hours ago. He instantly rued the decision to sit in the green room and shoot the breeze with the band after the final set. Thirty minutes of worthless conversation while his wife was in labor.

He grabbed his keys from the desk and raced out the back door, where his car had been sitting since 6:30am. He turned the ignition and peeled out past the orange vested volunteers whose pasted-on smiles and waves turned to looks of worry as they watched one of their main leaders frantically speed onto the street. 

Jake ignored every stoplight and road sign as he raced toward the hospital, hoping to make it there before his son or daughter did.

In the excitement of the morning, Jake had almost forgotten that Kira was at home, eight and a half months pregnant with their first child.

“Do you want to know the sex?” the sonogram technician had asked them 19 weeks earlier.

Kira had propped herself up and looked at Jake, her shirt pulled up above the belly that was carrying their child.

“No,” Jake replied softly. “We want it to be a surprise.”

He’d said it with conviction, though just that morning they’d still been discussing the matter.

“For thousands of years,” she’d said in a way that only she could, “moms and dads have had the joy of looking between their newborn’s legs to find out if they were raising a boy or a girl. I want that rush.”

“But think about how much easier it’ll be if we know,” Jake had pleaded with his wife. “The room, the clothes, the baby shower…”

“Of course it would be easier,” she cut him off. “But Jacob, just because something is easier doesn’t mean that it’s better.”

Kira was the only person in the world that called him Jacob. It wasn’t even his name. His birth certificate read Jake Alan Whitley, but she’d begun adding the second syllable before they were engaged. And now, she used it during arguments or to make a point… and sometimes just to be cute.

She’d won, of course. She always did. Unlike so many others his age, Jake consistently valued his spouse more than he valued being right, and he quickly gave in to her wishes.

Now, racing down I-35 with the morning’s sweat still sticky on his face, there was way more uncertainty than he’d known what to do with. He’d tried calling Kira once he was on the highway, but the phone had gone to voicemail after five rings.

He didn’t know if his wife had given birth. He didn’t know if she was in pain. He didn’t know if the doctor had made it yet. He didn’t know how quickly the Sunday lunchtime traffic would allow him to get there. And he didn’t know if his first child was a son or a daughter. It was almost too much to handle.

He circled the hospital’s parking lot twice before pulling in to the space next to his mother-in-law’s sedan. He turned off the ignition before noticing the sign at the front of the stall.

THIS SPACE IS RESERVED FOR EXPECTING MOTHERS.

“Close enough,” he said aloud before slamming the driver’s side door and running through the revolving entrance to the hospital.

Crap, what room did Kira say she was in?

Jake pulled his phone from the pocket in his jeans and scrolled back up through the text messages she’d bombarded him with all morning.

406.

He found the row of elevators and slapped the button that signaled the direction he wanted to go. He waited for a moment and then slapped the button again. The transparent circle was lit from behind, but in his haste, Jake didn’t trust it. He spun his head from left to right and back left again, finally finding the blank door with the sign that held a horizontal line connected to a vertical line, which was connected to another horizontal one, and another vertical.

He slammed his shoulder into the door, its hinges reacting to the intense pressure. He took the stairs two at a time, and with each floor he reached, the reality of what was happening became exponentially more real.

He was going to be a dad. Gone were the carefree days of doing whatever he pleased. And gone were the days where he, the tortured artist, could live in his head all day and night, acting all day and night for the sake of the song.   

This was going to be a sacrifice.

But as he passed the door that told him he was only one story from his destination, the other side of the coin began to shine.

He was going to be a dad.

There was a little human that Jake had helped create. He thought of his own dad, the nights in the backyard throwing a baseball and making s’mores in the fire pit. He daydreamed about road trips and campsites and late nights under the stars.

He was going to be a dad.

He opened the door to the fourth floor with the same intensity as he had at the bottom of the stairs, the sweat from running dripping from his forehead and down the small of his back.

Again, Jake spun his head from left to right and back left again, looking for that little sign that would signal in which direction he should move.

Down the hallway, past the nurses station, and into another hall…

402… 404…

Jake could hear the sound of his wife’s moan from outside the door.

“Kira,” he said it louder than he’d meant to, catching the attention of those who were walking the hall.

He swung the door open and found his wife sitting, hunched over, on the edge of the hospital bed. The moans continued, muffled by her hands, which were covering her face. Kira’s mom was there, standing at the end of the bed with a hand on her daughter’s shoulder.

“Jake,” it was Kira’s mom who spoke, and it caused the sound coming from the bed to cease. Kira moved her hands to the bed sheets, looked up at Jake, and began sobbing.

Fear overtook Jake as he moved toward his wife. He searched her face for an explanation, and then to her mother’s. He felt as if he was walking in slow motion, everything at a snail’s pace around him.

Kira straightened, her enormous stomach making every move a chore.

Jake wrapped his arms around her shoulders as she wept into his chest.

“Everything ok?” It came out as a whisper, his voice breaking up as he stared down at his wife.

“I don’t wanna do this,” she said between sobs. “It’s so hard.”

Jake closed his eyes; slowly let out a breath, and let his instincts kick in.

He gently massaged her neck before pulling her face from his body. He bent down, kissed her on the lips, and stared into her eyes.

“You’re the bravest person I’ve ever met. And we get to meet our baby today. We can do this.”

Her face softened as she searched his. She wiped her left cheek with her palm, and nodded.

“Don’t leave,” she almost whispered. “I need you.”

He kissed her again, this time on her forehead. His lips rested just above her eyebrows as he replied. “I’m never going to leave."

The hours that followed were full of doctors, pain, and utter beauty. Jake saw a side of his wife that he’d never seen. There was a passion and a pursuit deep in her eyes; one that Jake knew wasn’t likely to go away. Behind the matted hair and tears and screams was a magnificence that would stick with Jake for the rest of his life. In those dreadful, incredible moments, Jake felt such a peace about raising a child with Kira Whitley, the woman he’d met in that autograph line in England… the woman he’d stood with in front of his friends and family, promising to love each other the rest of their days.

And then it happened.

“Ok, Kira,” the voice of the doctor was confident and sure, “You’re ready to push. Let’s meet this baby.”

Kira squeezed the hand of her husband and silently let the tears slide down her cheeks and onto the bed.

Standing there, watching his wife go through unmentionable pain, Jake would’ve given anything in the world to trade places with her, to absorb the pain that was soaking the bed beneath her.

“You’re doing great, Kira. Keep pushing.”

More tears.

More pain.

She squeezed his hand harder with each push.

“Oh my god,” Jake’s words were cut off by his emotion.

It was like nothing he had ever seen. The baby was just… there. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but watching the doctor pull his baby from his wife’s body was… well Jake didn’t even have a word for it.

The doctor stood, holding this little creature that Jake and Kira had created, and she placed it on Kira’s chest. The tears that had been silent were now loud and joyous, and they were coming from every Whitley in the room, including the one who had just joined the family.

“Congratulations,” the doctor said, staring at the sobbing family, “you have a beautiful baby girl.”

It was a girl.

“Aw,” Kira said, staring at this little life-changer in her arms. “Hi, baby girl.”

It was at this point that Jake lost complete control of his emotions. In this moment, he was the proudest father in the world. This little girl was going to call him daddy.

“So,” the doctor spoke from across the room, evidently not nearly as blown away by the birth of this child as the new parents were, “what’s her name?”

Jake stared at Kira, both of them wide-eyed.

“I have no idea.” It was Kira who said it.

“Yeah,” Jake chimed in. “Me, neither.”

“No big deal,” the doctor was looking at the paperwork that sat across the room from the bed. “Happens all the time. You can’t name a baby until you meet her. Just let us know when you’ve decided, and we’ll get the birth certificate ordered.”

The doctor left the room, leaving the three alone for the very first time.

Jake shifted his weight from his legs onto the messy bed, sliding his arm around his wife as they lay together.

“I’m so proud of you.”

The smile that she returned was almost as bright as her eyes.

“You were amazing. And you,” Jake leaned forward and kissed his daughter for the first time. “You are incredible.”

The rest of the day was a blur, phone calls and family visits and Facebook notifications. Nurses were in and out of the room, confirming the health of this perfect baby girl.

His parents brought dinner. Her parents brought cousins. Alex even stopped by with the things that Jake had left at the church; his computer, his bag, his guitar.

Grandparents took pictures and hospital staff drew blood. Friends held the baby and nurses weighed her. She was fawned over and examined from head to toe.  

Long after the sun had gone to sleep, the room finally quiet and free of visitors, the exhaustion of the day caught up with Kira.

“You go to sleep,” Jake told her, again noticing her beauty in a way he hadn’t until now. He reached down and picked up the baby off Mom’s chest. “Let me spend some time with my daughter.”

Kira’s smile spanned from ear to ear. “I like the sound of that… my daughter.”

“Me, too.”

And before Jake had taken four steps with the baby, the sweet sound of his wife sleeping filled the room.  

The baby cooed as he sat down on the recliner across the room.

“I guess it’s just you and me for awhile.”

Jake slowly rocked back and forth, studying this little life that he was now responsible for. He tickled her arm and then slipped his index finger in the palm of her hand. All five of her tiny fingers wrapped around his one; her first response to him.

He stared into her stunning blue eyes that looked just like Kira’s. Almost everyone who had visited today had mentioned it, but seeing it for himself for the first time, he fell in love with her a little more. Was that even possible?

 I never knew I could love another person this much.

He’d heard his friends say it. Maybe his parents had even said it. But now, rocking his baby girl for the first time, Jake got it.

He couldn’t wait to experience life with his daughter. He daydreamed about her first steps… her first words… the first day of kindergarten. He thought about her first crush and her first dance. As odd as it sounds, he was even looking forward to her first heartbreak. He longed for the day, many years down the road, when he’d hold his currently unnamed daughter and tell her that it would be alright. He cherished the idea of being there every time she needed a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen.

Jake even allowed himself to think further down the road… Dropping her off, freshman year in the dorms, handing her off to a world unknown. Her wedding day, when he’d hand her off to the man that she’d chosen to love. He found himself wondering what she’d look like, what age she’d be when he’d walk her down the aisle. He thought of the words he’d say on that day… “Her mother and I do.” He imagined the father/daughter dance. He paused at the fact that the song that would play likely hadn’t been written yet… and likely wouldn’t be for years.

He began to wonder about her passions… what would she spend her days caring about? Would she be an astronaut or a singer or a teacher or a doctor or a stay at home mom or a writer? He didn’t care, as long as she knew how much he loved her.

Those beautiful blue eyes now hidden with sleep, Jake couldn’t help himself. He kissed her on the forehead, stood, placed her in the bassinet, and grabbed the Martin auditorium that Alex had brought by.

He softly strummed in the key of E, barely remembering that this same day had started with this same chord on the stage in front of over 5,000.     

While Kira and the baby slept, Jake sang a song that would not be sung by a crowd that was screaming his name, or on a record that thousands would buy. It was a song for the most important audience in his entire life: the newborn baby girl that slept peacefully a few feet away.

He didn’t care that the song was the same four chords over and over. He wasn’t worried about the inconsistent melody or the vocal phrasing. He simply sang. 

INSERT SONG HERE

The guitar was still singing when Jake heard his name in the form of a whisper from across the room.

“Jake.”

“Oh,” he whispered back, suddenly aware of the baby that was fast asleep next to him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It’s ok,” Kira responded, holding her hand out for Jake to take. “I think I got it.”

“Got what?”

“Her name.” Kira paused before continuing. “You know how we talked about her name meaning something, for it to have significance to who we are and who she is?”

“Yeah.” Jake couldn’t imagine where she was going with this.

“Well,” she rubbed the top of his hand with her thumb. “What about… London?”