Taps had been played, and two handsome and poised Airmen serving in the U.S. Air Force’s Honor Guard had just placed a folded American flag into my mother’s lap.
It was Sunday. The sun shone bright in all its glory. I was seated beside my mother beneath a tent, surrounded by my family and our dearest loved ones. We were enveloped on all sides by at least a dozen large American flags held majestically upright by a group of veterans known as the Patriot Guard Riders who had arrived of their own good will for the single purpose of honoring my father.
What came next was, undoubtedly, the most beautiful moment of my life….
Gently breaking the silence came a tap, tap-tap-tap, tap, tap…. followed by the crisp sounds of horns and a soulful organ… And, finally, the raspy, breathy, and gentle voice of the late, great Ray Charles. My father loved Ray Charles. Both Ray and my father loved America. Mr. Charles even wrote his own verse to the beginning of the classic song, America the Beautiful, with special note to the bravery of those who valiantly fought to secure our freedoms.
“Oh beautiful, for heroes proved,
In liberating strife,
Who more than self, our country loved,
And mercy more than life,
May God thy gold refine,
Til’ all success be nobleness,
And every gain divined.”
As the song played, all in attendance joined in – impromptu. I looked around in awe. Even the brave men and women with the Patriot Guard Riders, holding high the American flags, sang with us.
I love you- America,
You see, My God done shed his grace on thee…”
For 3 minutes and 41 seconds we sang together; family, friends, and strangers together as one people. Our sadness melted away into joyful love, a sense of divine unity and brotherhood, and pure gratitude for God’s blessings – both for our country and for our loved ones. There was no division, no color or class. Nothing stood able to tear us apart. In those moments, we were living out Ray’s beautiful America, my father’s beautiful America, our beautiful America.
Throughout our country’s history, including the truly ugly parts, God’s blessings have continued and his Grace has not once forsaken us. God set America apart as the beacon of progress on a shining hill. America is flawed, but she truly is beautiful. May we always remember and continue to cherish the small, quiet moments with good people (like my own on Sunday), knowing that we Americans and our willingness to sacrifice for one another are what makes our glorious country so special. May we never lose our faith in, nor our gratitude and appreciation of God’s blessings.
Thank you, Daddy, for teaching me sacrifice and gratitude.
*To the USAF Honor Guard and to the Patriot Guard Riders, thank you and may God bless you.
*And, to all those who serve our country, in any capacity, I humbly thank you.
[Editor’s note: Robert “Bob” Tilton passed away on August 30, 2017. Bob served his country in the U.S. Air Force and was a highly decorated pilot during the Vietnam War. He retired from FedEx after flying for 30 years. Read his obituary here. We all join in grieving with Paige for the loss of her hero, and one of America’s best. Let’s honor the forgotten heroes of Vietnam, for they sacrificed so much.]