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Sentimental Journey

Dove-award winning recording artist Kathy Troccoli talks about life, love, and loss.

It's 2 p.m. on a Thursday, and Kathy Troccoli's famished. She's already had a long day in the studio, putting the finishing touches on her CD, A Sentimental Christmas (Reunion), which features big-band renditions of Christmas classics—and she's ready for some lunch.

So Kathy, 40, plops down with her fast-food lunch on a friend's family room floor in Nashville, and asks me if I want some fries. As this Long Island native munches and sips, we talk about her love of music from the '40s and '50s. "If my mother were alive, she'd be flipping out, knowing I sang a duet with Andy Williams on my Christmas CD," says Kathy, as she shifts from floor to chair. "I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Judy Garland. If I had to pick between what's out there today or all those wonderful old melodies, it's no contest! Some of my friends roll their eyes, but that's me."

Kathy runs upstairs to grab a book she wants to show me, comes back, sits down, and picks up our conversational threads. Then, unexpectedly, she reaches over, shuts off my whirring tape recorder, and asks me about my life. Her interest makes me feel as though I'm hanging out with a girlfriend rather than questioning a two-time Dove-award winning and Grammy-nominated recording artist and songwriter.

It's obvious Kathy cares about other people's life stories—but perhaps that's because her own's been touched by loss and suffering. A sensitive, somewhat insecure child from a strict Italian family, Kathy lost her father to colon cancer at age 15. With her 1982 release, Stubborn Love (Reunion), the fastest-selling debut album by a female Christian contemporary artist, Kathy was catapulted into the limelight just four years after she'd become a Christian. Kathy then went on hiatus from the Christian music industry from 1986 to 1991 to do some soul-searching, get counseling, deal with a 10-year battle with bulimia, and deepen her relationship with her mom. But the professional success of her 1991 comeback release, Pure Attraction (Reunion/Geffen), which included the mainstream chart-buster, "Everything Changes," was offset by tragedy—her mom died of breast cancer weeks before the album hit store racks. And just this August, Kathy's much-loved aunt succumbed to the same disease.

Despite these personal setbacks, Kathy's career has continued to soar. Besides 15 number-one Christian songs and 3 top-five pop singles, Kathy received a 1998 Dove Award for the prolife song "A Baby's Prayer" from her 1997 album, Love & Mercy (Reunion), and a 1999 Dove Award for her album Corner of Eden (also Reunion). This year Kathy's jazz-oriented collection of Garland and Gershwin tunes recorded with Sandi Patty, entitled Together (Monarch), is garnering mainstream airplay. Kathy's published the devotional My Life Is in Your Hands (Zondervan), and more recently, an inspirational gift book called Different Roads (Countryman).

The more I put things through a "Jesus grid," thinking about how he would respond in the situation, the less I react with my gut.

But beyond the accolades and accomplishments, Kathy remains passionate about helping hurting people. In the last few years, she's consistently lent support to ministries such as Prison Fellowship, a Houston-based aids organization called His Touch Ministries, and LifeTeen, a Catholic youth organization. As a result of the impact of "A Baby's Prayer" on listeners, Kathy also created A Baby's Prayer Foundation, which raises financial support and provides grants to life-affirming organizations.

Today her busy schedule takes Kathy across the country for concerts and speaking engagements at women's conferences such as Women of Faith, Heritage Keepers, and Time Out for Women Only. During this quick break in a demanding week, Kathy, who calls herself "contentedly single," tells me what she's learned about life, loss, love, good friends—and most importantly, faith.

Christmas is such a family time. Is it especially hard for you with your parents gone?

I feel as though I'm a paradox. I'm such a social person, I can really enjoy the holidays, but my capacity to feel deeply also can cause me to feel orphaned. My friends often say, "Kath, life seems messy to you because you live it passionately. You have to find a balance."
I'm trying to find that balance. For the last four years, I've hosted a Christmas party, complete with a talent show. I look forward to it every year! I give out silly awards, such as this tacky dolphin that spits out water when you clap!
Last year, I took a day with a friend to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. We walked along Fifth Avenue, saw the tree in Rockefeller Center, and had truffles. Then we ate in Little Italy. That time together is the epitome of what I enjoy at Christmas.
But I have to admit, when it's all said and done, I've had some Christmas nights when I've experienced a lonely ache. Or I've hit the pillow longing to belong to someone.

How do you deal with that loneliness?

I remember that God says he's a Father to the fatherless. I'd be a liar to say I don't go through times of feeling abandoned, but I also know there's never been a time in my life when he hasn't provided for me—even when my dad died, then my mom, and now my aunt.
So during these times, I focus on what God's said and what I've been given, because when I look at that, all the other stuff fades. That's what keeps my head up and helps me say, "Okay, God, I do believe in you. Yes, your promises are true."

Is there ever a day you don't think about your mom?

Grief is a funny thing; you go through different stages. After my mom died in 1991, someone told me, "The first year is weird because you'll feel as though she's coming back, or that she's on a long vacation. But as the second and third years pass, you realize it's permanent this side of eternity." I'm so glad he told me that, because that's exactly what I experienced.
Now I've actually felt some guilt on the days I don't think about Mom.

Did you and your mom always get along?

I went through a normal teenage rebellion. Mom was from a certain era; she was very protective, very strict. I was the kind of child who said, "I'm not going to do it just because you told me to." My older sister, Jennifer, was a good girl; I fought the system.
Yet at the same time, I wanted Mom's approval so badly! It's like you say, "I don't care what you think," but inside you're going, Oh, I hope she likes what I have on.
There were times when I'd have a date, and before I left my mother would kiss me good-bye and whisper in my ear, "He's not for you. Have a good time." Great! I'd be sitting with him at dinner thinking, There's no way I'm going on a second date with this guy. She affected me so deeply. I laugh at it now, but back then I'd get bitter about it.

It's not easy to relinquish bitterness.

You know, as Christians, we're supposed to be kind and loving, but if it doesn't become part of our character, we end up putting it on and taking it off like a sweater. That's why we don't get over the bitterness. It's a process. The more you work on yourself, the more you relinquish that stuff to God, the more your response changes—because there's a lot less poison in your heart.
At the time, though, I didn't have enough of Jesus in my heart. I didn't have the maturity. I'm not saying I'd be totally different if she were alive now, but I think I'd have a different response. If I'd been who I am now and she'd said, "I don't like that shirt on you," I think I'd say, "Well, Mom, you know what? I love it. How about some lunch," then move on. The more I put things through a "Jesus grid," thinking about how he would respond in the situation, the less I react with my gut.

What would you say to someone struggling with a difficult relationship right now?

I'd say, don't get your self-worth from that person. It's so dangerous. Instead, fill up on God's truths. That may mean you'll have to put up with that controlling remark, or choke back a thousand words in self-defense. But many times Jesus kept quiet, knowing God would have his way.

But people might think you're suggesting becoming a doormat.

I'm not saying that. I just think we respond so quickly, we don't leave room for God to work. We're impatient.
Before I became a Christian, I had to get my point across. Now I know it's not my job to change someone unless I'm absolutely sure God's put me in charge of that. Ninety-nine percent of the time, he hasn't. So it's not about that person; it's about me.

It's hard not to want to change someone else.

Yes, unfortunately, when we want a situation to change so badly, or when we want people to listen to us, our only other choice is to go for it—and then we've got this huge mess to clean up. We forget people can't deny love. People can't deny joy. People can't deny peace. And if you bring God's peace into the relationship, that peace can't be stolen from you—unless you allow it to be.

Was this process going on for your before your mom got sick?

Absolutely. And without Jesus, I'd have taken the whole death process differently. I'd have been ranting and raving and angry, with nothing to offer her.
When Mom was dying, I'd walk the cancer halls and peek in rooms. I could actually sense which rooms had God in them and which rooms didn't, because of the despair. To think I'd told a friend a couple of years before, "I don't know what I'd do without my mom." You get the grace to deal with difficult, wrenching situations just when you need it.

Does your family health history make you fearful?

My sister, Jennifer, and I pray about it a lot. But I take care of my body—even if I do eat McDonald's every once in a while! I eat healthy, take lots of vitamins and herbs, and get regular check-ups.
I've gone in for a mammogram since I was 32. And the last time I went in, I had a sense of doom. There I was with that little exam gown on, thinking, Today's the day they're going to tell me I have breast cancer.

Not everybody lives a hard life. But most of us struggle more than we're willing to admit.

I started tearing up, until I whispered Jesus' name and made myself think about all of God's promises. A sense of peace came over me, and I felt that if I heard bad news, I'd have the grace to say, "Okay, what do we do now?"
That's true in any situation in life, not just waiting for mammogram results. Fear sets in because we're thinking of the immediate—our career, our kids, our future. But ultimately, life isn't about only the here and now. It's about eternity—with God, if that's what we choose. That's what brings me indescribable peace.

What prompted you to write the song, "A Baby's Prayer"?

In the early '80s, I decided I wanted to learn more about crisis pregnancy so I could help the women who talked to me about it. I attended a six-week course at a local crisis pregnancy center, and as I watched the films and read the statistics, I was stunned by the horror of abortion—and saddened by the trauma it leaves on post-abortive women and men who feel they have nowhere to turn.
A couple years later, I saw a bumper sticker at a prolife event that read, "If I should die before I wake … " I finished that prayer mentally: I pray her soul you'll keep. And that's what birthed "A Baby's Prayer." It mulled around in my mind for several years.
I'd talk to friends who were post-abortive—one girl I'd hung out with years ago has had five abortions. But that kind of song isn't the kind you sit down with a cowriter and say, "Now we're going to write a song about abortion." It had to come from God. And I wanted it to represent his forgiveness and mercy.

So what happened?

One day, I mentioned my idea to Scott Brasher, who cowrote "Goodbye for Now" on Corner of Eden. "Scott, all I have is this lyric, 'If I should die before I wake, I pray her soul you'll keep.' Maybe you can write it with me," I said.
Scott told me he had a tape of a lullaby he'd written that had been sitting on his shelf for years. When I played it, the music touched me so deeply, the words fell into place.
Here's what's so remarkable: When I sang the lyrics to Scott on the phone, he told me he'd written that melody after he'd watched a PBS special on children of the Holocaust. He'd taken out his keyboard, turned down the volume on the TV, watched the horrific scenes, played that melody, then put it away.

That gives me goosebumps!

I know. I feel as though that song was divinely directed because its lyrics and melody reflect a modern-day holocaust. It still blows my mind to think about it.

How does this song affect the women who hear it?

For example, I did a big concert in Dallas last December. I'd just finished a song and was about to speak when over the loudspeaker a 21-year-old woman started talking. The audience got quiet. I heard her say, "I want you to know I'm the mother of a three-year-old son. Then I got pregnant again. My boyfriend wanted me to abort; my family wanted me to abort. But a friend of mine dragged me to one of your concerts, and you sang 'A Baby's Prayer.' I have a surprise for you." She brought out this little baby boy named Charlie.
I lost it. I couldn't regain my composure. My mascara was running. I ended up leaving the stage and holding him for a while.
I get e-mails and letters about this song from women who'd scheduled abortions, then cancelled them after hearing it. They've either decided to keep their baby or chosen adoption. What a commendable decision.

Why did you form A Baby's Prayer Foundation?

People have been working in the trenches for years on this issue, but I wanted to start a foundation to funnel donations to life-affirming organizations. For example, we help support an organization called Teen Mothers' Choice, which encourages teenagers who've decided to keep their babies. If we're going to ask women and young girls not to abort, we need to help them through it.

What impact have these involvements had on you?

Well, because of the foundation and my involvement with different ministries, I started speaking more. In the last several years, God's opened incredible doors for me to speak to women.
I've found that when they wait in line to talk to me afterwards, they often just need a hug. They'll grab my hands, look me in the eye, and tell me their life story. My life's included many of the things they're going through, so I'm grateful I can encourage them the way God's encouraged me.

It sounds as though you touch the hearts of women.

I hope so. Recently I sat at the edge of the stage and looked out at several thousand women there. Then I said, "I'm here because God's gifted me with a voice. But I go through what you go through. I struggled with bulimia, depression, and relationships." You could have heard a pin drop.
That particular day I prayed with a woman who suffered from depression. "You know what?" I told her, "I guarantee you there are hundreds of women here dealing with this. So if you're on Prozac or Zoloft, don't be embarrassed."
We've got to get to the point where we can talk about eating disorders, depression, divorce, adultery, homosexuality, and abortion—and address them. Sure, not everybody lives a hard life. But most of us struggle more than we're willing to admit.

What are some of the biggest struggles women face?

One is self-esteem. I think if every woman was affirmed in some way and told she was beautiful every day, she'd live a healthier life.
The second? That women have trouble getting their emotional needs met. They often feel empty or misunderstood. I've also learned through my married friends that a woman can't be a man, and a man can't be a woman. They offer two different things. So healthy friendships with other women can offer the encouragement and understanding that sometimes a man can't.

God should be enough, but we still need flesh and blood, don't we?

That's why I think women's conferences are blazing all over the nation. Some of the women who come are overwhelmed by life. But once they're there, they realize, I'm not the only one. God's helped them, and God's going to help me. I believe I can make it. There's a camaraderie.

You don't feel alone.

Right. We're such emotional, relational beings, but we're often ruled more by our emotions than by reason, especially if we don't balance it with God's truth. That's what I continue to learn.
On the days I'm feeling down, I tell myself: Am I still lovely in God's sight even when I don't feel lovely? Absolutely—because God tells me I am. Is he by my side even when I don't feel him there? Definitely—because he's told me he's as close as my very breath. Does God see that I'm weeping every ounce of moisture out of my body today? His Word says he holds my tears in a bottle.
My feelings sometimes tell me I'm forgotten. That I'm not important. Yet the Bible shows me there's nothing I can do to make God fall off his throne. There's nothing I can do to disturb his love for me.
The problem for many women is, God's put on the sidelines and whatever you're feeling that day or week gets elevated. You're thinking, What am I going to do with this feeling? instead of asking God, "Help me to see past this feeling to the truth of who you are."
Because life is messy and we're human, it's important to keep our relationship with God fresh and intimate—and to surround ourselves with substantial Christian friends who know and stand firm on the Bible's promises. These two things help me on my journey, and, in the last few years, have helped me to be more confident than ever before.

Does the prospect of aging affect you?

It affects me deeply. One of my friends said, "Oh, I love the wrinkles on my hands. I love the character in my face." Are you kidding me? I'd love to have a 22-year-old body with the heart and mind I have now! You know what I mean?

I sure do!

And in the music business, it's even harder, because it's so image driven. Yet what's so exciting is that God has me doing things I couldn't do at 25, such as speaking at conferences.

How do you handle the pressure of being a role model?

I've found, from being in the Christian music industry for years, that it could be easy to get on stage and leave Jesus in the wings. That sounds terrible, but you can go out there, sing your songs, share your stories, and use all the phrases that work. But I've never been the kind of person who wanted to get up there and be anything less than who I am. Being transparent and genuine are extremely important to me.
When I first sang, I barely spoke to the audience. Now I'm being asked to speak more, and I feel the weight of that responsibility. So I've asked my friends, "Am I the woman they think I am?" because I know myself. I pray I never take the stage or podium and profess to be something I'm not.

Friends and accountability take time—so where do you find it, being on the road so much?

Well, I think it's because I'm single. I have more opportunity to get together with someone on a Thursday night or a Sunday afternoon than if I were married.
Here in Nashville, I have a group of friends I call the "divas." Some are married; some aren't. We encourage each other, comfort each other, and get silly together. I happen to be blessed with incredible friendships. I'd have to write a book to include them all.
There are two in particular: Ellie, in Virginia, and Allyson in Indiana. Even though Ellie and Allyson are long-distance, I'm proactive about keeping in touch. Often on my time off, I'll fly to see them. It's been a conscious decision on my part to keep them a priority.
I also have a close-knit extended Italian family. They bring me great joy. My two teenage nieces are very special to me. I adore them.

Kathy, as a single woman, do you struggle with staying sexually pure?

No. Never. I have no emotions, no hormones, no needs! Next question, please.

Kidding aside, how do you handle those urges?

I think about the consequences. I know all havoc will break loose in my relationship with God and those around me if I choose to disobey God in my sexual desires. Anyone who's come close to crossing that line knows exactly what I'm talking about. Bottom line: Nothing is worth sacrificing God's peace.

Is there such a thing as a Mr. Right out there?

Everybody's been trying to fix me up with him for years, so I guess he's out there! But seriously, I'm not spending my days waiting for him to come along. I think I'm thriving and laughing and crying, enjoying life and digging deep.
I want marriage in this time of my life if God wants it for me. That's not a cliche. I've started a journal for my future husband, though; it's filled with entries about what I long for, pray for. While marriage may never happen for me, if it does, on the day my husband asks me to marry him, I want to give him this book.
The main reason I'm doing this is because I believe it keeps alive in me what God wants me to keep alive—the part of me that needs to feel safe, womanly, loved, and protected. Because I'm so busy and driven, it's easy to let that part of me get washed over.

What are your goals for the future?

I could give you a list of 50 things, but mainly I want to be lovely to God—to have a truly beautiful soul.

For information on A Baby's Prayer Foundation, write: P.O. Box 1458, Jupiter, FL 33468-1458, or call 1-888-673-4bpf. For booking Kathy for speaking or singing, call Valerie Summers at 615-963-3376.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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