I’m still here, crawling in and out of the mineshaft.
By now, I was a freshman in highschool and I was struggling with my studies as well as being a good son. After Lameck and Tracy’s pregnancy, the church knuckled down on its shepherding of the youth; a mandatory Friday night youth service was instituted and the parents were required to be there as well. Joe was in and out of IU hospital on a weekly basis. I didn’t see much of Mom and Dad except on the weekends, when we were at church, or in a hospital waiting room. I was losing my time with Whitey and when we did get together, I’d drink until I passed out. Whitey’s family sold their house and moved into another housing addition further north on Lone Oak. He joined the basketball team and started hanging out with a new group. I was seeing less of him as we progressed through school and it was disheartening.
My nightmares returned and seemed to bleed over into reality. I felt like I was underwater and I couldn’t surface. I quit reaching out for anyone or anything and I couldn’t talk. I couldn’t breathe and I turned inside and closed my eyes. There were days when I’d be called from sleep to the table for dinner and have no recollection of having gone to school or even a string of memories from a previous number of days. I noticed that voices were muffled but I didn’t really care to hear what they were saying. It seemed like there was a fog between me and every other person, so I quit trying to see their faces.
By March, I’d lost weight and was thinner than normal. To Mom, I had all of the symptoms of mononucleosis. She questioned the morality of my activities at school. I was insulted but I didn’t say anything. Her inquisition about my involvement with girls outside of the church angered me. She took me to the doctor’s office for an examination and a blood draw and the results came back negative. As well, Dad tried to dig inside of my heart but followed the same path as Mom with assumptions and accusation. I didn’t know there was anything wrong with me but by the time they were done, I wished there had been a girl or even one other person who could set me free but there wasn’t. If there were such a thing as being tied to apron strings and coat tails, this ridiculous incident severed the connection and I closed the door to any possible relationship with my parents.
Carrie invited me to her house on weekends and I looked forward to the time but she couldn’t afford it. She was occupied with two babies and I didn’t want to be a third. I spent my time walking the lanes between the fields. I went down to the creek where I used to catch fish in the traps that Dad had helped me make. I sat on the rocks and watched the swallows drop from their mud nests under the bridge and was mesmerized by their aerial display. I thought about being on the farm before Joe had his first seizure. I thought about Danny’s first rabbit hunt in the west field with a shotgun Dad had bought him for Christmas. I thought about the weekend cookouts where Carrie grilled more chicken than anyone could possibly eat and the Sundays, after dinner, sitting by the the same creek with no preoccupation of attending a church that did its best to steer me with fear of damnation. I realized the swallows, skimming the surface of the creek, were most likely the offspring of the birds I watched when I first came here and it made me cry.
In May, the rains came. They fell gently with no angle and felt like someone you love was whispering in your ear and kissing your cheek. I woke one morning to get ready for school and found a note on the counter. It was in Dad’s handwriting and it instructed me to stay home and that Brother Charlie was going to pick me up. I got dressed and sat in the living room not knowing what to expect. A few minutes later, Charlie pulled his old ford truck, with bass boat in tow, into the drive and honked its horn. I pulled on my sweatshirt and trotted out into the rain. Charlie met me halfway up the drive and hollered, “Are you ready to go fishin’?” I was still confused as to why I wasn’t going to school and why Charlie was in the driveway and asked, “Why are we goin’ fishing?” Charlie pulled off his hat, blinked up into the rain, rubbed his mangled hand on his chin, looked back at me and said, “Cause it’s raining the kind of way that makes fish bite." He asked, “You got a rain jacket?” I told him I didn’t and he said, “Well, I been wet quite a few times too.” I still wasn’t sure why this was happening but it was as exciting as sneaking out of a window at night.
We drove to Morse Reservoir where Charlie showed me how to put a boat in the water and how to pick someone off the shore. From there, he twisted the throttle of the Evinrude and we motored across the lake to what Charlie called his Honey Hole.
He brought the boat down to an idle and asked me to move to the bow and watch for snags. He cut the motor and we drifted up under some overhanging branches. He dropped the anchor, arranged a tin bucket full of live minnows, passed me a rod with a spinning reel and said, “Wer’ just gonna’ sit here for a minute and let the fish get to know us.”
The rain on the water sounded like heavy breathing. I was thinking about being wet when Charlie pressed a metal thermos lid of hot coffee against my arm. I took it and thanked him. After swallowing a few mouthfuls, I passed it back to him and he finished it. Charlie picked up his line, grabbed a minnow from the bucket, and ran his hook through its wriggling tail. I followed suit and we cast our lines between the boat and the bank. Charlie let out a low whistle and whispered, “This oughta’ be a goodun.” It wasn’t more than a few minutes before our bobbers were pulled under the surface. Every time we reeled in our lines, we had Crappies that were larger than Charlie’s good hand. More often than not, the fish hit out bait before the bobbers touched their stops. With each fish, Charlie howled, “Boy, I tell ya what!” In little more than a couple of hours, we stacked two stringers with fish. With a wide grin, Charlie exclaimed, “Boy, I tell ya what, wer’ slayin’ em’ today!” I proudly confirmed his assessment and he noted the clothes I was wearing didn’t have a dry stitch to them. He blew out another low whistle and admitted, “Well, I reckon we’d better leave a few for some other fellers’.” We packed the poles under the gunnels, pulled the stringers into the boat, and headed back to the launch.
After loading the boat and strapping down the tackle, we headed east toward Anderson. The rain was still falling along Strawtown Road as Charlie navigated the sweeping turns that cut the way through fields that were waking from the winter. Over the sound of the windshield wipers, Charlie asked, “How’s yer brothers doin?” I felt a pinch in my gut and responded, “I reckon they’re doing as good as they can.” I turned my head to the window and searched the horizon, grudgingly expecting more questions about their condition. After a pause, Charlie asked, “How are you doin?” I wasn’t expecting a question so pointed. In the seven years since we moved to Anderson, no one had ever asked me about my own wellbeing and it made me choke. I knew I wasn’t doing good at all. It was hard to respond and I couldn’t look back at him but I said, “I’m doin’.” I felt he had my heart in his hand and after a long pause he said, “Most of the time, the hardest part of anything is the doin’.” I turned my face back to him and we nodded at each other. Charlie didn’t ask any further questions on the way to the house. There was a comfortable silence that rested between us. With little more than ten simple words and a nod, I understood that Charlie cared about me and somehow, understood what was going on inside of me.
Upon pulling into the drive, I thanked Charlie for taking me fishing and opened the door of the truck. He said, “Don’t run off, we gotta get your fish!” He met me at the back of the truck where he pulled out a stringer, handed it to me, and said, “The river ought to be good for fishing in a few weeks if you’d like to go - you ever fished a river?” I hadn’t and the idea sounded like fun. I said, “Brother Charlie, I’d like that a lot.” He put his mangled hand on my shoulder and said, “You ain’t gotta call me that - you call me Charlie and I’ll call you when the river is ready.” I smiled and thanked him. Charlie backed his fishing rig out of the driveway and headed down the road.
I went around the back of the house to get a bucket of water for the stringer of fish and noticed Mom’s car parked in the garage. I stowed the fish near the service door and went inside to get a knife. Mom stopped me in the kitchen and asked if my fishing trip was successful. I was still holding the separation from weeks before and grudgingly admitted that I’d caught a lot of fish. She told me I should go and change my wet clothes. I told her it was still raining and I wanted to clean the fish before they got slimey. She jumped toward the kitchen sink, grabbed a mixing bowl, and made a batch of salt water for soaking the fish. I told her I could pack em’ in the freezer but she said she wanted to fry em’ for dinner.
I went outside, pulled fish out of the bucket, and started processing them. I felt bad for not wanting to talk to Mom and I was angry for feeling that way. I knew it wasn’t Charlie’s idea to take me fishing; it was most likely Dad’s idea and Mom was also in on it. I knew they had used Charlie to try and bridge the gap between us.
I had initiated the forming of the chasm and at the same time, I was disgusted with myself for wanting to be away from them. I knew Dad and Mom were strapped with a ridiculous burden. I knew better than to expect attention from them and I never asked for anything because I didn’t want to add to their struggle. I tried to be as small as possible. I didn’t want to make a ripple or even a shadow. I didn’t want to be here but somehow, unconsciously, I had betrayed myself and exhibited a signal that was misinterpreted. Like a pack mule off its lead, I couldn’t grasp what harnessed me but I wanted out from under it and the only thing that seemed to ease strain was running. By now, I was pretty good at being distant and I thought it best to hold my course. I flipped handfuls of gore into into the garden bed and slipped the fish carcasses into the bowl of salt water. I finished my task by the light from the kitchen window and started to shiver from the rain.
As summer started to pull out things that slept in the ground, I went fishing on the river with Charlie. We waded along the bank off of Moss Island road behind the old meat packing plant. Charlie said the fish in that part of the river were fat from sucking up blood and offal from the factory discharge drains. He taught me how to seine for bait with a net strung between two sticks. We saved the crayfish I caught, ripped their claws off, ran hooks through their tails, and cast them to the center of the river. Charlie was wrong about the size of the fish we reeled to the shallows; they weren’t fat, they were monsters. More often than not, they broke our lines.
We went fishing at least one day a week. I liked to watch Charlie in the river; on land, he waddled with a bow legged gate from arthritic knees but when wading through the river, he moved as if he were a young man. He had tattoos across his arms that were blurry and indigo from age. He told me he got them during World War Two, somewhere in the Pacific. Sometimes, he’d walk out, up to his waist, in the heavy current, stare across the water, and whisper to something unseen while he rubbed those tattoos with his mangled hand. The first few instances worried me and I’d call across the river, asking if he was OK. It shook him from his spell and he’d say he was fine and that he was just remembering something. Upon my interruption, he’d back out of the depths and resume his angling. He could have been praying - it wasn’t uncommon for people of the church to pray anywhere - but it looked like he was engaged with something he couldn’t quite see. On the drives back to the house, I’d ask him about the War but he’d say he couldn’t recall much as it was so long ago. After a number of excursion, I gained enough courage to ask him about the fingers that were missing from his hand and in his fashion of using as few words as possible, he said, “Ahw, I did something stupid - didn’t need em’ anyway.”
Charlie had a lot of fishing buddies and my favorite was Sister Hazel. She hailed from ancestral property deep in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. She was a featherweight but what she lacked in dimensions crossed the air between you and made you warm inside. She was old-timey and steeped in backwoods religion but she didn’t ply you with it or try to make you feel bad. Her cotton dresses skimmed the ground but they never stopped her from wading in the river with Charlie and I. Even though advanced in age, she was firm and had a quality that gave me the impression that she had a great number of years more than I yet to live.
I had a hard time meeting her gaze; though dazzling, her eyes did more than shine, they searched my soul. When she talked with me, she palmed my cheek and rested the pad of her thumb under my eye and like some whisperer, she peered inside of me. Once she had my eyes, I can’t really say if she said anything. Her lips moved but there was some other language that I heard and it was peaceful. Often, she held my arm for support but it seemed more so out of affection.
During each vernal and autumnal equinox , Sister Hazel visited her hollow in the Appalachian Mountains. I’m sure she had a number of things to maintain at her property but it appeared as if her main task was as a bootlegger of water. Toward the solstices, she rolled back to Indiana in her vintage Oldsmobile that rocked and swayed under a heavy load. Every nook and cranny of that car was packed with a diverse assortment of plastic and glass vessels filled with water from a spring that flowed through her land. She swore by its medicinal quality and wouldn’t drink any other liquid. A few fortunate people, such as myself, were bestowed with gallon jugs or quart jars. She was right, I’d never tasted water of a finer quality...
6 September 2016
I drove west to Harbour Manor through the remnants of a September rain. The road curved gently through a creek bottom where deer grazed in a fallow field with a blanket of dew suspended above their red backs. Above the rise, the sky broke in bands of charcoal to expose the golden light of a valiant sun.
Harbour Manor is where my mother lay in hospice while calling for her life to be over.
I kept the night watch as I was nearest the rest home and couldn’t sleep knowing she was alone.
A misplaced step led her here. A number of years ago, she fell outside of a restaurant and broke her hip. A brace of clumsy surgeons further damaged her condition until, by chance, after ten surgeries, a bacteria took hold of her and refused to let go.
On Memorial Day weekend, she entered the hospital and refused any further surgeries. She did accept a plan to intravenously treat the infection but she was exhausted and critically depressed. She was ready to die.
She steeled herself against everyone’s emotions and settled for the course that she expected to be in front of her. Her granddaughters vehemently protested and her friends questioned her mental stability but she was physically and spiritually immovable from her position. She asked me for my support and I asked her if she was sure that she wanted to die by an infection - I hoped that the thoughts of a protracted and painful death might shake her from her decision - but I knew she’d thought through the scenario. She’d been around this level of desperation most of her life and I expected her confident response. She didn’t want to endure this type of painful death but she was done with living in pain.
During the month of June, on a weekly basis, her condition rose and sank on swells of septicity. Her blood white cell count was more than double a human’s high limit and the open wound in her leg wouldn’t heal. It was evident that she had crossed the event horizon and was being pulled to the singularity of death.
On a sultry morning in July, her doctor called me to her bedside to sign a Do Not Resuscitate Declaration. Ra met me in the foyer outside of mom’s room. We talked with the doctor and the convalescence practitioners. We were convinced - by mom’s condition - that she had a minimum number of days to exist.
While the staff went to prepare the documents, Ra and I entered mom’s room. Though it was clear and clean, the suite trapped the odor of infection. Through the venetian blinds on the window, the sun lay across her face. She was certainly as beautiful as she’d always been. With the palm side of my thumb I softly traced the structure of her brow and temples that so closely matched her mother’s. Mom’s hair hadn’t been colored carmel in weeks and it was taking on a silvery lustre. She slowly opened her once brilliant eyes - now gray and lackluster- and tried to focus on mine. The crow’s-feet at the corners of her eyes compounded as she recognized me. As she trapped my gaze, a flickering slideshow of her ran through my mind. I saw a trillion moments that we’d shared and others I’d envisioned. Her wrinkles seemed to fade and her eyes lost the fog of death. I saw her when she was sixty and I was thirty - a year older than Carrie, Danny, or Joe had the opportunity to turn - after my return from the Army. She was fifty-five and Dad was gone. She was fifty-one and we were at the hospital as Danny took his last breath. She was forty-nine and Joe was struggling to stay alive. She was forty-seven and petting the hand of Carrie’s lifeless body. She was forty-two, in the backyard, posing for photos on her 25th wedding anniversary. She was thirty and holding me as Shelam lay wasting by our side. She was twenty-eight and running out of a laundromat with Shelam in her arms. She was nineteen, clutching Dad, as she wept beside Garnna’s grave in Martinsville. She was sixteen, holding Dad’s hand on her wedding day. She was six, leaning against the fender of her brother’s car drinking a bottle of soda. Finally, she was an infant, looking into the eyes of her mother, the same way I was now looking into hers.
As she had my whole life, she said, “Hey, Shrimp.”
I choked and whispered, “Hey, Momma.”
She asked, “What’s going on - why’s the doctor still here?”
I continued petting her hair and said, “I gotta talk to you about something.”
She asked again, “Why’s the doctor still here?”
I felt a constriction across my chest and said, “That’s what I’ve got to talk to you about.”
She’d witnessed the doctor make his rounds earlier that morning and saw him again as Ra and I entered the room.
Shockingly, her moments of clarity came abruptly and were powerful. She could exist for a number of days with minimal function, seemingly unconscious, and then rise to shock everyone with with a rally of health that was odd and disturbing - as if she were being puppeted by an unseen force.
She’d asked what was going on and I couldn’t do anything but tell her. Again, I felt the cold that comes over one’s heart when when you have to push away emotion and accept the responsibility for the death of life in your hands. I felt like a frightened boy again, trying to wipe beads of crimson from the feathers of a Mourning Dove I’d deliberately shot. I was trapped in the moment, twenty years previously, when She and I determined to remove Dad from life support.
My pause was long and she asked again, “What’s going on?”
She shrank into tears as I said, “Momma, we’re at the end and the doctors can’t do anymore for you.”
In a panic she pleaded, “Can I change my mind?”
I compressed all of my anxiety and said, “Momma, it’s too late, you’d never survive the operation.”
With earnestness, as if it were an original idea, she pleaded, “Tell em’ to take my leg!”
With tears in my eyes, I said, “It’s too late.”
She whimpered, “I want to live!”
I felt what was true and said, “I know you do Momma.”
I saw her as that dove, straining and kicking, fighting to fly from my hand.
With tears in her eyes, she cried, “But I want to live!”
I held her hand and exhaled, “I know Momma.”
Agonizingly, she wept until her eyes dried. She stared at the ceiling and asked, “Why am I here?”
Again, as I had at least twice a week since she’d been in this state, I recounted the previous months and our conversations. I told her about all of her loved ones who had visited her. I described her last surgery and the infection. I laid out the chronology of her entrance to Harbour Manor and the medical condition that now racked her body, the terminal state of her affairs, and her decision to have no further medical interventions. She settled, as the piety of her decision months ago seemed to surface in her consciousness.
I traced the veins on her needle bruised hands and was cold with hate for our situation. It was pointless to ask why this road was ending where it was. I never saw any reason in all of the dying. Senseless deaths laid out behind us like fresh laundry, blown from the line, lying in the mud. All of the bright and all of the shine gone out and the world no better for it, with fewer each season to remember the glow. I reckon it’s just what we were meant to do. Watch em’ all waste away until there was nothing left but a husk and us with our teeth grinding in dry mouths with wet cheeks, wishing they’d let go of their suffering. We’d been worn, misshapen like old whetstones, but what was sharpened? What comes from sick and stricken children or a mother and a father burying all of their good babies? What comes of a boy watching them all die. I can tell you, not a damn thing. Not one goddamn thing. What’s the gold to pan from all of this? A pan full of grave dirt; washed with tears, rolled around in a cold stream of grief, sifted for a minuscule glimmer that might feed your empty heart and there isn’t any. We were good at not falling apart. We were good at stifling emotions. We were good at not hoping for much. We were good at keeping low expectations. We were good at being distant. We were good at funerals. We were good at not letting little things get to us. We were good at not talking. We were good at keeping a good appearance and going through the motions of living, all the while, we were dying inside.
Mom was tired of her multi-year disability but that wasn’t the only weariness within her. That’s what no one seemed to see, or, at least, they weren’t talking about it. I saw it but I didn’t want to talk about it either. She was weary of being acquainted with death and I’d known that low down groan that emanated from her since I was a little boy. I didn’t need to see it, I felt it. It’s how I’d always known her. Mothers sing to their babies and I knew her song.
Again, she broke into sobs. With no idea of what to say, I asked her to talk to me. She raised her other hand and wept, “I’m a chicken! I’ve come all this way and at the end I break. I’m a Chicken!”
I was shocked that she was focusing on what she believed was her cowardice at death’s’ door. “Mom, you’re not a chicken, you’re the most powerful person I’ve known.”
“No, I’m not. I’m a chicken!”
The doctor knocked on the door and entered the room. With compassion, he explained the situation to Mom and asked her if she understood. She wiped her eyes and nose with a balled up tissue and confirmed that she did. He handed us a single sheet of paper printed in black with the areas that we needed to sign highlighted in yellow. I read it’s verbiage and signed it. Mom applied her signature as well. The doctor left the room and we were quiet.
Days passed and the medical staff tried to manage her pain but were frustrated. A staggering quantity of opiates and anti-anxiety medication was applied but she was constantly restless and writhing in agony.
Deep in the morning, a few days ago, I realized why she consistently cried out in fits of agony, “It hurts so bad!”
We were fighting the wrong pain.
After the nurses prepped her for the night, I turned out the lights, moved my chair against her bedside, and settled in. Fitfully, she slept a few hours as I watched the stars rise above the trees outside of her window. She writhed from sleep with a moan and rolled her head back across her pillow.
“What’s wrong Momma?”
“It hurts so bad.” She whispered.
“Do you want the nurse?”
“No…” she groaned. “...it hurts so bad.”
The dim light coming through the window flickered on tears running from the corners of her eyes. I pulled a tissue from the nightstand for her, held her hand, and asked, “Momma, what hurts.”
She held her response, with her eyes seeming to bore holes through the ceiling. She slowly groaned and said, “All of it.”
“All of what?”
She rolled her head to face me, her eyes red and wet, and whispered, “I’m so sorry.”
“Sorry for what, Momma?”
“I’m sorry you had to grow up the way you did… I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you.”
I felt a new fissure form across across my heart. “Momma, I’m ok…” “...you and Pop couldn’t do anything about that… I understood it back then.”
“But it hurts me that you were so alone…”
“It’s ok Momma, I’ve never felt any kind of bad about you and Dad not being around… there’s no way you could have… I knew where you needed to be… I knew it way back then.”
“...I’m so sorry.”
“Momma, let that go right now… that’s not anything I’ve ever held.”
She wiped her raw eyes, looked above my head as if she was searching for a face in crowd and whispered through her trembling lips, “It all hurts so bad…”
She broke into sobs, “...Garnna was gone so quick… Shelam was so beautiful… I couldn’t do anything to save her…”
Like a smack to the face, I suddenly realized the source of her untreatable pain as grief and sorrow began to pour out of her. The emotion was staggering and it went through me like a javelin. I held my words and let her unravel.
“... Joe didn’t deserve that… he was so strong.”
She pressed her forearm across her eyes as if to remove the vision. She shook with convulsions of agony, her mouth agape and groaning as she wept, “...and Danny… they didn’t deserve that!” “...oh God… it hurts so bad!” “...and Carrie… Carrie… it was so cruel... She was my best friend… she was so wonderful..."
She forced herself to calm and gouged at her eyes with a collection of tissues. Once again, she searched the space behind me. She finally focused on me and her lips trembled again as she spoke, “I miss her so bad.”
“I do too, Momma.”
“Sharek, I’m so sorry.”
“Me too, Momma.”
Her eyes, locked on mine, began to flow again and her heartbreaking confession continued, “... she was so wonderful… I miss her so bad… and I couldn’t do anything to save her... I died when Carrie died... Your dad broke and we couldn’t do anything for each other.”
“It all hurts so bad…”
She rocked her head from shoulder to shoulder with her eyes closed. “It all hurts so bad…” “It all hurts so bad.”
“It was all very cruel, Momma.”
“Yes it was, Sharek.”
Her wave subsided and she dabbed her eyes saying, “Dad would be so proud of you… He loved you so much.”
“I miss him, Momma.”
“I know you do.”
She was quiet, looking through me as if I wasn’t there and she were in a different place.
I saw what she was seeing, the faces both laughing and in repose. I felt all of the horrible loss. I thought of the ends they all met and the final moments when their breath failed to return. I thought of the things I wished I’d said and the things I wished I’d heard from them before they slipped away. I felt there was a window closing and shutters being pulled to hide the starlight.
“Momma… I’ll miss you.”
As if she knew what I was thinking, she responded, “I’ll miss you, Shrimp”
I shouldn’t have been surprised that her sorrow was so close to the surface but I was. I’d gotten used to not fully feeling mine and I thought she had too. It made sense, at this point. She knew she was dying. Now, standing at edge of darkness, she’d turned to look at where she’d been and completely embraced what she had to hold. She let the memories in.
When she was physically healthy, she never was one to complain. In front of most everyone, she kept a beaming smile and cheerful disposition. The more she was assailed by tribulation, the more she proclaimed her faith and the ability of God to heal her wounds. She volunteered for church activities and donated her time to compassionate programs or others struggling with life. She opened her home to strangers and people flocked to her. I’m not sure if they wanted to help her or maybe they simply had a fascination like someone stopping at a roadside attraction to see something that had been pulled from the dark of a jungle. Some people seemingly kneeled at her feet, hoping to find help for their own damage. At some point, everyone plied their ability at compassion by recalling memories of Joe or Dad. It was the easiest way to show they cared but simply holding up a fragment of what once was is like knocking at the the door of sorrow without the intention of ever entering the room. Some were able to lay out their troubles with hers but they were splashing along the shore of a great depth. If you didn’t know her past you’d never surmise that she’d experienced so many tragic events. If you were familiar with her history, it wasn’t something that was easily placed on the table for conversation. If you witnessed what she’d gone through, you’d not likely wade in her waters.
She swam in a kind of ocean that seemed to have no shore. She drifted out in the bottomless, dark, and uncharted region where horrific objects lay anchored below the surface. I’d tried to make my way to her over the years but with each stroke, I found myself further away, as if there were a current that worked against us. There was a point where we almost reached one another but there are overwhelming beasts out there and I was too young and inexperienced to wrestle them. By the time I was capable, she was too far away.
You’d think that we - having endured what we have - would be closer to one another and have long intimate talks about the things that hurt us and spend every available moment together. We did talk but it was always fragmented. Our gatherings were like trying to piece together a picture that’s been torn apart; the fuzzy and twisted edges never align the right way and the important pieces are missing. So much transpired over such a long period, it felt pointless and burdensome to ever try and dig through what was. Anyway, we knew what happened and we knew what it did to us. That was unquestionable. Mostly, I think being near each other made it all real again. We were each a testament of what happened and being face to face, brought out the feelings of being back in some emergency room, hospital cafeteria, mortuary, or graveside. Frankly, that’s where we’d spent our most emotionally significant spans of time. Living with one another at that pinnacle of severity made every other moment that much less fulfilling. I never felt that I was what she needed. I know she cared for me and most likely loved me but like magnets opposed, we remained just out of reach. I knew I couldn’t save her. Now, She wasn’t in the ocean, she was the ocean.
Once again, waiting beside the dying, I wonder what’s on the other side. I like to think it would be like waking in Mamaw’s house with my forehead under Unck’s gentle hand. Maybe from there, it’s just a short walk through the dark to the warm glow of the kitchen. Maybe, they’ll all be in there. Danny and Joe, wet with snow from delivering newspapers. Carrie with Mammaw at the stove making cocoa. Maybe, Pop is there, bouncing Shelam on his lap. Maybe, Mom’s walking up to the porch right now with Garnna bundled in her arms. Maybe, none of us are marked and there is no memory or foresight of what was or would be.
Perhaps it’s a just a fade into an endless and peaceful dark, or, maybe, we rise again as undulating grasses on a field, or as trees, waving under the sky. If fortunate, we are taken by something larger and, again, find our way to a womb and wake as some other life.
Ultimately, I figure it’ll be akin to what Pop told me when I was boy on a cool September morning as, hand in hand, we looked up at a velvety field of stars, "We’ll all return to the Bird’s Road - one day, our own star will grow to consume us, all that we’ve ever known, and all that’s ever been here - at that point, we’ll all be blown along the raised arm of Orion- and we will become something else.
It addresses structure, adjusts arrangement, eliminates minutiae, and exposes missing content. Beyond those four facets, it operates on a seemingly unending loop that affects style, readability, and ultimately the reader.
For me, that fourth facet (exposing missing content) is a challenging process. It’s akin to encountering a defensive dog or swimming in murky water where carnivorous reptiles lurk. You might get to where you want to go but it’s going to take determination and a lot of talking to yourself.
Editing has revealed a considerable amount of material that I didn’t realize was important.
Many of the hardships I experienced occurred so often or at such a pace that they became common to me. Consciously (or unconsciously) I forgot these moments or didn’t process them in a healthy manner. My memories became jumbled and entire seasons failed to register in my ledger.
Time and distance enabled me to bear the weight of these events but accounting the changes they effected inside of me and recognizing how they altered my outlook and patterned my decision making process causes much regret.
Over these forty five years, out of deeply rooted fear and anger, I chose to do a few things and to not do a lot of things. More often than not, I’ve gotten out of the boat when I should have sailed. I consistently went one direction where a sensible person took the other way. I ran when I should have walked. I’ve taken when I should have given and I’ve given things I should have kept.
Unpackaging this material hurts. I’d be lying if I said I haven’t shed tears while writing about things that happened twenty five years ago. Many times, I’ve asked myself, "Why do this?" "Why stick my hand to the bottom of the pool and stir up the muck?"
Why? Well, it’s what I’ve needed to do for a long time and I believe it’s just the right time.
I’ve got a wonderful group of editors and they are right about these things. These are the moments that must be relayed. Frankly, this is the content that makes you want to read my story. And it’s the polishing of these gems that is extending the publication date to early next year.
I know this is disappointing to some of you - it is to me - but I believe we will be better by it.
Rest assured. I am still with you, tapping on my keypad, each morning between 3:15 AM and work call, on every highlighted section, marked line of copy, and blank space between “What happened here?” and “Why did you do this?”
Thank you for your patience and support.
God bless the editors. (They will read this.)
Sharek Amalek Gadd
I apologize for my lack of connection with you. I’ve been wrangling the black dog and it’s had the better of me.
Thirty days have passed since my mother’s funeral. She was relieved from her arduous struggle on the 19th of September.
The Bird’s Road is underway. I’ve been rewriting a few sections and am happy with its progression. I handed the duties of the jacket design to my long-time-friend, Brian Toombs and it looks stellar, literally.
Thank you for your support,
Eulogy, Jerra K. Gadd, 23 September 2016
Jerra Kay Stanger was born to a durable family on a November morning 74 years and 268 days ago.
Her mother, Garnet Stanger, was 45 years old and quite surprised, to say the least, when she realized that she was blessed with her 8th child.
Jerra was 14 years younger than her nearest sibling. Due to this age difference, her siblings loved her like a daughter rather than a sister.
Jerra’s sister, Lida, was given the honor of naming my mother. At that time, Lida was dating a boy named Jerry. Being infatuated with him, Lida wanted to honor her new sister with the gift of her beau’s name but realized that probably wasn’t the best idea. She solved her quandary by substituting the y with an a. The name Jerra was the perfect compromise.
Jerra was raised with such love and care, it shaped the way she lived her life, and treated those around her. The first, and certainly the most impactful, time she exerted that loving influence was when she noticed that her classmate, George Gadd, missed a concerning number of school days. She pleaded with her brother, Carl Jr., to find George. Carl acquiesced and found her friend. George was residing in his car on the verge of pneumonia-induced death.
Having known George for his industriousness and kind heartedness, Jerra was already sweet on him. In the process of helping George regain his health, she fell in love with him. Classic Florence Nightingale….They married when she was 16.
Jerra was excited to start her own family, and Carrie Lynn was the first fruit of their love.
Their second daughter Garnna Sue soon followed. The four of them were happy, living in a small home in Indianapolis.
My mother maintained a strong religious footing, but more than that, she was deeply spiritual. She seemed attuned to things unseen. One bright afternoon, while holding Garnna, my mother had, what I would deem, a premonition. As Jerra poured over her baby, fresh from a nap, she wondered why death took such beautiful things. Weeks later, a seemingly common fever sounded the first knell of an outmatched fight with Spinal Meningitis. Over the span of a few days, the infection tore through Garnna’s small frame. My mother was nineteen when she watched her 13 month old child being lowered into the ground.
Jerra and George remained fruitful and eventually brought Daniel Charles and Joseph Michael into the world. The boys were a dynamic duo. Their mischievous activities kept Jerra on her toes and their own backsides red.
In 1967, Jerra brought her 5th child into the world. Lameck Louis was the spirit and image of George. The joy of his presence seemed to wipe away the remaining traces of grief from Garnna’s death.
In 1968 my parents’ minister purchased land in southern Indiana. He founded a commune based on Christian principles. Jerra and George sold their belongings and resided on the property. There, in Padanaram, Jerra was steeped in service to others. She had her own children to care for as well as the shared responsibility of provisioning sundries to a rapidly growing community. The sheer volume of laundry and produce to prepare for a hive of 125 people would leave most dumbstruck but my mom, of course, excelled.
Through the help of a midwife, Jerra gave birth to her sixth child. Shelam Genevieve was a bright light that painted a lovely maternal glow on Jerra’s face.
Jerra was thirty years old when Shelam began to fade from brain cancer.
I, Jerra’s last child, was born in the midst of this dying light. When Shelam’s candle was extinguished, darkness fell on Jerra’s faith in her God.
Jerra suffered a deep depression that was lifted and diminished by anything associated with babies. How fortuitous that she found healing while pursuing a nursing degree and employment in the obstetrics wing of Martinsville Hospital.
She and George moved to Anderson where she rekindled a relationship with her God. On top of mothering her five remaining children and working at Riverview hospital, she sustained her servant’s heart in many ways. She was active in the church, of course, but her giving didn’t end there. She was a positive force in the community at large. As a den-mother, she led the cub scouts into community service by helping them gather Christmas toys for the children at Bronnenburg Orphanage, and she was a huge supporter of student activities at Lapel High School. She maintained forward momentum and gave of herself rather than hiding from the emotional fallout of her previous trials.
When Joseph Michael was later diagnosed with brain cancer, she and Joe alike, found solace in their church and their God.
Her eldest daughter, Carrie Lynn, bore Jerra’s first grandchild. Celebrating Todd Nathaniel Inman’s birth brought much needed joy during the turmoil of Joe’s illness.
The heart wrenching strife resulting from Joe’s many surgeries was doubled when Daniel was also diagnosed with brain cancer.
Through these struggles with death, Jerra found comfort and grace in the birthsof four new grandchildren, Maria Kay, Bethany Lynette, Brooke Elaine Inman, and Lameck Junior.
In January 1989, Jerra was grievously wounded by the sudden death of her Daughter Carrie Lynn. The emotional damage was deep and it hollowed Jerra.
In April 1991, Daniel Charles, the indomitable scrapper of the family, fell to his cancer.
In August 1992, Jerra received another grandchild, Morgan Ra, whose presence assuaged some of Jerra’s grief.
In December, 1992, Joe’s long road of struggle ended. He passed away in our family home on Lone Oak Road.
In the short span of three years, Jerra buried three children, none older than the age of 29.
She and George talked about writing a book. After all, they were well acquainted with grief and were no strangers to death. In the wake of their losses, they still dedicated themselves to service. They found love, support, and fellowship in friends, and through that, church members became family. My mother found a new daughter in Kim Swift, another member of the church, who was hugely supportive of Jerra in many ways.
Mom relished the idea of living the rest of her years peacefully with George. They spent the majority of their youth watching young life wither and fade. Now, their future finally held promise. They started working with an organization called Compassionate Friends, a support group for parents grieving the loss of children. They garnered new support and much needed camaraderie. This experience spurred Jerra on to later engage with Camp Hope, a youth bereavement organization. Moving forward, even in the presence of grief, was one way in which mom willed herself to cope.
Jerra was a very special person. Surely, you were easily drawn to her by her outgoing and helpful nature, but there was so much more to her. Her suffering was a defining experience, but it did not alter her spirit. It constantly held her to the faint veil that separates all of us from the unknown. She spent years fervently questioning the faceless void on the other side and she wept into its unforgiving maw. I heard her, and my father, cry, “Why my daughters? Why my sons? Why so many? What have I done?” Their questions were unanswered but for scriptures that have been handed down through multiple generations.
She once said, “One day at a time was what was ordered…So don’t look back to what might have been but look to God’s unchanging hand.”
She never let her grief overshadow her will to live.
It’s this quality, this distinctive fiber, that made all of us hold her in awe. She and George held fast to their Christian religion. My dad said that, “A man’s true religion is his family,” and they were faithful on that count, too. But above that, they chiseled on their hearts what faint words they heard from the still small voice inside them. They projected what they learned and readily shared it with anyone in need or those that were astray.
In November of 1994, dad was diagnosed with the same cancer that took three of his children.Calling this situation a travesty is a great understatement.
For the following two years, Jerra held George’s weakening hand, until he fell under the wing of eternity on a December afternoon in 1996 at Riverview Hospital.
Jerra was dark and broken after the death of George. In the wake of losing him, Jerra was blessed with four more grandchildren, Nathanael and Hannah Cardwell, Jayden Tyler, and Addrianna Rachelle.
Her ever cheerful fassod couldn’t hide the shadow that was upon her. It was as if an eternal night had settled on her heart but fortunately, as she marched on through life, dawn rose on her soul when she met Robert “Sunny” Jones.
Their shared connections in the church and mutual experiences with lost spouses forged a bond between them. They ventured forward, together, and chose an illuminated path of love and charity.
Bob and Jerra married on Valentine’s Day and warmed their new home with new children. Bob’s sons, Brian and David, along with their beautiful families, found a special place in Jerra’s heart. Jerra had new granddaughters, Savannah, Olivia, and Emma.
They relished making that home a place where their family could gather and make wonderful memories.
Jerra and Sunny socialized with friends, visited family, and made it a priority to do some traveling. They experienced a happiness that I don’t believe either of them ever expected.
Each of them, falling in love a second time, proved to be a great blessing. It was deeply enriching to see them both so happy. I’m so grateful to Bob for giving her such wonderful years.
They led a very active retired life until complications with Jerra’s mobility forced her into an extended stay at Riverview hospital, the place where she’d worked so diligently and happily during her youth. The precedent of that good energy, and being cared for in the same hallways where Carrie and George passed lent a sense of peace. Furthermore, Jerra was blessed with a nursing staff that was akin to her spirit. She also had the comfort of innumerable friends and family coming from far and wide, to visit with her, ask her questions, and make her know how deeply she is loved. The whole while, her Valentine, Sunny, steadfastly held her hand and stayed at her side.
On Monday September 19th, Dr. David Dwyer was making his rounds. He stopped in to pray with mom, a common occurrence between the two good friends and previous coworkers, who had endured so much together over the years. As he held her hand and prayed with her, like he had a thousand times before, she slept. In those moments, the chains holding her to this place and time were released and she slipped into eternity with the same grace and beauty with which she lived.
Death meets life in many forms. It charges suddenly, as a rapidly developing virus. It rages horrendously, in the form of a cancer that will not be kept at bay. It strikes by violence, and sometimes comes at one’s own hand. It also creeps quietly, like a thief in the night. Fortunately, it also falls sweetly, like a summer rain on a fractured and parched ground. Although everything within us is in opposition, death’s terms will come. All we can do is make our peace and accept its embrace.
This summer, as mom’s health was declining, my daughter asked her if she was afraid. Mom said, “Of course not!
What do I have to fear?”
-Sharek A. Gadd