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Knocking on Heaven's Door
By Terry Barr
Last year I published a story about a boy I once knew who tried to bicycle-race a train across the tracks of my hometown. 18th Street and Carolina Avenue it was in the year 1967, just months before the janitor of my church, a sweet, one-eyed Black man would be shot down by a white man only twenty yards or so from that very same train crossing.
Our janitor didn’t make it and neither did the bicycle boy. In my research for this story, I discovered the train accident’s date and place and even found someone who now lives in the boy’s former home.
I also discovered a near-eyewitness to the meeting of iron and flesh that left no solid remains except the mangled torso of a nine-year old boy.
My friend Joe, who lived across the street from me in my childhood—who was my neighborhood protector, self-proclaimed big brother, and who introduced me to the pleasures of illegal substances—was also riding bikes that day. With his older brother Jon and another friend, a boy named Pam (which is why I never for one minute doubted Johnny Cash), Joe met the impending victim near 19th Street. Still straddling their bikes, they talked as boys do for a while. They all went to Arlington School, as I did, a block up 19th, though Joe and his gang were a few grades ahead of us. Hierarchy in school is one thing, riding the streets another, and so wild, free, the boys told stories and eventually said their “so-long’s.”
“We had ridden about two blocks away,” Joe told me, “when I heard that awful sound. A screeching and then something else. We rode back as fast as we could, and saw it. Him, all bloody and in pieces. I tell you, seeing that changed me.”
Maybe I should have asked in greater depth how those few moments changed Joe, but given my high empathy gauge I believed I knew. I’ve never seen anyone killed, but I have seen the dead. In fact, the first dead body I saw was Joe’s grandfather, J.D. Batton, though the grandkids called him “Pop.” I must have been fifteen when Pop died. Since our families were so close, not only in proximity but also in that neighborly “You watch our kids and we’ll watch yours and we’ll all barbecue on the 4th and Labor Day” kind of way, we all trooped to the funeral home on the evening of Pop’s “visitation.” I love words, but “visitation” sets me off. It’s technically accurate, and as ritualized terms go, I get it. Still, as we left for the funeral home, I didn’t understand the nature of this visit and what I’d be seeing.
I didn’t know until we walked from the parlor to the viewing room that the one I’d be visiting mainly was Pop.
You’d think your parents would warn you beforehand: “Tonight You’ll Be Seeing A Dead Body.” Maybe other parents do or would. Not mine. So they led me in like this was a natural thing. I know I was supposed to be helping my neighbors grieve. I know this event wasn’t about me. I knew that even then. But in that place, that hour, I never had a chance to consider another perspective, another’s reality. For like the shining beacon of the neon-lit Ferris wheel beaming from Kiddie Land in Fair Park, Pop’s corpse, all lit up by artificial light and funeral home powder, beckoned to me. If my parents had warned me, I would have hung back and chosen not to look. But once I saw the casket and the face lying in it, I had to look.
Maybe just as Joe did with the bicycle boy.
When I saw Pop looking not natural, not just “asleep,” but dead, DEAD, I made an unconscious choice. Almost thirty years later when my own father died, the funeral director asked my mother, brother, and me if we wanted the casket open or closed. I didn’t hesitate nor did I give my family a chance.
Not open for visitors.
Before they closed his body for what we know of eternity, my mother, without saying a word, walked over and looked. I still see her standing there, slightly stooping over the man she spent nearly forty years with, perhaps half of those years good ones. I wonder what she thought, but back then, in that moment, I refused to walk closer to ask or to comfort her. I refused to be changed.
So as Joe told me that he had been changed, I empathized, but what I understood was that I if I could help it, I would get only so close to that sort of change. My admiration for my friend deepened, making me wonder more about the boy he was, the man he is.
Joe’s always been more daring than me, more adventurous and yearning. He’ll try any back road he can just for fun, just to learn where that road comes out. I don’t think he’s ever gotten lost, and I’ve been on some of those trips with him. If he does get lost, it’s never for long, and if you’re with him traveling through the piney woods of middle Alabama, you’ll see things: unpainted shacks rooted to trees or a lake that unfolds at the bottom of a sharp decline where someone you’ll never know must surely be fishing. You’ll see lost antique stores that hold treasures, but you won’t stop because you don’t want to be disillusioned. You’ll find other stops to buy a Coke, or, if you’re lucky, places where the owner will bring you beer in a brown paper sack from the back room because it’s Sunday and because three dollars is three dollars and you’re young.
After all these journeys, I’d think I would have learned all I could about a guy I’ve known forever. It’s good, though, that learning still happens, that brains and memories haven’t completely fossilized.
Two weeks ago, as we were discussing the Alabama Crimson Tide’s upcoming 16th National Championship—we were both over-confident that the Tide would “beat the snot” out of Clemson (the Tide won, but no snot was extracted)—Joe surprised me with two things I didn’t know about him.
“I never finished college,” he said. “Didn’t see the need since I was going right into my father’s realty business.”
Maybe I knew that and had forgotten. Joe is sixty now, so I guess that unfinished degree hasn’t hurt him much.
“And I’ve held three different people in my arms and watched them die.”
How can you know someone for all your life and not know about his closeness to death?
“I sat up with Pop the night he died.”
Pop, and Joe’s grandmother “Mom,” lived next door to Joe’s parents. Joe moved into his grandparents’ house when he hit high school, when he yearned for liberty. Joe’s parents, lovely people, could be a handful.
I think I knew about Joe’s holding his Pop who had fallen that night, victim of a massive stroke. I heard Joe’s story the first time, though I no longer remember the time or cause of the telling, some time after my own father died. It’s only now that I’ve considered their connection, the reason why stories, no matter how far apart in time or in the telling, matter.
The night before my Dad died, I was with him in the nursing home. He was in a coma then, and I knew I needed to say goodbye. I told him that everything was taken care of; that he had done the best with us he could.
“It’s all okay now, Dad. You can go.”
But I was the one who left.
Should I have stayed and been his protector and watched over him as he died, instead of following the path he left for me when he told me this story a decade before? The story about the night he left his own father.
We had just buried my grandmother, and my wife was asking my father about how he dealt with his grief. Instead of describing his feelings at that moment, though, he spoke of his father’s death, some forty years before.
“He had already been in the hospital a few days. On the evening of the night he died, he asked me to stay with him,” Dad said, “but I had already worked a full day and was tired. I had to go back to work the next day, and all I wanted was to go home and sleep. So I left, and he died later that night. I just didn’t think it would happen that soon.”
He paused then, and smiled.
But we didn’t.
People tell you their stories for all sorts of reasons. Even when you remember the story, however, you still might not understand the reason it was told. Later, of course, you get to wonder about it and about everything else.
Especially about how we say goodbye.
When I left my father that evening after saying goodbye, my wife, my daughters, and my mother and I went out to eat at our favorite restaurant. I know that we had to eat and I know that life goes on even as death comes, but I still can’t believe we ate as my father lay dying. Or at least tried to, because I couldn’t eat my gumbo. Maybe two bites but that was all. That was enough. Then at three in the morning the nursing home called.
Thinking about my decision with my father, and his with his, I felt admiration for Joe, a boy of seventeen then, holding his dying grandfather. Though his grandmother was in the house and the rest of his family was next door, Joe still faced death alone.
And then he did it two more times.
“We were out riding bikes on 19th Street,” he tells me, “and I saw this car coming down the hill. It looked out of control, and sure enough, it crashed into a light pole at the bottom of the hill. I yelled at Jon to go call an ambulance, and then I rode over to the car. There was a man in there. An old man bleeding from his head but still alive.”
Jon, Joe’s older brother, was maybe fifteen then, and Joe was thirteen. But in that pair, you’d always want Joe taking charge.
“He’d had a heart attack, though I couldn’t have told you then that was what had happened. He was an ashy color, and so I got into the car and held him. He looked at me for a moment. And then he just died.”
We always imagine what we’d do in similar circumstances, but I don’t have to imagine. I never would have climbed into that car.
“The other time was when I was living at the farm out on Pocahontas Road. I was driving into work, and at that intersection just before you get to Fairfax, two women coming opposite directions had hit head on. The one going in my direction was the one hurt worse. I pulled alongside and opened her door. I got in next to her and put my arm around her. She saw me for a moment and tried to say something. I told her, ‘You’re gonna be fine,’ and she sort of smiled at me. Then she was gone. The woman in the other car was fine, just bruised a bit.”
But how was Joe? I didn’t think to ask then, and soon we were back to our game predictions. Some endings, of course, you see so clearly, and they unfold just as you’d like, and you somehow convince yourself that you played a part in the unfolding. That you were vital to the outcome. That together, you, your friend, and the team you love didn’t fail. You won.
Still, we all play so many parts, and quite often, we lose. Despite my failures, I’d like to say that Joe’s stories have given me courage, that as my life unfolds, I’ll stare death in the eye and hold anyone I need to, help those I love or even those I don’t know to travel into whatever comes after. The best I can say, though, is that I don’t know what I will do, and in my most honest reflections I know that I just don’t want to think about such moments.
It’s a cliché to say that you think you know someone well and then find out that you don’t know him as well as you thought. Yet there is truth to this with me and Joe, but honestly, I’m really not surprised at these stories. At the character of this old friend. What scares me, though, is all that I don’t know, the stories lying there waiting that maybe I won’t get to before something bad happens to him or to me. It’s hard at long distance, or even in the same house, to make time for our stories. But football season’s over now, and in the long months to come before we have to worry about the time of the season for National Championship #17, I have the space to ask questions about our lives. I have the desire, if not the courage, to hear all the answers.
#Real #PersonalEssay #LifeAndDeath #Courage #Race #LongDistance #Grief
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