Travel day

It was off the main road, and off the road that became the main road when your sense adjusted. It was down off that, vertically down. Under a bridge, beneath an overpass. It was by the railroad. Not too far away from the Church of the Deliverance, if I recall, that I pulled into a dusty, unkempt yard and walked on to an ancient porch filled with the wrecked memories and peeling dreams of some long ago time. I knocked on the screen of this house and a small, frail old woman answered, still mostly in her curlers and wrapped up in her robe.

At first I was sure I’d disturbed her, but I came to realize over time that this was her general appearance these days. On this day, the first day, however, I was there to ask her about the worst thing in her world. Here was this skinny white kid standing on her porch and in the back room was her even skinnier son, and would she mind if I sat with him.

I was there, mostly, to watch him die.

Which is terribly dramatic, but that was the story I was writing for a terrific features class I took in undergrad. The professor wanted descriptive narrative, and I’ve thought a lot about that story today and yesterday. I’ve been at the SEJC conference in Tennessee with some of the Samford students, where the theme this year was “the power of narrative in a digital age.” We heard incredible speakers talk about the words that reshape everything, the images that set the story and they’d walked the students through exercises on how to build a narrative in a really easy, straightforward way. No need to be intimidated, take these four things — characters, moving through time, encountering an obstacle and acting until resolution — and you’re halfway to writing the story.

It is a great list. It works. You can tell masterful stories that way. For my personal narrative formula I would add two tangential things: smells and textures. Smells are so common and so active in our memory. Even if you aren’t at the scene of that school we learned about yesterday, the suggestion of mildew or cheap spaghetti sauce or sweaty students has a way of transporting you into the scene.

Textures can be that way too, and that was one of those things I learned by sitting with the guy who was struggling in the last days of his life. I spent time with him over the course of several weeks that term. He wasn’t much older than me, in his mid-late 20s, but he had the kind of cancer you can’t fight without a presidential insurance plan. To see where he was raised, where his mother brought him home to, it was obvious what would happen here. It was only a question of when and how badly.

But I’d found this family through Hospice. I met the local director and convinced her of my project and she found this old woman who was really not prepared to endure the process of burying her son, but had a great, weary strength about her, and a sad cheer that offset your earliest need to empathize with her. She had spirit and she had the Lord and she had her son. And, for some reason, she agreed when the Hospice director asked if I could come meet her son. He still had his smile, and Hospice was helping to make him comfortable and his entire world didn’t involve much beyond this crappy hospital bed and the four walls of the front room of his mother’s home. He was happy to have some different company for a while, I think.

I was so proud to know that guy. He was facing it head on by then, but that suggests a lot about what he’d probably already endured. He’d be perfectly still, talking with you, eyes open, smile on his face, eyes closed, still talking, and then asleep. He’d snore softly and wake up 15 minutes later and keep answering the same question, usually without a reminder.

I always thought it was very brave of his mother to leave her son alone with a stranger like that. I can’t imagine how the protective instinct, already so frazzled, must have felt about this kid, a student, asking to spend so much of her precious time with her boy. But then she used that time to nap, or get some things done around the house. She came to trust that at least he had someone to sit with him for a while. I was proud of that.

And I wrote this story, which was probably not nearly as good as I thought, and twice as bad as I remember. But I remember that I was very happy with it. I’d gone to talk to the guy a time or two without writing anything, just being friendly. I’d rush out and jot notes afterward. And one day I visited and did the real serious interview part, notebook, pen, cramping hands and all of that. And I went back another time to hang out with him, just intent on getting every detail about the place committed to memory. I paid the most fastidious attention to every crack in the ceiling and creak his bed made. I wrote in the story about the color of the walls and the softness of the guy’s hands and tried to describe his gentle, whistling snore. I didn’t know anything about writing about smells yet, but I described his mother and the way she looked around the room when we talked. I wrote about the guy’s hopes and his life and what he still wanted to do. I probably got some of his music into the story. I wrote about the angel sculptures that were hanging on the wall above him.

My professor asked me “What were they made of?”

Texture. That’s part of the narrative too.

On Google Maps, today, that house looks a lot different than it did almost 15 years ago. I should stop by sometime and see if they know what happened to that nice lady after her son passed away. I sent her a card, a note of sympathy and thanks. Never did ask her about those angels though.

Some things, I felt at the time, you should just be able to keep for yourself.

Anyway. We are all back home today. There was a big two hour faculty meeting I attended this morning, so I missed most of the day’s sessions at the conference, one on videography and another on snake handling. Hate that I missed it, as it was a long talk by the reporter of this magazine-style piece. I would have liked to been able to hear the entire presentation because Julia Duin, is on the faculty at Union and a three-time Pulitzer nominee. But I can rest easy knowing I have read perhaps both her story and the best book ever written about the topic, Dennis Covington’s Salvation on Sand Mountain.

The conference gave the students another awards luncheon, this one for the on-site competition. The Crimson’s sports editor won the top spot for sports writing. He was so excited he knocked over his chair standing to go get his certificate.


After that we made a quick stop at the bookstore and then spent far, far too long in the van. Party animals that these students are, they were all asleep before we’d gotten out of Tennessee. I don’t think I heard a word out of any of them until we got back into Jefferson County.

I made it home just after dark. It was nice to sit on the couch again, pet the cat and stare at nothing. Think I did that for most of the night.

Finally decided that I think they were plain white plaster angels. They’d been given a bit of discoloration by a little too much dust and a yellowing light bulb overhead. But they were with him all the same.

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