The Land Of Cotton
My son was dead.
It had only taken four months. The doctors told us he wouldn't
live more than a year. Babies born with trisomy-13, an extremely
rare genetic birth defect caused by the thirteenth pair of chromosomes
not dividing properly in a developing embryo and characterized
by severe deformation of the brain and body, never live more than
a year at the most. Our son had been born a freak, a monster,
just like the babies preserved in jars at the Mutter Museum of
medical curiosities in Philadelphia. My wife and I had tried to
care for him at home. He had to be fed through a tube every few
hours due to his mouth being so malformed that he was unable to
nurse properly. He spent ninety percent of his waking time crying
since his brain, so the doctors told us, was in an almost constant
state of seizure. It was an exhausting and emotionally draining
undertaking. Add to this the fact that I was only twenty and my
wife only eighteen, and that we had a two-year-old daughter to
care for as well, and it's not surprising that after a week of
round-the clock tube-feeding we both came down with a violent
stomach virus and had to take care of the children in shifts,
one of us doing the feeding and rocking and wiping while the other
one puked and laid on the bed curled up in a fetal position, clutching
their stomach and groaning and trying not to pass out. Nobody
came to help us. No one in either family could cope with the fact
of our freak baby. And so, realizing that we couldn't handle him
on our own, we put our son in a hospital ward to be cared for
until his inevitable death.
My wife went to visit him every day; I stayed away as much as I could. She was determined to love him as if he were a normal child. I found this almost impossible, and this difference, fairly normal actually, since mothers are automatically bonded to their children from having carried them in their bodies and fathers take longer, exaggerated by the extremely unusual and difficult circumstances, created a lot of tension between us, a serious rift. Now, after four months, he was dead, I was emotionally numb, and Terri was starting to unravel.
Terri's father offered to pay for everything: the casket, the funeral, and anything else the death of a child required, if we would agree to allow our son to be buried next to Terri's mother in the little town in Alabama where she was born, and we agreed. Everything that happened from that point until the day we arrived in Alabama swam by in a disconnected hazy stream, like the transitions between scenes in dreams where you can't quite remember how you got from, say, your high school gym class to the middle of the Amazon jungle; bits of it are dimly glimpsed but mostly you just find yourself somewhere else without really questioning how you got there.
We find ourselves in a funeral parlor, looking at the corpse of our son in a tiny casket. The twisted misshapenness of his body against the plush dark velvet puts me in mind of a Victorian exhibition of biological anomalies. We look at him dispassionately, the way I imagine those Victorian ladies and gentlemen must have done, the terrible tragedy of his condition nullified by placing it in the scientifically neutral context of a museum display. We feel no grief, no sadness, only a strange calm, bordering on exaltation. This is an empty shell lying before us. An empty shell which has cracked open to release the immensity of the soul, and this immensity whispers to us, winds around our faces like incense, tickling our ears and inviting us to sneak a peek through the gates of heaven.
There is a fast-forward shuffle and we find ourselves in a hotel room somewhere between Philadelphia and Alabama. Terri's father is there and so is her sister. The relationship between father and daughters is strained, has been for years, and the relationship between Terri and myself is about to snap like an old rubber band. Little imps and gremlins perch on our shoulders, their arms filled with our harsh unspoken words. The words accumulate mass; they fill up the room until it becomes hard to breathe. Terri and I shift scenes, our heads joining the moon's reflection in the hotel swimming pool. We say things to each other about the death, about our feelings, or what our feelings ought to be. We say these things because it seems to be what's expected. We're following a script, and the dialogue comes from a made-for-tv movie about the death of a child and how the parents cope with the aftermath. What we're really thinking and feeling is so inexpressible that we're forced to resort to this wooden reading of cliched lines.
The moon dissolves in ripples and we cut away to a restaurant somewhere in the deep south. We've stopped at an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet. I've never seen such gargantuan people in my entire life. They must weigh four or five hundred pounds and there's lots of them, piling their plates with mountains of scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, ham, scrapple, hash browns, and pancakes drowning in butter and syrup, and then going back for seconds and thirds. Then a brief flash--a driving sequence. We're driving the length of Alabama, north to south. I see nothing but mobile homes and trailer parks everywhere. Doesn't anyone in Alabama live in a house?
And then the squealing of brakes, the squawking of an alarm clock, and a harsh bitch-slap back into wakefulness, but I don't feel like I'm awake. Surely, this is a lucid dream, some kind of absurdist theatre. I half expect a clown to leap out from behind a tree or a mailbox and hit me in the face with a pie, and then everybody will laugh and clap their hands and tell me it was all a joke and say, boy, you should have seen the look on your face.
We have arrived in Birmingham, of which the only thing I know for sure is that, according to Lynyrd Skynyrd, they love the governor. Terri's father has dropped myself, Terri, and our daughter Diana off at a relative's house and gone to stay in a hotel. Apparently there is still bad blood in the family. The southern baptists had never gotten over one of their own moving up north to yankee-land and marrying, of all things, a catholic. We're met at the door by Terri's uncle Jeb. He greets Terri and Diana with warm southern hospitality while pointedly ignoring me. Terri attempts to break the ice.
"Uncle Jeb, David here is an artist," says Terri.
Uncle Jeb turns and looks me square in the eye and says "Can you draw a nigger?"
Ah, how lovely, how refreshing. Pure, unadulterated racism. I've travelled hundreds of miles to bury my dead infant son and I end up the house-guest of a living stereotype: the hateful southern redneck white trash bigot. I have never before or since heard the word "nigger" used with such frequency by a single human being in the short span of time I stayed in this man's house.
"Come over here and hug mah neck," says Uncle Jeb to Diana. Diana scampers over to the sofa. Uncle Jeb makes a peep-hole in the venetian blinds with his fingers and points at the people walking about outside. "Look, Diana--look at all them niggers. See? Them's niggers..."
"Umm, we don't use that kind of language where we come from, and we don't want Diana learning words like that," I say.
"Why? They's niggers, ain't they?" says Uncle Jeb, sounding genuinely incredulous. I may as well have been objecting to the yellowness of the sun.
I'm sketching Terri's female cousin who is really hot and is being kind of flirtatious with me which I'm kind of enjoying since Terri and I haven't been sexual or even affectionate in I don't know how long. I'm adding some shadow to the side of her face, then a light gray for the middle tone. Uncle Jeb looks over my shoulder at the drawing.
"You're makin' her look like a nigger. Why're you makin' her look like a nigger?" Was this man really this ignorant and stupid or was he just trying to get my goat?
Terri's blood relatives, her mother's brothers and sisters, seem to be sensitive and enlightened people, but a lot of the others, the ones married in like Uncle Jeb, strike me as real backwoods Deliverance types--they scare me. Some of them are drug addicts and some of them are in jail. I'll find out later on that the two cousins in jail had raped a family member when they were all adolescents. And if they don't like blacks, I'm sure they're not crazy about Jews either. I tell myself that if I was there for a social visit, rather than the funeral of my child, they'd probably tar and feather me.
The situation is not helped by the fact that one of the girl cousins had married a Jew who was apparently not a shining example of Jewish virtue, not the cream of the Hebrew crop. I get an eyeful of this guy at the family gathering. He looks like Ichabod Crane if Washington Irving had been a Jew and had written him into Fiddler on the Roof. He's tall and bony and gangly with a huge hook nose, beady eyes, and kinky, wiry hair. He moves like a stick insect on stilts crawling up a tree. He's sitting in the middle of a room full of talking, socializing relatives, silent and scowling with his head buried in a newspaper and his knees around his ears. Great. Here is probably the only Jew these people have ever known in their entire lives and it has to be this sour-faced, cretinous scarecrow.
Terri and I drive around the hills outside of Birmingham and get lost. We're on a real mountain road, the kind where you can actually fall off the mountain if you veer too close to the edge. We drive down a long dirt road looking for someone to give us directions. The road ends at what looks like a backdrop from a Li'l Abner comic strip. Maybe they're shooting the movie version of Li'l Abner here. There's a shack with a tin stovepipe sticking out of the roof. There's a chicken coop, chickens and chicken shit everywhere. There's a cow with it's udders dragging on the ground. There's an outhouse with a crescent moon carved into the door. We're looking around. Hello? Anybody home? A man comes into view off in the distance. He's walking towards us and he's enormous. He looks like a giant, obese gorilla that's been shaved and stuffed into a pair of overalls, and he doesn't seem too happy to see us. I'm desperately craning my neck to see if he's carrying a shotgun and/or a jug of moonshine with an x on it. I'm joking about how he's going to kill us and chop us up and put us in the chicken feed like in some splatter flick about psychotic hillbillies, and Terri is laughing and so am I but we're really shitting ourselves also. Now the man's face is right outside the car window. He's looking at us like we're government agents come to foreclose on his farm. We say fuck it and roll down the window. His face breaks into a smile. "Howdy," he says, "Y'all lost?"
We're back at the house and it's dinnertime.
"Bring me my food, woman," says Uncle Jeb.
"Get your own damn food," says his wife.
"He's just showing off," says Terri's cousin.
After dinner, they watch tv. Eventually, they will go to bed. I have a strong suspicion that this is what they do every single evening--eat, watch tv, go to bed, day in and day out. Terri's male cousin is sitting on the sofa with his boots up on the coffee table. His eyes are at half-mast; he's got chinese eyes. He's stoned out of his nut and he's munching on a bag of fried pork rinds.
"Boy, whatchoo eatin' that crap for?" says Uncle Jeb.
It takes a minute or two for the cousin to acknowledge that he's been spoken to. His eyes move from the tv to the package of pork rinds to Uncle Jeb's face with lizard slowness.
"Good fer ya," he says with finality, and returns to his munching.
Now it's time to visit Terri's mother's home town, the place where our son will be buried. The town is so small you can literally walk from one end to the other in about fifteen minutes. the newest building seems to have been erected during the Roosevelt administration.
"This place looks like Mayberry 1945," I tell Terri as we stroll about. The only modern things I see are the giant tv satellite dishes on the front lawns next to the pickup trucks. Above the tree line towers an enormous metallic Dr. Seuss contraption with crazy tubes and pipes snaking every which way in convoluted arrangements. It looms over the landscape like the set of a bad 50s sci-fi flick. It's Ed Wood doing German expressionist cinema. It's actually a cement plant, the largest one on the east coast at one time apparently, and all the able-bodied men in the town work there. Their lives revolve around it, like Welsh coal miners. It's incredibly surreal. We take pictures, thinking that no one will believe us without documentation.
Terri and I return to the house where the relatives are gathered. There's maybe thirty people there, eating, drinking and talking loudly. A red-faced, silver-haired man, one of several preacher-uncles in the family, all bluster and tooth polish with nothing to back it up, like Billy Graham without Billy Graham's money, says to me in a booming voice, "So, boy..."
Yes, he actually called me "boy."
"So, boy... how y'all like the south?!"
I'm at a loss for words.
Terri blurts out, "David says it looks like Maybery 1945..."
She laughs stupidly, a kind of whinnying hee haw. There is icy silence in the room. Icicles are forming on the window sills. Good, Terri... brilliant. That will really endear me to them. You're sharp. Good move.
Terri's sexy girl cousin arrives with her boyfriend. The boyfriend is a photographer, an artistic type. Uncle Jeb doesn't like him and doesn't try to hide it. The cousin and the boyfriend imitate our northern accents. They say "Yo. Hi you guys..." It's hilarious. They sound about as convincing as we probably do trying to sound southern. The tv is on and turned to the news. The anchorman speaks without a shred of an accent.
"They go to school to learn how to talk like that," says Terri's cousin.
The cousin and the boyfriend want to get out of this hayseed duckburg and move to a real city, someplace happening, like Atlanta. And they don't like country music; they're rockers.
"What bands do you like?" we ask.
"Van Halen!" they shout in unison.
Now it's time for the funeral. I request a non-denominational service or eulogy or sermon or whatever. I'm not by any stretch of the imagination a religious Jew or even a practicing Jew, but I am uncomfortable with the idea of a lot of Jesus talk. It's a bright, sunny day at the family graveyard. Butt-loads of relatives are in attendance. I have no idea why all these people are here. Any excuse for a party, I guess. One of the preacher-uncles moves to the lectern to speak. It's not the one who called me boy, thank goodness. The first word out of his mouth is "Jesus."
"He's with Jesus now! He's in heaven with Jesus! Jesus has come and taken him up to heaven!"
Motherfucker. My wishes were totally disrespected. I am the father of this child, am I not? Oh well, fuck it. Nothing to be done about it now. I'm not going to make a scene. I guess they just can't help themselves. Opiate of the masses and all that.
Another uncle, one of Terri's mother's actual siblings, finds me by myself in a quiet corner of the graveyard where I've gone to cool down, and apologizes for the Jesus stuff. He offers me true sympathy and compassion for my loss and for what I've been through. He is the only one to do so. It is kind and sweet and I am grateful. He shows me the grave marker of the family matriarch, the first one to come over from Ireland in the eighteenth century. It's a giant obelisk like the Washington monument, but on a much smaller scale of course, and it's rough-hewn and primitive, more like the standing stones of ancient Britain than a modern carving. The uncle and I stand in silence, soaking in the energy of the stone.
The stone says to me "Be strong. You've got a lot more tzuris to endure. I myself lived through a war, a famine and evil land-grabbers. I puked my guts up every day crossing a fucking ocean in a rickety wooden boat, and when I got here there were bears and snakes and hostile indians and feuds and poverty, but I survived. I made it, and so will you."
I'm feeling calm now and ready to face whatever lunacy remains ahead. I tell myself that at least I'll have some interesting stories about all this someday. The sun is going down and the uncle and I turn and make our way back to my son's grave site where the festive relatives are already breaking out the beer and chips and potato salad.