Take These Chains

It was the night before my father was to go to Memphis to have his leg amputated. A beautiful May night in 1963. About 9 o’clock, I drove over to pick up Harold, one of my best basketball buds, to head out to Newbern’s gathering spot, the Dairy Queen.  I only had been driving a few months. We had a new car, a 1963 white Chevrolet Bel Air. The car wasn’t fancy, but it was enough to put some icing on a newly found sense of freedom. Harold lived near the school, the opposite end of town from the DQ. We headed through a nest of little streets toward Main, which connected the town and also was a small part of US Highway 51 linking Chicago and New Orleans. Ray Charles was belting out the last chorus of “Take These Chains from My Heart.” Harold wanted to listen to the Cardinal game, but I asked him to let Ray finish his soulful version of Hank’s country tune:

Take these chains from my heart and set me free.

You’ve grown cold and no longer care for me.

All my faith in you is gone, but the heartaches linger on.

Take these changes from my heart and set me free.

We approached a routine four-way stop where there was never much traffic. I stopped. There was a car coming from the right. Even though it seemed to be going a little fast, it was some distance away and I saw no threat. This was a local street. Most everyone knew to stop here. But when we were mid-way into the intersection, the car, driven by some disoriented out-of-towners, crashed into the passenger side of our car. The car hit us with such force that had Harold not been leaning in to tune the radio, he likely would have been injured. As it was, the crash scared him so badly that he jumped out and headed back home without saying a word. The car was a mess. The front door on the passenger side had been ripped off and the back door was almost doubled up.

I knocked on the door of a house nearby and asked someone to call the police. The officer came and looked things over, asked a couple of questions and took us to the small downtown office where we gave our statements and then I walked the two blocks to our house. Usually when I came home, the porch light was on. The inside of the house was also well-lit, lights on in the breakfast and TV rooms and a table lamp in the entryway. This night the house was pitch black except for a harsh overhead light in the front hall that we rarely used.  My father sat in the dark living room alone, his leg, as it had been for two months, propped up to simulate circulation.  He was relieved I wasn’t hurt, and tried to comfort me. “I’m just glad you’re safe. We will find someone to take us to Memphis tomorrow. Don’t worry.” Still, he also gave off a sense of helplessness I had never seen before. I quickly understood why.

Upstairs, my mother ran from room to room hysterically shouting out a commentary on the evening. I felt sure my father had been listening to this for a couple of hours. My mother at last had the proper object for her wrath, “How could you do this to me? And tonight of all nights?” She shrieked as she ran from room to room, mostly repeating herself. Downstairs, we sat in the dark, our eyes rarely meeting.  Every now and then she added a new sentence or two. “What are we going to do?” “How could you be so careless?” My father and I were both very tired, but she seemed to be continually reenergizing herself.  “Were you not thinking at all?”  “Don’t you understand all the stress I am under”? “I’m at my wit’s end. I just can’t bear anymore.” I had heard many of these words repeatedly while growing up. What made this all so frightening was the darkness, the shrieking, the unshakable sense I had that this time her words were they were masking something even more menacing. Something utterly beyond her control or ours. That feeling grew even as she became silent and kept herself apart,  unwilling or, worse yet, helpless to come down  those stairs to be with my father and me. But another feeling grew stronger too, the first one I had when I’d walked in the door, shamefaced, and seen him–my father’s own helplessness.

I got up and walked to the bottom of the stairs a couple of times to explain, but the distance made conversation impossible and that’s how things would remain that night.  I didn’t feel up to walking up those stairs into her madness and returned instead to the vigil of silence with my father. This must have gone on for at least an hour. He needed to be asleep. His body had paid a steep toll for the last three months.  We all knew that his last good chance had been open heart surgery in Cleveland, but the doctors there concluded he was not strong enough to endure the surgery. The trip had actually made things worse since one of the tests had resulted in blocking the flow of blood to his foot. The only alternative was amputation, but there was only a 50-50 chance he would survive it. My prayer for months had been only that I would be strong no matter what happened.

About 4, my mother finally grew quiet.  I lifted my father from his chair and helped him to the dining room where we had set up a bed for him. I had grown accustomed to helping him like this, and I liked it.  It was my way of holding him in my arms. Still, he had never felt as limp as this night. When I put him into bed, he told me to get all the rest I could and, once again, how glad he was I came home safe.

I did not feel safe at all, and I am not sure my father did either. When I see the scene in memory now, I see it from the overhead camera Hitchcock uses in “Psycho.” The detective is ascending the stairs of the Bates house behind the motel when Norman, dressed as his mother, appears at the top of the stairs. Norman does not make a sound, but Bernard Hermann’s score swallows the audience in the music of hysteria that intensifies the insanity of the moment. Norman stabs the detective in the head, and he falls backward down the stairs. My memory has blended the filmic and the actual to a point that I was surprised to discover there is no landing in the Bates house as there was in ours. I don’t know if “Psycho” flashed before my eyes that night or memory added that detail later, but I do know I never felt safe sleeping in the same house with my mother again.

(This piece takes its title from Ray Charles’ cover of a Hank Williams classic, but its central piece of music is Bernard Hermann’s score for the film Psycho and particularly the parts played by the string section in the stabbing sequences. I have posted a link to Psycho Stabbing Scenes on my Facebook page, but it is easy to find on your own. Barbara Bennett helped me find this piece in a much longer piece and I am grateful for her good eye.)

 

 

 

 

30 thoughts on “Take These Chains

  1. Beautifully rendered teenage car accident and the ensuing scene of the weakening father, distraught mother, and boy feeling the weight of all their serious troubles.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Believe it or not, this started as a 5,000 word piece. Barb read it and thought I should go for this because this scene is so dramatic, but I also found myself thinking you would probably agree with that. So, you were in my head when I wrote it even if you were on vacation. Thanks for responding.

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  2. Thanks, David. Beautifully written, but terrifying and heartbreaking. By the way, I love the Ray Charles version of Take These Chains, a haunting song, particularly in this context. Writing is a way of setting us free. Edison

    On Tue, Feb 9, 2016 at 2:59 PM, Longing for a Song wrote:

    > longingforasong posted: “It was the night before my father was to go to > Memphis to have his leg amputated. A beautiful May night in 1963. About 9 > o’clock, I drove over to pick up Harold, one of my best basketball buds, to > head out to Newbern’s gathering spot, the Dairy Queen. I ” >

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Edison, I have this tendency to overwrite, but the writers that I really admire write short. Compressing this piece made it even more emotional for me. I hope you are right about the freedom part. It does make you look at your own experience with another set of eyes, I know that, and yes, there is freedom in just being able to do that.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Glad you’re back. I was beginning to worry. But your latest entry, and Anne Krusen’s words above, reassure me. Speaking of which . . . I don’t recall my father ever reassuring me in any situation, so your account of carrying your father in your arms, as well as his focus on your welfare rather than on the car’s damage, was poignant for me. My dad’s emotional distance and unavailability, were not entirely his fault, I think. Being overseas in WWII, our father didn’t meet my twin sister and me until we were 3 or 4 years old. (I didn’t meet my son until he was almost 1 1/2, so I have some insight into the “attachment” problem.) It didn’t help that I was distant with him, I suppose, but I always felt that he should have bridged the gap between us. Anyway, thanks for returning to the blog. Great to have you back.

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  4. I always enjoy your comments and particularly when you go into your own experience. My father had been rather ferocious and I was terrified of him when I was small, but in my high school years, he became weaker and weaker and, I think, thought about his death more and tried to right some things with me. Not many of us are comfortable in the arms of our father’s or taking him in your arms. I am no different. It took him being very weak and injured for me to do that. My father’s story is interesting and I want to tell more of it as I go. But thanks again. Good to hear from you.

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  5. The fact you, at such a vulnerable age, were caught in the middle of a hopeless heart wrenching conflict from multiple directions generates a compelling web. I am thoroughly caught up and ache for the rest of the story. Go David, finish this. Your audience is ripe.

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  6. That’s such a kind reply, Judi, and there will be more on it next time. Thank you so much for the encouragement. You know I wouldn’t be writing this stuff but all of my family is dead and it is the story I have to tell.

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  7. This is such a cinematic story. And the ending, tying your sad and shattering and pivotal experience to that particular scene, which continues to shock no matter how many times I see it, is just about perfect.

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    • Thanks so much. I would actually like to use more films because there are times when films carry my experience in the same ways songs do, but I feel a bit trapped in my on design whenever I try to make that move. As you well know, I love films as much as I love songs.

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      • Understand. I guess you could fall back on what Dylan said, a film is just a song you can see. Actually, I said it, but people will probably accept it better if you use his name.

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  8. David, I think this may be your best piece yet. It has a maturity that I also sense in the choices you’ve been making about your own life. The piece quickly engages and draws the reader in, but also leaves plenty of space for the reader’s own experience and for the reader’s curiosity. I’m with Judi; I eagerly await the next installment.

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  9. Thanks so much Priscilla. One of the struggles I have in writing some of these pieces is that I feel they deal with human emotions people would just as soon ignore. It’s very gratifying to receive this kind of reply.

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    • One does want to obliterate memories of the painful times when things fall completely apart with those who are most dear to us. But you have a gift for returning to us our own memories – perhaps too deeply buried – that are crucial if we are to be made whole. Don’t hesitate to employ that gift. Your readers will know which memories they are ready to claim, and the others can be saved for another day.

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  10. The depth of your emotions–the pain, the tenderness toward your father and his physical closeness, your empathy toward his pain and impending physical loss, and the anger from your mother’s raging are so evident here. These render such a compelling, but beautiful piece. I agree with Mark’s comments about Dylan or Mark or whomever called the film a song–they both require (sometimes similar) performance by us the listener/viewer.

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  11. Thank you, Donna. Your response, and a number of others, have soothed me a great deal. This piece was not so difficult to write, but after it was published, I found it had been the most difficult to post. I think I felt exposed as never before and I have certainly showed what was behind the curtain a number of times in this blog. Anyway, comments like this one have helped me live with the writing and I can’t thank you enough.

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  12. I swear, David, I feel like i am there! Actually, I was. I can just see Harold jumping out of your car, scared out of his mind, hightailing it home!! I can see you guys driving around in that ’63 Chevy and then you walking slowly home, dreading the news you had to share. I can see the lovely old parsonage and then the juxtaposition of what resided inside, with the helplessness of your dad and the horror that had invaded your mother’s mind. As always, I feel guilty that I could not have been more of a help to you during those years. Perhaps the writing will provide catharsis. What I do know that this is beautifully written and very compelling. Please continue. Are you continuing work on the piece about Coach Williams?

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  13. The unlikely survival of your friend in the crash–side hit; car coming from a distance at cruising speed–sure mimicked your unlikely survival of a relentlessly dark and disturbing home life. You had heartbreaking destruction coming at you from one side, while the other side, like the damaged new car, is your protector at a loss to protect. You expose a lot of trauma in just a few words. If you want some constructive criticism, I’ll take that into another thread. Otherwise it was vintage David Eason that cries out, “get thee to a memoir.”

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  14. I don’t know how I missed this until today, but I’m glad I found it. Simply beautiful piece of writing, David. I love the structure of it, making us think the story will be about you and Harold, then suddenly the accident, the return home in the dark, the connection with your father, the frenzy of your mother. the devastating final line.

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    • I am glad you found it. I always appreciate your comments. In the realm of popular culture, and even more broadly in literature, I think of you as a kind of Renaissance man. I feel lucky to have this contact and find value in almost everything you write. This was not a difficult piece to write, but it was a difficult piece to post. Your comments, as well many others this time, have been very gratifying. Thanks so much.

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  15. David, it had been so long since I had gotten a message about a new post that I decided to go directly to your site–and sure enough: you had written this beautiful essay. I loved the details–I could picture everything–including the very scariness of your mother’s raving in the face of being scared by your father’s impending surgery. Clearly emotional outbursts are not always “really” about the pronounced subject. I’m not sure why I didn’t get an automatic message but I’ll resign up with the other 402 followers.

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    • I am never sure how that email delivery system works. It had been a while since I had written with the move. I am almost in the midst of about three sad pieces in a row revolving around the summer of my father’s death and writing these pieces are very demanding. It should lighten up a bit after that. I always appreciate your comments and hearing from you because I know you are a reader. When you come to Chicago, let me know.

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