My father hardly spoke that Saturday in August, 1963. Our day together began with the two of us heading toward Memphis from Western Kentucky, where he had been staying a few days. I was driving. He was giving directions. Mostly, he used only one hand, the one resting on the stump of his left leg. Sometimes, there was a word or two of explanation, but for the most part there was only one sign. Whether he wanted me to turn, speed up or stop, he would pat his hand downward as if he were telling a choir to sing lower.
On Friday night, I had returned home from a church youth leadership assembly at a small college in North Carolina. I arrived at our house in West Tennessee to find the house dark, my parents gone, and a note on the door for me. It was from my sister and told me that our father was at her house in Western Kentucky and our mother was in a psychiatric hospital in Memphis.
The next morning I drove to my sister’s. My father seemed better than any time since the amputation of his leg two months before. He sat in his wheelchair with his grandchildren around him in a room flushed by the sun. The children drew out a more playful, younger man, and my sister, who combined the skills of a nurse with a depth of love and affection, had seen to him well.
He was happy to see me, but we didn’t have much time to savor our reunion. As he laid out our schedule for the day, it became obvious we faced a difficult day of driving. Two hundred miles of driving. Half of it with my unpredictable mother. Although her doctors thought my mother needed to remain in the hospital, she hated it there and called every night to remind him of how much she wanted to come home.
I wanted to tell him what had happened to me in North Carolina. The assembly had been a powerful experience, the first integrated event I had ever attended. It was organized around the role of the church in the social world, and mostly dealt with civil rights issues. I made friends with James, a black student from Nashville like me entering his senior year of high school. We spent a lot of time together. It began with ping-pong games and grew to talks about how each of us lived our lives in a segregated society. The sessions stretched me, and since there were a lot of college students, I listened more than I talked. James and I talked, and those talks were as important as the formal sessions.
On the last night, we were asked to maintain silence throughout the evening. For hours I prayed in my room or the chapel or just walked the campus in silence. I don’t remember praying very deeply until my father became sick. For months, I had prayed only one prayer, for strength to bear whatever came next. On this night, I prayed another prayer as well, for wisdom to know what to do with my life.
I came home committed to becoming a minister, and I wanted to tell him. The trip to Memphis wasn’t a time for that. The weight of the day bore down on him harshly. It was taking every ounce of his strength just to get through it. Nonetheless, on the outskirts of Memphis, he insisted that he drive into the city. Getting him from the passenger seat to the driver’s was difficult. He had to slide on the seat with no left leg for leverage. His arms were also weak. It had been months since he had been able to lift anything. Between us, we found a way to get him into place without banging the still tender stump.
The small private psychiatric hospital looked idyllic. It was a huge stone well-kept building from another era. The lot was landscaped with plants and flowers, all in full bloom. I lifted the wheelchair out of the trunk, then lifted my father into it and pushed him up a ramp to the entry level. My mother appeared shortly, and we were back in the car and heading home.
Although Mother was so furious she could barely contain herself, she managed somehow to bury her anger in a silence full of noise as she continually shifted in her seat. My father hardly moved, stoical in the small emotional space his brokenness left him. He let me drive out of the city, and I was relieved. It gave me something to do. The tension transformed the real space of the car, where three bodies were actually pushed toward each other, into a giant symbolic triangle made from space so vast that only lonely souls could exist there. I moved to turn on the radio, but my father asked me not to do it. I hummed quietly to comfort myself, probably “500 Miles,” a folk song I loved and sang for many years. We were headed back to our own house, less than a hundred miles away, but I already could see my home vanishing in the rear view mirror.
Lord, I’m one, Lord, I’m two
Lord, I’m three, Lord, I’m four
Lord, I’m 500 miles away from home.