Amarillo by Morning

It’s hot in Amarillo in August. Barb and I are heading to Salt Lake City the way we do everything in 1985, the hard way. It may be a little hotter because I seem to be driving the car in a series of circles in interconnecting parking lots as I struggle to reach one of those breakfast drive-throughs that will give us some fuel to start the trip to Salt Lake. I am cussing the traffic, the city, the world, and Barb, who has seen it all many times, is sitting quietly. The better part of a quart of gin the night before has drained me of vitality and left nothing but nerves, which I seem, even under normal conditions, to have more of than most. Finally, I make a dangerous cut in front of another car to land in line. And we sit in a silent anger we have cultivated over the last few years as I have slid down the inevitable pattern of drinking far too much far too often. The only calm voice in the car is George Straight singing “Amarillo by Morning,” the theme of a local radio show. It isn’t God speaking through the clouds, but it feels like a hand on my shoulder. I gather myself, take Barb’s hand (the best apology I have in a world where my words have grown futile), she gives an understanding look, we collect our coffee and head out into another day we are hoping without much evidence won’t be like the one before.

Rock me like the Rock of Ages

February 9, 1964. I come home early for a Sunday night because the Beatles are going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show. Normally, I would be at church. My father’s church has given order to my Sundays just as it did in the days before he died a few months ago. The mornings are taken up with Sunday school and worship. After lunch, I often go to the gym to play some pickup basketball. I return to the church for youth fellowship at 6 and services at 7:30.

Along with church, school, basketball and work on Saturday keep me on track. In November, my mother and I moved out of the beautiful old parsonage where we lived for more than three years. After a month in temporary housing, we moved to a small three-bedroom apartment in a public housing project located in a good neighborhood not far from our old home. The project apartment is well laid out, up to date, clean and safe, but we live among the old and the poor, and the place smells of desperation. Our neighbors are elderly women, who are very kind and do what they can for my mother.

I have become a good actor, a master of looking like “everything is fine” no matter what. At school, I am president of my class, most likely to succeed, and the captain and leading scorer of the basketball team. At church, I am president of both my local youth fellowship and the district youth fellowship, as well as a conference officer. On Saturdays, I work from 9 to 9 at A & R Department Store, owned by Louise Akin. The small town is ever present, someone always close at hand, and yet I feel terribly alone. Louise is the only person in the town who has any sense of how I truly feel.

Louise picked me out to work in her store when I was in the tenth grade. The church youth had a rummage sale out in back of A&R, and she said she thought I had a gift for sales. As it turned out, I did, but I always thought she hired me, in part, because she liked me. She took an immediate interest in my future and introduced me to her nephew Ted Welch, who was an executive for The Southwestern Company in Nashville, a company that sent college students all over the country in the summer to sell reference books and Bibles. We develop a plan. After graduation I will sell books in the summer to earn money for college. Louise isn’t in the store much, but when she is there, she often takes some time to call me into her office. She has a business sense that both my parents lack. I pay attention when she talks.

Our relationship deepened when my father’s health worsened last year. I stayed with her in March when my father went to Cleveland for open-heart surgery, in May when his leg was amputated, in August when my mother was hospitalized at a psychiatric hospital and in October when my father went to the hospital to die. I have no idea how I would have made it through this time without her. She found me on her doorstep a couple of mornings in November and December after bad nights at home. She fed me breakfast and listened attentively. That was more than enough.

The Beatles play five songs on The Ed Sullivan Show, but the only two I see are “I Saw Her Standing There” and “She Loves You.”  My mother is crying hysterically, and I am running back and forth between her room and the living room. Nothing I do has any effect. Finally, I call Louise.  Waiting often seems to go on forever, but Louise and her husband Tony arrive quickly. Dr. Phillips is with them. He gives Mama a sedative, and she floats off quickly. Tomorrow Carmon, my mother’s brother, will come and take her to Western State Psychiatric Hospital. I will move back to Louise’s for a month.

Ordinary Time. My month at Louise’s was the best month of my senior year. Mama’s sense of herself had been slipping away since I was in grade school. My father had rescued her from a hardscrabble life at 16 and had guided her life with quiet confidence. As his death grew nearer, she became more and more a stranger to me. Since summer I had slept with one eye open, protective of my father at first, and then later for the two of us who remained. I wasn’t sure what she was capable of anymore.

Louise and Tony lived in a big white colonial near the school. I had the upstairs to myself, and I felt safe and secure in my corner room with walls the color of the shade trees just outside the window. That room itself always comforted me, and I wrapped it around me as if it were the key to some lost order in the world. I easily slipped back into the Akins’ routines and wished desperately their home was mine. It could not be and, in any case, I had little boyhood left.

After my mother returned, there were only a couple of months before I left home for good. I learned over that summer selling books that I would always be able to take care of myself financially. Louise told me that when my father was rolled out of the house and lifted into the ambulance for that last ride to Memphis, he had grasped her hand and said  “Make sure David goes to college.” She led a drive to raise funds for my first year of college, but her greatest gift was teaching me how to be financially independent. I sold books for three summers and made a lot of money. The last year I made more in eight weeks than my father ever made in a year. That seemed obscene. Selling books taught me both the importance of being able to take care of myself and how little money meant to me otherwise.

I was in my second semester of college before I felt the full force of all that had happened. My whole life had been structured around making my father proud. With him gone, my life started to feel artificial. My deepest longing was to be real. For me, that meant living in a lot of sadness and anger. I tried to drive the hurts away with liquor, but by the end of the night, I was usually the saddest guy still drinking.

Louise was the only person who acknowledged the sadness in my face. Often when we talked, she told me to “keep my chin up” and then tenderly lifted my face with her hand. Whether I was in Newbern or at school in Jackson or Memphis, she always seemed to know everything I did, that I was drinking too much (she told me time and again about the virtues of taking only two drinks), that I was expelled from a dorm for carrying in a beer, that when I returned to the forsaken idea of going to theological school, it was a spiritual hope and a prayer and a practical way not to be drafted.

For the rest of her life, whether I was in Watertown, New York, Memphis, Carbondale, Illinois, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City or Nashville, we stayed in contact. We called often, wrote letters and sent gifts on the important holidays. I always visited when I came back to Tennessee. She and Tony remained in that big white colonial until the early 90s. When Tony’s health worsened, they moved to Huntsville, Alabama to be near their son and his family. Not long after the move, Tony died.

Sept. 24, 2000. It is Louise’s 90th birthday and her son Joe and his wife Ruby have a big party for her at their home in Huntsville. Many family members are there. Because I am never quite sure where I fit, these family situations  always make me feel anxious . I arrive late, a middle-aged professor with a pony tail. I feel lost and wish I had gotten a haircut. Before long,  Louise finds me and puts her arm through mine, and, as she has done so many times, keeps me close for much of the afternoon, guiding me to this relative and that one. After everyone leaves, she and I walk in the garden. When I take her back to her condo, we visit a little longer. We have felt so close this day, and it is as if neither of us wants the day to end.

Shortly after the party, Louise breaks a leg. She survives the injury and rehabilitation goes well. Later she develops some dementia. She often calls and talks for long periods about her desire to return to the area where she was born and some of her family still live. She is frustrated that no one else thinks it is practical. There is nothing for me to do but to remain steady and listen. Though I am not a good listener in general, I manage to do better than usual with her.

November 30, 2003. When she is dying, her family is very kind to me. Ruby calls to tell me time is growing short, and we arrange for my visit. Ruby meets me before I enter her hospital room to let me know that Louise’s mind comes and goes. I am not sure if she knows me for much of the afternoon. After a time, Ruby leaves the room for a few minutes so we can say our goodbyes. We hold hands, and she talks of facing death.

There are words we long to hear, and sometimes, the only way we get to hear them is by singing songs to ourselves. I like that Paul Simon song “Loves Me Like a Rock” and often find myself singing it as if it came to me from nowhere. Here are a few lines:

My mama loves me, she loves me

She get down on her knees and hug me

Oh, she loves me like a rock

She rock me like the rock of ages

And loves me

She love me, love me , love me, love me.

Louise grips my hand a little tighter and looks in my eyes:  “I loved you like you were my own baby boy,” she says. My eyes tear up and all I can say is “Oh, I love you so.”

In the car, I fumble through my music for The Beatles No. 1 Hits. I slide the CD into the player. Today is not a day for “I Saw Her Standing There” a song that reminds me of my mother’s hysteria on that night so long ago. Today is a day for that other song I remember from that night. I cue up “She Loves You,” and for the next 90 minutes, I sing and cry, and even laugh a little, all the way back to Nashville.

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