(My latest column for CounterPunch Magazine.)
Her spinal column was fusing. Arthritis was clutching at her joints, balking every movement, filling it with pain. Her insides were a wreck, and had been for 40 years, after an unnecessary hysterectomy in the days when that operation was ordered for every mild form of “women’s troubles.”
Pain filled her mind as well, the bitter, implacable anger at a life gone wrong and now slipping away. Her husband had died. One son had lost his mind then died. Her life had been lived in servitude to others, from her girlhood slopping hogs on sharecropper farms to the middle-class treadmill of office work and motherhood to this wretched curdling in a dark house in a backwater town she’d always hated.
She had no appetite. Some days she forgot to eat until late at night, when she’d spoon a few bites of ice cream while watching re-runs on the channel she never changed because she didn’t know how to navigate the cable system with its myriad choices. Pain in the body, pain in the soul; the pain of the past, the pain of the now; the pain of the future in the endless dark.
People tried to help: they did chores, ran errands, made repairs on the failing house. But for the most part, she rebuffed them. Her mind had been addled by a series of mini-strokes – messing with her memory, confusing her checkbook – but she remained competent enough to resist any effort to take control of her life and get her into a better situation. She would remain alone, aloof, untended in her bitterness and sadness and self-torment and affliction. Except for one person.
She had been raised in an isolated rural hollow so racist that the boys would go down to the crossroads and throw rocks at the railroad trains rattling past because the train company employed black men. The black midwife who’d brought her and all her many siblings into the world of sharecropper penury had to leave their house before sundown every day lest she be caught out after dark, when she’d be fair game to be attacked or killed.
But now, in her long, slow lacerating crawl toward the end, there was only one person she’d allow to help her, one person she trusted, one person she would let herself love: the “colored woman” who had cleaned for her each week for decades. In the 21st century, they re-enacted the old template of faithful black servant and benevolent white mistress. There was sincerity in the feelings that ran both ways, but perhaps what sealed the relation most firmly was the fact that the cleaner could alleviate her pain: she could obtain the illegal opioids that her employer required in ever greater quantities to dull the anguish of her living death.
She had legal prescriptions for the bodily degeneration that was devouring her: but these were a paltry balm, used up within days each month. The cleaner knew how to get more. Doctors bribed and wooed by gilded, respectable Big Pharma firms were throwing out prescriptions like V-E Day confetti. Pills were flooding the streets; if you needed them, and could pay, you could get all you needed. And you always needed more.
Addiction took hold. Hallucinations followed. A spectral family had taken up residence in the basement , and beguiled her and bored her for hours on end with convoluted tales of their woes. Her grandson apparently came to visit on his way to Mexico, running from the law after beating up the senator he worked for in Wisconsin. Someone kept stealing her money. She was stuck on the roof and couldn’t get down, and railed at anyone who told her she was safe in her bed.
Near-starved, undone, fallen on the floor, she refused to press the panic button she wore around her neck. Someone found her at last and took her to the hospital. She was de-toxed, came back to herself for a few brief weeks, pouring out the story of her painful life as she had never done before. She went out and had her hair done one last time – then died.
She was a staunch Southern Baptist and a fanatical Democrat. A proud Confederate descendant who loved Obama and Michelle. A Bible-believer who spent her last happy day on earth with her gay hairdresser and his transgender partner, admiring the drag queen friends her granddaughter showed her on her phone. (“Oh, how pretty! I wish I had those legs.”) A woman of passion and ambition thwarted by religion and convention and her own personal damage, who lived the empty middle-class dream and died as a dope addict killed by corporate drug pushers. A sharecropper’s daughter, a little girl rising in the pre-dawn darkness to break the ice on the trough so the hogs could drink.
Who can tell us what it means to be an American? Who can untangle all these threads that bind us without and strangle us within? I say damn to all savvy analysis, all reductive categories – and damn to every profiteer of blood and pain.
She refused to have a funeral. No service, no family, no goodbye. She told her two remaining sons to take her ashes to the ocean, to Myrtle Beach, where she’d been a newlywed. We took her miles out to sea and there we poured her out, in waters that belonged to the whole world.