I am an old man. I have just driven across a major part of the continental landmass to visit a much older man and woman. I have come to the Deep South for a last visit with, especially, the old man who is about to die.
It is said that all politics is local. True enough, but actually: All politics is personal. My father has chosen to live – it is his personal statement. The society supports his decision to stay alive – to stay alive at all costs, literally. But he will not live. His death surrounds him like the muggy Florida air; no matter what way he turns it is immediately before him.
I am surprised that I am not surprised at the deterioration, better, the destruction, of the last five years. I will not do the details, suffice to say that the enemies of life when denied a quick kill tend to become vengeful. But it is not the sadness of my father’s physical experience or the progress of his various diseases that are my major interest, though the attempt to avoid and delay the inevitable is part of it.
Driving from Hattiesburg to Gulfport on US49 a sense of deep incredulity and species’ wonder began to fill me. How could we lay ourselves – our products, our process – over the land with such arrogance? The ground reshaped, beaten hard and covered with suffocating asphalt; plants torn from the ground and discarded; dozens of dead, this and that clump of fur or shell or scale, litter the roadside. And all of this, a 100 yards wide for 60 miles, over a thousand little hills and valleys. Of course, it was not just this stretch of road, four thousand miles of road would roll out under me on this trip, but this road was so clearly cut through my native land; an ugly scar painted in imitation of the beauty that had been vanquished.
How could we do this? Ridiculously, this question sat before me as a real source of wonderment for about 40 minutes of the drive; until fog, the outskirts of Gulfport and a big black Harley with a big rider dressed in black against the white fog send me off into the details of capturing that image. But it came back again and again; and as I looked at the old man on the couch beside me – the remaining 115 pounds of him stretched out on a six foot frame – I saw him laying over the land like the road, enduring the moment and destroying the future.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the old man. And I also once “loved” that road, the way it undulates up and down like driving over a rolling ocean; it is also one of the most beautiful roads in America, wide boulevard with great trees, wide median and mowed margins. ‘We’ decided that it was more important to get to the gulf from Hattiesburg in an hour than it was to preserve the land and the millions of lives (and we don’t even see the lives lost as lives at all). It is more important for my father to use vast resources and live on into the nearer regions of death than it is to feed the beginnings of new human life.
These thoughts navigated my mind with some embarrassment as I cruised down the extravagance of I-75 until I landed out its exalted heights on to Sun City: a world made for people in ‘transition.’ For a country boy like me such a place is almost unbelievable. Even more so since I grew up not 5 miles from here; a time when there were only sand-track roads, lemon groves and bare-foot country boys to modulate the free movement of rattlesnakes, alligators and Florida panthers. Today, miles and miles of little houses surround vast shopping areas, all bric-a-brac and gaudy pretense.
I don’t know the answer, but I do know that this is not it. Not only has this city, laid over the land of my youth, destroyed a river and thousands of acres of perfectly good scrub country, it is perpetuating a monstrous lie.
Watching my father, the elements of ‘living well’ become, if not transparent, then at least less opaque. There is nothing that he can buy that matters anymore. Nothing! The pills around which much of his remaining life revolves relieve some anxiety, but bring no joy. It mattered when I ‘took his side’ in a minor dispute with Mom about how to place a chair that he was trying to sit in: “Just leave him alone. He knows how it needs to be for him to feel safe.” (How very odd to talk about my father in the third person in front of him as though he were a child.) And it mattered when I sat beside him and took his old hands in mine and told him that I was happy to be with him and that it had been too long since I was.
It matters, in a negative way, that his children live in other states and other states of mind, that his grandchildren are in China and New Mexico. It matters that the love and human contact that he craved all his life, that is worth living for, will not let him die in peace and in its embrace.