For my mom, Carmel Meade,
There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors—Adrienne Rich
Dwight McCoy liked to talk to God.
He sat in his front porch rocker—angry coal black clouds on the horizon, lightning spits sizzling from the dark heavens—and stared out at the approaching storm. He always looked forward to his weekend talk with the Big Man but this time the goats were ruining his conversation. They were going crazy, bleating their lungs out.
Dwight tried to ignore them as he took a drag on his joint, and let the smoke fill his lungs. Usually he liked to pass a quiet Friday evening rocking in his chair on his shack’s front porch, sucking on a joint, his bible on his lap, indulging in a one-way conversation. But the goats were messing up his evening.
It would never have occurred to Dwight that in reality he was only three minutes away from meeting God, personally. Or that all his prayers were about to be answered, but such was life, always full of surprises.
The two goats on the lawn were tired to the front porch and kept bleating, getting agitated, then charging toward the porch rails, slamming their stumpy horns into the wood. “Easy up, boys. Easy, you hear?”
Dwight heard a thunderous growl. He stroked his greasy beard and peered out past the mess of junk and crushed beer cans that decorated his lawn. High in the inky night sky, way out beyond his rusted thirty-year old Chevy pick-up and the mess of an ancient ruined tractor, storm clouds bubbled.
A big one coming by the looks of it. Dwight sipped from the Mason jar, gargled, swallowed a mouthful of burning spirit, and let out a sigh.
Man, that was good.
Dwight always kicked off the weekend with some fiesta time—a Mason jar of moonshine accompanied by a couple of really good joints. Relaxing on his front porch with a pair of goats and a banged-up old refrigerator full of beer for company, it was the perfect place to watching some dazzling summer storms. On the tar-black horizon, the show had already started: sizzling bolts of lightning, their volleys of thunder echoing in the darkness like canon shot.
Chewing the cud with God was all part of Dwight’s enjoyment. Nothing too deep, mind, just the occasional whine about life, or the kind of day he’d had on the ten-acre Smokies hill farm since Hilda had passed.
When the ‘shine or the spiffs weren’t up to scratch and it seemed as if God wasn’t listening, sometimes his goats, Barrack and Obama, just sat there, listening. Dwight liked to talk to his goats, except tonight, neither animal seemed in the mood for social chit-chat.
“Easy up, boys. Easy up, you hear?”
The agitated goats were acting kind of strange. Head butting the porch railing, the clack-clack sound of their clipped horns chipping the wood. Being rope-tethered to the porch never usually irked them. But for the last few minutes they had been bleating their hearts out.
“What you getting worked up about, fellas?”
The goats paid him no heed, just kept head-butting the post. Clack. Clack. Dwight reckoned it was the approaching storm. Bad weather often got them riled but tonight it was so bad his nerves were being frazzled. “Settle down, old buddies. Settle down.”
Dwight swallowed a mouthful of ‘shine from the Mason jar, and wiped his beard with his grimy shirt sleeve. The homemade spirit burnt his throat like a lit match but sure tasted good. He sucked deep on the spiff, savoured the vapors searing his lungs. Saturday night fever, and all homemade, the weed grown in the woods behind him, the ‘shine made in his own still.
A frightening rumble of thunder echoed in the night sky but he felt so relaxed he barely reacted. The storm wouldn’t hit here for maybe another five minutes, which gave him enough time to enjoy the fireworks. After that, the rain would hammer like bullets on the cabin’s tin roof. He sucked again on the joint, held the smoke in his lungs, let it out slowly.
They said weed frazzled your brain but Dwight didn’t care; not since the day Hilda went to cancer. From then on he figured he was on the downhill slope anyway, and weed would change nothing. Hilda had slipped away in her sleep after a year of agony. One minute breathing, the next lifeless as he clutched her hand. He talked with God about that—begged not to let him suffer as painful a going as his wife’s. Give him a heart attack, hit him with a Mack truck, whatever, just take him quick.
Dwight grabbed his walking cane. He flicked the hook end to open the porch refrigerator. The light inside came on. Cans of Bud inside, milk, some provisions. But mostly Bud. He hooked out a Bud, caught it in the crook of his foot, kicked it into the air and caught it in his palm, then banged shut the door with the tip of his snake boot.
Not bad for an old guy. He hissed open the can, swallowed some cold amber. High in the Smoky mountains, away from civilization, more thunderbolts sizzled, the storm coming closer. Clack. Clack. The goats took another bleating run at the rail post. Their distress was driving him nuts.
They said animals sensed imminent danger. That in fear they moved up into the hills when tsunamis or hurricanes hit. He reckoned the goats sensed the approaching thunderstorm. “Settle down, fellas. Nobody’s going to get crisped.”
At that precise moment, a booming thunderbolt echoed around the mountains and the goats went crazy. Dwight looked up at the sky as something caught his eye. Weird.
A spark of light was spat out of the dark storm cloud. The spark blazed, like a glittering star. What the…? Dwight squinted, and felt his heart race. Was it his imagination, or was the object shooting toward him?
For a moment he wondered if he’d drank too much—sometimes the moonshine caused him to have visions, or perceive the real meaning of existence. Once, he decided to keep a notebook and pen by his bed and when he woke in the night, he’d write down his jumbled thoughts, hoping to decipher the meaning of life hidden in his dreams. He did, and fell back to sleep. Next day, sober, he read his scrawled notes: oil change due Friday, pay wheel tax, buy packet of smokes and a gallon of milk. Packet of butt wipes—for sensitive skin.
Dwight rubbed his eyes, blinked. The ‘star’ blazed in the black sky dead ahead of him, got brighter, speeding out of the storm cloud. Whoever said drinking ruined your eyesight was lying because Dwight saw the object glowing brighter and move closer by the second. It was definitely coming toward him, whatever it was.
A UFO? Some weird light phenomenon? Now it sparkled brighter, seemed to break apart. A piece of the object fell away—a ball of flaming light. Now there were two objects. Then the smaller one disappeared, its light dying like an orange emergency flare as it dropped toward earth.
But the bigger object kept hurtling toward him. “Holy cow.”
Alarmed, Dwight pushed himself out of the rocker, went to turn to his cabin, grab his shotgun. His survivor’s instinct already telling him it was a total waste of time as the thing came screaming toward him like a banshee.
He heard a swish of air, a mighty thud when something hit the forest floor with a sound like an earthquake, shaking the ground under him, as if some unseen monster in the bowels of the earth had just given a massive growl.
The powerful impact blew Barrack and Obama clear off the ground, sent the goats’ exploding carcasses flying through the darkness, as if sucked skyward by a tornado.
The same force field ploughed into Dwight like an artillery shell blast, shattering his cabin, turning it to matchwood, crushing every bone in his seventy-five-year-old body, and killing him instantly.
All in all, Dwight McCoy could not have asked for a quicker and less painful death.
I keep two photographs by my bed. They are my deepest wounds.
One is a snapshot of my parents at a party celebrating my younger brother West Point graduation ceremony. Sweet, funny twenty-one year-old Kyle, his sapphire blue eyes smiling for the camera, and who looked so handsome in his gray and white cadet’s uniform.
In the photograph next to Kyle stands my colonel father tall and proud—every inch the army man, his uniform creases so razor sharp they could cut tomatoes, every medal buffed and polished. We’re a military family, Appalachian settlers who come from a long line of battle-hardened Scotch-Irish warriors, the kind who seem to be born missing a fear gene.
And standing between my father and brother is my mother, Martha Beth Kelly, and how I often remember her—a vodka grin on her face as she danced the evening away, her wild red hair tossed, one hand raised like a crazed rocker, in the other maybe even a joint if she got hold of one, or more often a cocktail glass kissing her smudged lipstick.
And as always that look on her face—the one that told me there was no stopping her from making a drunken fool of herself, even as my father tried to coax her off the dance floor.
My father, the courageous six foot-three colonel who battled his way across Iraq to the gates of Saddam Hussein’s palace. Who fought hand-to-hand at Fallujah, and lost his left foot in a grenade blast.
Kyle and I adored my father. He was our idol. Someone once gave my kid brother a miniature soldier’s uniform when he was six. He paraded up and down our back yard with his shoes polished and a stick in his hands for a rifle. I asked, “What are you doing Kyle?”
And a smile lit up his face. “Playing cadet. When I grow up I want to be a soldier just like daddy.”
Kyle was already into athletics, a stickler for competion sports, but easy going with it. When my dad saw him marching solemnly in the yard and said, “Cadet Kyle, what is your motto?”
Kyle stood to attention, held a salute, and recited the cadet’s West Point code. “A cadet does not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.”
My father beamedat me and said, “Looks like we got another one for West Point.”
My father, who always makes me feel safe, even though I am an adult. Once in a Florida bar a few years back while on vacation with my dad, two big, steroid-muscled guys drinking beer wolf whistled me and whispered a dirty remark as I passed them on the way to the restroom. My dad was over there in a second, right in their faces, his muscled arms bulging, his chest pouting, spoiling for a fight, ready to beat the life out of anyone who taunted his daughter.
He insisted the idiots apologize. They did, and slinked off like a pair of sorry kids, abandoning their beers. He’s that kind of father. He has his pride, takes no prisoners, and backs off from no one.
A man who was never truly afraid of anything—except the fiery-tempered little woman from Temperance, Georgia, whom he loved and married, but was never able to make happy no matter how hard he tried.
And all because they could never share their deepest secret.
The two photographs I keep are side by side in a silvered metal frame. The second image is of my husband, Jack, and I, and our two beloved children—Amy and Sean, then four and eight, and they smiled like it.
The photograph was taken not with Jack in army uniform, as so often in the images I keep of him, but wearing a Jimmy Buffet tropical shirt while on vacation at Myrtle Beach in South Carolina one blistering summer—a vacation that was meant to salve my husband’s mental wounds from a punishing deployment in Iraq—and three months before he and our children vanished, and were never seen again.
Before those terrible events befell us all, as my father refers to our tragedies, his anguished face like granite whenever he talks about our heartbreak, which is seldom. For a hardened veteran who witnessed many die in battle and who used to rarely flinch recalling the experience, any mention of our family’s loss brings him to the edge of tears.
And so I keep these photographs by my bed and not in the rooms downstairs, well out of his sight. The photographs do not make me cry, or at least not as they once did.
And though they will always be a reminder of my sorrow, my wounds are no longer searing, but a healing scar. Grief is still my shadow but now my world has changed.
I have a new life.
And, in time, found a new husband and child to salve the pain of those I lost.
There are other photographs I hold sacred: of my kid brother and me growing up, enjoying holidays and vacations together.
Kyle and I shared the same manic Kelly sense of humor, the same sometimes short-fused temper; the same taste in food and movies. Born within eleven months of each other, my father used to call us his Irish twins.
Kyle was the perfect baby—blonde, porcelain-skinned, good humored. When I was four, for a time we shared a room together. On stormy winter nights when he was scared to sleep alone, or afraid of the dark, Kyle would climb into bed beside me to seek refuge. ‘Ats, Amy. Ats.’ As an infant, Kyle couldn’t pronounce thanks; it always came out as ‘Ats.’
I loved the soft feel of his puppy fat cheeks, the angel kiss of his infant lips, and the scared-tight arms around my neck after he’d crawled in to snuggle next to me. For me there is nothing quite so heart-stirringly touching as the scared hug of a child clinging to you out of fear, as if it connects us to a thread gloriously human and yet divine woven into our souls.
For a long time, Kyle was the quiet one in our family. He’d tag along behind me holding onto my sweater, head down and shy, hardly saying a word. One Christmas at a family party, aged eight, Kyle shocked us with an amazing crimson-faced rendition of my father’s favourite song, Danny Boy—Kyle’s sweet singing voice as angelic as a soloist’s in the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
It wasn’t like Kyle to thrust himself into the spotlight, until someone discovered the reason—he was sneaking sips from my mother’s Irish whiskey and soda. For every childhood Christmas party afterward, carefully monitored to make sure he hadn’t touched the seasonal booze, he’d bestow his version of Danny Boy and bring everyone close to tears.
As he grew older, it became Kyle’s ‘shower song’. Whenever he stepped under the steaming jets, and the sounds of Danny Boy rang around our house, we would all stop and listen, for deep in his honeyed voice was a touching echo, a sound that my father used to tease—like the bagpipes—“never failed to light a blazing bonfire under our Celtic chromosomes.”
Other images I keep are photograph albums of the day I got married at age twenty-one in Cedar Springs church, Knoxville, Tennessee.
Snapshots of my children as infants and during their growing spurts—treasured milestones in their short lives: vacations, weekends at the lake or beach; the day a tooth was lost or they dressed for Halloween or celebrated a birthday.
First came Sean, barely ten months after Jack and I married. Shy little Sean, always eager to please even as an infant, and who loved to be read stories, and to have his back rubbed.
Three years later I was pregnant again with Amy. She raged into our lives like a whirlwind—a spark plug of a girl, the exact opposite of her shy brother. A giggling rebel imp who never stopped talking, brimful of life, endlessly on the move.
“Ain’t that girl got no off switch?” Jack used to joke. As if she had a powerful furnace burning inside her, until she collapsed into bed at night.
Even then she could never sleep in the dark. I guess my daughter always gave me trouble at bedtime. She insisted on a light blazing, or would instantly wake, become anxious and call down from her room if the landing light was ever turned off. As if like a flower she thrived on light and sunshine.
So each evening to ease her fear I left a lamp lit upon the landing.
Amy would see its golden light blaze beyond her door whenever she awoke. And then she would fall back to sleep.
With children in my life, my existence felt complete.
These were days I so wanted to inhale like fragrant air, each memory precious. And so I kept a diary. I hoped one day to be a writer, and I read somewhere that keeping a journal was important for an author, like a singer practising their scales. So I wrote about every tiny or meaningful experience I shared with our children, until another wicked tempest raged into my life and claimed my family from me, and they disappeared. From that day on, I never thought I would write another word.
Yet these images in the silver frame—my deepest wounds—are also my salvation. For when I feel the cool smoothness of the glass that covers their beaming faces, and glide my fingertips over their outlines, it reminds me of the radiant spirits that once illuminated my world.
The lips I can no longer kiss, voices I can no longer hear, faces I can no longer touch.
And they remind me of the cruellest lessons life has taught me.
Write this down if you want, and never let anyone tell you otherwise: Love has a price.
There never can be—never will be, and never has been—a single love that comes without agony. When a loved one dies, or leaves us of their own choosing—when we stay but love no longer, or when we shatter a human heart by our treachery or by our leaving—we pay the cost sooner or later.
As every sin has its own avenging angel, every giving and letting go has its day of reckoning.
Another thing I’ve learned. Sometimes those whom we worship harbor unimaginable secrets.
All families have secrets. Some are innocent. Some seep like poison through the veins of successive generations. Dark secrets that can maim and destroy as cruelly as any weapon. For just as the sweetest of sounds can induce the greatest of sorrow, so too can the purest of love contain the seeds of the most malignant of hurts.
Like the Celtic legend of the bird that sings just once in its life, but more sweetly than any other creature on this earth. From the moment it can fly it searches for a rose bush, and when it finds one impales its breast upon the sharpest barb. In its dying agony it sings a supreme hymn, a song so exquisite that every living thing in its orbit stops to listen, and marvel at the beauty.
And so do we, each of us in our own way, seek out our own thorns to impale our hearts upon. Not for the pained joy of some glorious hymn, but because we cannot help ourselves. It’s as if our fortunes are written in our stars.
And so they are.
Have you ever stopped and realized that if you had not met a certain person your whole life would be different? For this, too, I’ve learned. That whatever love we encounter in our lives isn’t just a chance meeting in a chaotic world.
It’s a fate.
A thread in the tapestry of our existence that is more mysterious than any of us can understand, one that echoes across the ages. To rephrase a writer’s words: you will find in each of us all the sums we have not counted. For every moment in our lives is a window on all time—as if the kiss that began four thousand years ago in Crete, ended yesterday in Texas.
I believe that.
And that each heart and mind that seeks and finds another is never the consequence of some accidental journey, but a destiny, waiting to teach us a life lesson, or ambush us with some terrible truth that the universe insists we must learn.
I know that because I have learned from my own bitter truths.
And my first lesson would begin on the morning I got married—when my mother arrived drunk at Cedar Springs church with a loaded gun in her purse, and murder in her heart.
If there was a hell on earth, then this swampy forest came close.
Fifty pounds’ overweight, with a noble black profile that would not have looked out of place on an ancient Roman coin, Brewster Tanner felt an icy shiver snake down his spine. Tanner hated wooded swamps.
If he was a singer, Tanner would have been Barry White. People said he sounded like him, too, when Tanner used to do Karaoke. A bass voice, deep as a dungeon, the kind that resonated with certain women.
Except thankfully he didn’t look anything like Barry White—Tanner was a light skinned African American, soft-featured, pretty-handsome. Folks often said he reminded them of that old time actor, Sidney Poitier, but just, well, a little heavier.
He stared past the windshield as he drove his white Camry through emerald green forest, the radio on. It was not Barry singing but Beyoncé blaring about ‘all the single ladies’.
Tanner always got a laugh when he heard that song. Beyoncé in concert, pocketing millions and going home to her husband and kids, leaving all those dumb single hoes singing that song, dancing around their handbags.
In the sultry heat, tangled green branches overhung stagnant pools of water the color of coffee grinds. A nearby stream had flooded, saturating the ground, covering tree trunks with at least a foot of water. The air was rich with the smells of damp soil and green plants.