Facing South
A true tale of mother and son
By Walt Howerton

Gilbert Barber died while I was home visiting my gray-haired mother after the brain surgery that saved her eyesight but bruised her brain and left her unable to walk, talk, read, or feed herself. She can see better, but what she sees and whether any of it will ever make sense to her again is another question. Still, the doctor insists the prognosis is good. My mother, my father and I were sitting around watching TV news in the rehab center at the Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C., where they are trying to teach her to do all those things again when we heard about Gilbert Barber.

Actually we were killing time waiting for Wheel of Fortune, my mother's favorite show.

My mother is a word person, ace-speller, Scrabble-player, crossword-puzzler, letter-writer, marathon telephone-talker; she thinks it's a sin that modern children can't spell and write better and blames it on computers with spell-checkers, public school integration, Spanish-speaking immigrants, younger teachers "who don't know their you-know-what from a hole in the ground," the general decline of good manners and the idea that things were better when she was young.

Despite the fact that my mother has lost a brother and a sister to lung cancer, she still believes attacks on the tobacco industry are an ongoing Yankee conspiracy against the people of North Carolina dating back to the end of the Civil War (though she quit smoking last year at age 75, after her brother died, just in case); she thought the same thing about the civil rights movement. She always votes for Jesse Helms without a twinge of conscience or a trace of irony.

My father does, too. He shares her views; she shares his views. Their 58-year marriage has come to rest less on love than on their shared belief in the brightness of the past, the darkness of the future, the unmatched pleasures of World War II, boxes of old photographs (the older the better) and a recent but growing interest in white gospel music and television preachers - a strange interest for two people who spent their lives in the formal, well-orchestrated dignity of the Presbyterian church and sang in the choir (I figure my mother is hedging her bets, just like when she quit smoking).

My father is desperate for her to recover and visits her for hours at the hospital trying to hasten the process. Since my mother's surgery and her silence and her wheelchair, I have heard him tell her he loves her more times and with more feeling than I ever remember. We are not an I-love-you sort of family (we do not kiss on the mouth; we do not kiss goodnight; hell, we don't even drink out of the same glass or eat off the same plate), but we always have been good at pretending affection, especially in public places like hospital visiting rooms. I take that into consideration as he whispers to her. Sure, he loves her, but without her to cook for him, he also knows he faces a future of cold cereal, and banana sandwiches. He is one of those relatively helpless Southern men raised by his mother to be taken care of by some other Southern woman.

I went away and found the goodnight kiss-on-the-mouth kind of love I needed someplace else. When I tell my Yankee wife I love her, she knows I mean it and my sons know I mean it, too. I can do my own cooking and over time I have learned to tell the truth.

So, we were in the visiting room at the rehab center waiting for Wheel of Fortune and asking my mother the kinds of yes-and-no questions suggested for people suffering from aphasia when the news of Gilbert Barber's death came on.

Gilbert was only 22 years old, but he had had a troubled life and already spent a year in jail. Maybe that is why, when he wrecked his car in the wee hours, he decided to make a run for it. Unfortunately for Gilbert, he ran through a barbed wire fence and ripped his clothes and tore his scalp. By the time someone saw Gilbert running around the Oak Grove Baptist Church a little before 5 a.m., he was stark naked and bleeding from the head. That someone called 911 and two minutes after a Guilford County deputy sheriff arrived, pepper spray had been used (it didn't even slow Gilbert down; a witness described him as a "raging bull") and five shots had been fired (all from the deputy's own gun). The deputy was wounded twice in the leg and Gilbert was dead from a bullet that passed through his heart and lodged in his spine (two other bullets had grazed his naked sides).

Before the deputy arrived, Gilbert broke into the church and tried to eat a wood collection plate, tearing out five of his teeth in the process.

None of us knew Gilbert Barber, but we watched like we did, especially after we heard that part about the collection plate. The sheriff thinks drugs or alcohol might have been involved, a view my father shared and my mother seemed to, best we could tell, but what if they weren't? What could drive a grown man to get naked and try to eat a Baptist collection plate?

I looked at my gray-haired mother, silent and vain, tugging what was left of her hair down over the long surgical scar that begins high above her left eye and runs to somewhere below her ear; I looked at my white-haired father, grimly shaking his head over Gilbert Barber and drugs and what has become of the better world he used to know; I looked at the grainy picture of the late Gilbert Barber on the TV news. With his soft face and bushy hair, he didn't look like a man doomed to die naked in front of a Baptist church, but who does?

Wheel of Fortune came on and we remembered why we were there and wheeled my mother a little closer to the TV.

I had been back home for eight days by then.

It was the longest visit I had made since I left more than 30 years ago. Vanna White began to reveal the letters on Wheel of Fortune; my mother leaned toward the TV; my father leaned over to tell her he loved her (information that seemed to irritate her somehow, though since her surgery she can't say precisely how); I sat there trying to imagine a fat naked man with a mouth full of collection plate. I felt like I was in a hall of mirrors.

Thomas Wolfe warned Southern boys we can't go home again. And I believe it. But sometimes there are circumstances that require a visit. And those hardcore bluegrass and country songs are always guiltily going on (in perfect harmony) about mothers and daddies and old homeplaces and visions. But try spending 10 days visiting home again, and the line between visions and nightmares grows blurrier by the day. It makes you wish Thomas Wolfe, who often wrote 10 words (or 10 pages) when one would do just fine, really had said a little more.

Can the Straw Man ever learn to hug his mother?

I would not be just a nothin' my head all full of stuffin'

My heart all full of pain.

I would dance and be merry, life would be a ding-a-derry,

If I only had a brain.

-The Wizard of Oz

It was a small tumor. Not much larger than the end of your little finger. And it was slow growing and not cancerous. If it had been anyplace else in her brain, they wouldn't have touched it. But it was somewhere behind my mother's eyes, cozying up to her optic nerve, pressing, bending, already causing her to have double vision, taking away her peripheral vision, threatening her eyesight.

My father joked about the double vision. Before her operation, my mother still drove (she also has had her vision diminished by glaucoma, but don't worry: she drives in another state far from here). My father said he told her that if she saw two cars up ahead, "just don't try to drive between them." He laughed. I cringed.

It was no joke for my mother. She hates doctors (she thinks going to doctors kills people; her sister and brother have died from cancer in recent years, not long after being cut on or treated by what my mother sneeringly calls "one of those young doctors with their new ideas").

She doesn't like the young or the new and she has spent several years sitting around gasping for breath, refusing medical attention and waiting to die, but she loves to see. She went to the doctor.

The brain surgeon said that if they didn't take the tumor out, my mother could be blind in a matter of months. My mother does not want to be blind. She says she would rather be dead (of course, she has said for years she wished she was dead, but that is another story and has nothing to do with blindness; misery loves company, but blindness is real). She was serious this time. They operated.

The doctor made the whole thing sound like a piece of cake: a little hole high in her temple (they wouldn't even have to shave her whole head), reaching in, pulling the tumor away from the nerve, clipping it off. He said they didn't even have to get it all, just the chunk leaning against her optic nerve. Two or three hours in surgery, a few days in the hospital, a few weeks recovering at home. Nothing to it. A stroll in the park.

Maybe. But the idea of having someone reaching in there and messing around with her brain gave my mother the creeps. I heard it in her voice when I talked to her the night before the surgery. I understand that. I am my mother's son. Our brains are important to us.

In The Wizard of Oz it is the straw man who wants to be smart. That is a guy my mother and I can relate to. The Tin Man's heart? The Lion's courage? Dorothy's desire to go home? Who cares about thumps and roars and Kansas? But, "If I only had a brain." Now, there is one verse my mother and I could sing in harmony.

My mother taught me to love my head (of course, that left me to live my life for years as a miserable sort of heartless straw man, but we don't talk about that because she doesn't want to hear it and I've grown weary from trying to explain it; she believes that if I had just kept eating her home cooking I never would have needed drugs and psychotherapy).

I didn't learn to hug her or kiss her (she didn't seem to want a whole lot of that). I learned to keep my distance and please my mother by being smart. I learned to read, she loved me for it. I got good grades, she loved me for it. I never forgot anything when I went to the grocery store (I never took a list, she wouldn't allow it), she loved me for it. I learned to write and got my name in books and in the paper. She loved me for that, too. Nowadays, we live many miles apart and I sometimes go for years without seeing her. But when my name is in the paper, I know she loves me for it still.

She is a smart woman who never got the education she thinks she deserved. Instead, she got married when she was 17 years old, had children, underpaid jobs, raised grandchildren, has great-grandchildren. Now this. In her old age, she is angry.

I wish she had raised me to hug and kiss her more. That is what I think she needs now. I know how the thought of blindness frightens her.

And no matter what she has said for all these years about wishing she was dead, I know the idea of death frightens her, too - now that she is old and sick and it seems so close. I wished I could fly to where she was, hug her, kiss her, tell her I loved her. After years of being smart (and being gone), I finally found my heart a few years ago. I needed to see her before the surgery, but I didn't. I knew better.

"What are you doing?" she would say, pushing me away.

We have a family portrait taken on my mother's 70th birthday a few years ago. My mother, father, two brothers, sister, me. All of us are grownups and several of us are large people. But somehow we all fit into the frame of the picture and not one of us is touching anyone else.

Whenever I look at it, I go and hug my wife. If my children are around, I hug them, too. (I understand the Tin Man more as I grow older and farther away from all that.)

But I would not be there when the surgeon sawed his little hole, opened her head and began to lift and cut. I knew how my mother felt waiting for it to happen. In my most frightening nightmares my head is always separated from my body. I can't stand to watch movies with hangings and decapitations. They trigger those nightmares. I am sure she had them, too. She taught me well.

I was not there to hug my mother as the anesthetic wore off. She didn't expect it. I couldn't do it. My sister was home for the surgery.

She said it probably was best that way. "If I go home, I am the helpful daughter," she said. "If you go home, it is an event." We are that kind of family, never touching, but always knowing where we stand (I am the firstborn, the War Baby, my father's namesake). I stayed away. It is the way we have loved each other for all these years.

While his mother sleeps, the Straw Man Dreams

To die, - to sleep; -

To sleep! perchance to dream: - ay, there's the rub.

-William Shakespeare

With her helpful daughter at home, my mother used up her anxiety, went to bed early and slept soundly the night before her brain surgery. She had to be at the hospital at 6:30 a.m. that Monday. She sighed a few times on the drive to the hospital. Other than that there was no sign she was nervous. Azaleas and rhododendrons were in full bloom. There had not been enough rain to trigger new growth on the kudzu and the vines hung brown in the trees along the way. When they put her in a wheelchair at the hospital and rolled her toward the surgical suite, my father watched her go. He said she never looked back.

"She waved her hand and the last thing I heard her say was, 'I'm tough,'" he said. He laughed about that. My mother comes from a large family of small people who value toughness above almost everything. My father and I are taller than that and my mother never has thought we measured up in the tough department. My father decided to live with it; I decided to go away.

Five hours later, my sister called to tell me the surgery was over. The tumor was gone. My mother was in recovery. She would be awake in a couple of hours, spend the night in intensive care, be back home again in a few days. Her sight was saved. And her blurred vision would clear over time. It was turning out to be a piece of cake, an easy walk in the overgrown park of my mother's brain, just like the surgeon promised.

I told my wife the good news over dinner. "But it wouldn't surprise me if they called and said she was in a coma," I said.

Not more than two minutes after I said it (and I can't explain why I said it other than that I could feel her sleeping, and the depth of her sleeping, miles away; I simply embraced her with my own mind; I do not believe in telepathy, but I do believe old habits of love are hard to break and this is our habit) the telephone rang.

It was my sister. Things had changed for the worse.

My mother was not awake and there was no sign that she would be awake anytime soon. At first they thought her brain was bruised because they had to lift the left front lobe to get to the tumor. There had been a seizure in the recovery room. Later they decided a vein had been damaged and broken (a veinous infarct). The doctor said she seemed a little weak on her right side. If she woke up, she probably would not speak for a while; her short-term memory would be gone. She would remain in intensive care. Her hospital stay would be longer. She would remember none of it. The doctor was reassuring.

Later, as I struggled to sleep, I realized it would not surprise me if they called to tell me my mother was dead. I tried to shove that thought off the bed and into the darkness. I pushed. The thought resisted, clinging to the covers. Sleep took a long time. Perhaps I feared meeting my mother coming the other way.

Several days later, my mother still was not awake. My father and my sister said she would open her eyes sometimes when someone said her name. My father said that is a good sign (after 58 years he cannot imagine his life without her in it and sees good signs in the smallest things), but she remained in intensive care. The doctor remained hopeful.

I wondered what my mother heard when someone spoke her name. Did she hear my father's familiar voice calling her to wake up one more time or just another voice disturbing wonderful and impossible dreams of things she thought she never would see or of voices she never would hear?

She sleeps! Perchance she dreams. Let her sleep.

The naked truth: the Straw Man in dear old Dixie

"Now I want you to tell me just one thing more. Why do you hate the South?"

"I dont hate it...I dont hate it." I dont. I dont! I dont hate it! I dont hate it.

Absalom, Absalom!

-William Faulkner

If there is one thing I miss about the South, it is spring (well, spring and hushpuppies; sweet tea and barbecue; disappointed and thin-lipped white women, confused and pussy-whipped men of all colors; good manners hiding all sorts of bad stuff; old ladies with sick headaches; potato salad after it's been left out in the sun for a few hours at the family reunion; secrets, lies, deceit, what Tennessee Williams identified as the odor of mendacity and other joys of life in a big old Southern family - all covered up with those very good manners, of course; gray liver pudding browned in bacon grease for breakfast; red dirt, white trash, black people and the rest of the honeysuckle-and kudzu-bound landscape of my boyhood), but by the time I arrived in North Carolina a week-and-a-half after my mother's surgery, the azaleas were past their peak. Some rhododendrons were blooming, but the dogwoods were gone. It had rained hard a couple of times and the kudzu was growing, the leaves thickening; honeysuckle was blooming and there was that little clear drop of nectar to suck out of the tapered back ends of the blossoms. (I have lived in the desert where if you want honeysuckle you have to buy it. I miss honeysuckle and I've thought about buying some, but can't bring myself to pay 10 bucks for a one-gallon bucket of what, to my vestigial Southern mind, are pernicious weeds.) I was home.

He kept telling me how well my mother was doing. She still had her catheter and her feeding tube and she couldn't really talk and her right side was weak, but she was awake more every day and sometimes she even seemed to know when you spoke to her, he said. I smiled and nodded. He talked all the way to the door of her room but I'm not sure he even convinced himself she was getting better.

I thought I was prepared for anything and the way she looked - frail, her eyes dark and sunken, the bad color of her skin, the long scar on her head - didn't surprise me. She looked nearly dead and I was prepared for that, too.

But I was not ready to see my grandparents drift across her face that way.

When I first walked in, she looked just like her father - the hook of the nose, the mole on the cheek; later, as I sat beside her and held her hand, she looked like her mother in profile, small faced, small featured, disappointed. I watched her parents chase each other across her face: the father she always wanted to please (she has convinced herself she was his favorite little girl), the mother she had to take care of for more than 30 years after her father's death (she claims he made her promise before he died, and it is the kind of thing he would demand of his dutiful and devoted middle child). I recognized those faces and their demands and disappointments. I grew up with them. They were some of the faces I had to get away from in the first place, faces in which tyranny and love were confused, faces that would leave my 75-year-old mother still trying to be the favorite child and the dutiful daughter of her long dead Daddy.

As I sat next to my mother and watched those old faces come and go, I felt something, but I was not sure whether it was the feeling of winning or losing. I realized that if my children ever stand over me, they never will recognize the faces fighting to possess me. They do not know their grandparents the way I knew mine. They do not know their aunts, uncles, cousins.

They do not know the burden of family. But isn't that for the best? Isn't that what I have always wanted? I remember reading Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead" when I was young. "Shall we...set up the grave/In the house? The ravenous grave?"

No, my boy's heart said. No. No. No grave in my house. I left the houses and the graves and the faces, all fighting to possess me and ran away. Perhaps they will return at the end and scrabble across my face like crabs on a drowned man, but my children will not know them well enough to recognize them. They will stare into my face and see nothing there but me. That's all I ever wanted.

My father does not understand such a desire. Late one night, after we returned home from the hospital, he said, "You know who you look like? You look just like your great-grandfather. The older you get, the more you look like him."

There is only one photograph of my great grandfather.

His name was John. On July 4, 1896, he went into the woods and shot himself. He had a wife, children... a mostly grown 16-year-old daughter and a baby son one day shy of seven months old on the day his father died (the baby would grow up to be my grandfather), three others spaced in between, two boys and a girl.

In the photograph taken in 1895, when his wife was already pregnant with the baby, John wears the wool suit he will be buried in. He looks uncomfortable in his high collar and tie, but it seems that something more than the suit is making him uncomfortable. Everyone else stares directly, seriously at the camera. His eyes are downcast, his mouth a downcurving line under his mustache, his chin and brow puckered with the effort he is making to do this.

He fed them all by farming tobacco and by working as a carpenter, but for a man who did physical labor his whole adult life, his shoulders are small and rounded. He stands between his wife with her rounding belly and his oldest daughter who rests her left hand on the shoulder of her brother, the only ones touching. In front of them sit John's mother and his wife's mother, between them his other daughter. At the right of the picture, John's youngest son, who will be dead of tuberculosis in a few years, seems already to be edging away from the rest of them. The two old women wear aprons and everyone is buttoned to the neck.

Four of these people, John, his wife, and their mothers, have lived through the Civil War and the 30 years after it and they have survivors' somber faces, hard, determined, but without any particular boldness. John's hands are hidden, but the women's hands all are large and strong. They stand before the open doorway of a house or shed with board and batten walls. Light leaks through cracks in the wall behind them.

My father says the older I get, the more I look like this man. I already am 16 years older than he was the day he walked into the dusty July woods and shot himself. He was 40 years old.

This never seems to occur to my father as we sit and talk and he drags out an enlarged and hand-tinted picture of my great-grandfather (taken from the family photo). "The eyes," he said.

"Look at the eyes."

Do I look like him? I don't see it. But there is something about his eyes that I recognize. There is suicide in his eyes. I saw those eyes in the mirror for years and then I went away. It was the only way I could save myself. There is something about the eyes, but my father would never understand even if I tried to explain it.

I spent 10 days back in North Carolina. I found out my 18-year-old nephew was out at the prison farm (like his father before him) doing a little time on a drug conviction (history); I found out my cousin (37 years old, unmarried and still living with her parents) was pregnant (and that the baby's father was a black state trooper she has dated for years). "So is my grandchild going to come out looking black?" her father asked. "I hope so," she said. "Otherwise I am in trouble." Her father reportedly didn't laugh (I see definite progress, but my uncle probably would not agree).

And I hugged my mother every day. I even kissed her sometimes. Why not? The doctor said her short-term memory was shot. She never would remember any of it anyway. She would not remember being in the hospital. She wouldn't even remember I had been there. There was nothing to be afraid of. "I love you, Mom," I said.

Gilbert Barber died naked in front of the Oak Grove Baptist Church. He lost five teeth trying to eat the collection plate before he died. Wheel of Fortune came on and I eased her wheelchair a little closer to the TV. Sometimes a man just feels like getting naked, running around the Baptist church and gnawing on the collection plate. I know that feeling. I just know better than to do it too close to home. A man could end up dead.