There are so many things I want to tell you. So many things I wish I’d asked. That seems natural, doesn’t it? I’m told I liked nothing better, when I was a small child, than standing at your elbow and talking at you. You’d come home from the office, loosen your tie, pour yourself a drink, and sit in a lawn chair to smoke and read the paper until your dinner was ready. I would wander out into the back yard to find you. I have no memory of all this and that suits me fine. I prefer to imagine it from the perspective of a certain person standing at the kitchen window, peering out at her lean, olive-skinned husband and the plump, pink-cheeked boy – their boy — who shared his name.
Let’s get something out of the way. You asked me a question on the night before you went back into the hospital for the last time. You were propped up in your bed, and I was sitting across the room from you. The lights were off, because we hoped you might drop off for a bit. Maybe it was the circumstances, maybe it was the darkness. For whatever reason, it seemed easier than usual for us to talk. You asked me about race. You wanted to know whether I thought I’d see, in my lifetime, the fulfillment of Martin Luther King’s dream.
So here’s some news. Not too long after you died, we chose a black man for president. No, I’m completely serious. Not only that, we reelected him four years later. His daughters – the descendants of slaves – are growing up in the White House.
I wish you could have been with me on the day before his first election. I had signed up to work as a volunteer. His campaign sent me to the West End MARTA Station in Atlanta to pass out leaflets. You can imagine how I felt. I was standing just a mile or so from the campus of Morehouse College — King’s alma mater, of course. The people I was urging to vote would have walked through fire to vote that year. They would have dragged themselves to the polls, if they’d had to. And yet in their giddiness, they stepped off their trains and smiled at the overexcited white man standing in their station encouraging them to turn out to vote for their candidate. They smiled at me. Can you believe it?
I wish you had been there.
I know what you would ask next. Yes, he is a good man and no, he is not much of a politician. Honestly, I’m not sure that it’s possible to find both a good person and a good politician in one and the same person. Not these days.
Everyone in your family is well. I should have started with that. You have two additional grandsons, two more granddaughters, and a great-grandson. And this, too: believe it or not, your own family is now biracial. If only they could have foreseen this, those soldiers in our ancestry who marched and fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. Could have foreseen that in the end, it was all pointless. That there was no honor in it. That perhaps it’s true that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
In any case, where to begin? Maybe I should start by making clear that I understand, or understand better, what eluded me for so long. Even if I can describe it only obliquely, only elliptically. To do more is impossible. Some things are simply too large. Too potent. Some things we can approach only via metaphor.
Anyway, not quite two years ago, I forgot how to sleep. Champion insomniac that you once were, you get what I mean. I don’t mean a single night of fretful sleep. Not a couple of nights when I had difficulty getting to sleep. No, this was a long siege. This was something biblical in scale. The eleventh plague, something like that.
I want you to know that during that time, at night and in the wee hours and in the hour or two before dawn, when I was desperate to calm my mind and quiet my nerves and slow the heavy thud-thud-thud of my heart, I would lie with my eyes closed and make the trip home. In my mind, I would pull out of my driveway, drive through the neighborhood, find the main road and, soon after that, speed onto the interstate highway. Every dip and turn of that highway is familiar to me. I could see them all in my mind’s eye. Here now is the exit. Here are the little, dying towns that dot the map of my childhood. Here is the bridge over the creek and the town cemetery and Broad Street and the leafy tunnel leading me home.
Did it help me sleep? Now and again. But my point in relating this is not to say something sentimental about the special power of one’s childhood home. On the contrary.
I am guessing that there were nights when you yourself made exactly the opposite journey. There you were, lying wide awake in bed, the house ticking around you, six people in rooms nearby sighing and snuffling and slumbering. At such times, surely, you imagined what it might be like to live in a place where you could be anonymous. Where you could choose for yourself the burdens that you would have to bear. Where no ghosts would trouble your dreams.
We’re vagabonds, all of us. That’s my metaphor. The long, long arc of the universe — that’s the same one, differently expressed.
The yearning for a deep and dreamless sleep, and for the bright morning that comes after. That’s what I missed. That’s what we all share.