Friends Show Up

Denise is one of my oldest friends.

Her great-aunt was my next door neighbor. Some of my earliest memories of playing with other kids involve her. We would play in her aunt’s yard, making mud pies where the tractor had wallowed out a hole.

In the fifth grade, I would change schools from the small Christian academy I had attended to the public school in the next county. She and I were now in the same grade, and we would be schoolmates until high school graduation when she chose a college and I chose the Marines.

Her mother was a constant presence in my life. First, it was when she would come to visit her aunt, and she and her aunt would chat while Denise and I would play in the yard. When I went to Junior High, she was the manager of the school cafeteria, and I would see her every day at lunch. More than once I would forget my lunch money and she would slip me in.

Denise and her mother are two of the few people in my life who still call me by my first and middle name together. Basically, the only people who do that are people who knew me before the age of 10 or so.

A few months ago, Denise’s mom took a turn for the worse, and this past Friday night she passed away, surrounded by her family.

So tomorrow I will get in the car and drive the three hours to go home, to walk into a funeral home I have been in dozens of times because that is where my people go, and see my old friend and say goodbye to her mother.

And this is why I moved back to Mississippi. Because I suck at being a friend, but even I know that friends show up. And it is much easier to show up when you live three hours away than when you live 12.

I spent most of my life running away – from my childhood, my upbringing, my class, my people, and from Mississippi itself. I always thought of all of that as a weakness I had to compensate for. It has only been in recent years that I realized that all of that was actually not only a strength but a superpower.

The most Mississippi story ever

On the night of June 11, 1963, Dr. James Hardy performed the first successful lung transplant from one human to another. That happened at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, in Jackson, MS. Because of that doctor’s work, and that surgery, and his transplantation of a chimpanzee heart to a human (also at the University Medical Center, in Jackson MS) the following year, there are many, many thousands of people – including my wife – who are alive today who otherwise would have died.

About twenty-four hours later, on a quiet street in Jackson MS, a civil rights worker named Medgar Evers was shot down in his driveway by Byron De La Beckwith, a white supremacist. He was taken by ambulance to the University of Mississippi Medical Center, which according to some reports, initially would not admit him to the emergency room because of his race until it was explained who he was. He died of his injuries. His murderer would be free for more than 30 years before being convicted.

And that 24 hours is the most goddamned emblematic story of Mississippi I know. Horror and hope, death and resurrection, terror and triumph – all in the same 24 hours, in the same city, at the same damned hospital, even. Mississippi is the best place I know. And the worst place I know. It will suck you in with its charms. And it will break your heart.