Secrets I’m Dying to Tell You

By Terry Barr

When I published my second book of essays, my mother commented that I had “told all her secrets now.” But that wasn’t true; neither she nor I had revealed them all yet.

I write this in the aftermath of the unfolding Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey Ford trauma. We know whose story the majority of Senate Judiciary Committee believes, and many of us are not surprised. But do we know how Kavanaugh explained his actions to his daughter? Has he told her what sexual assault means?

I am deeply troubled by so many aspects of this story including, and maybe most of all, what this little girl will now live through and with. Her father and his story.

One question people are asking is why Dr. Blasey Ford waited thirty-six years to tell her story. People who ask such questions might never have been victims themselves, but I can’t claim to know what motivates their wondering. I’ve never told how I was a victim of a would-be sexual predator either, and I’m a sixty-something-year-old white man. I have my reasons, so I imagine Dr. Blasey Ford has hers, many of which we’re seeing hypothesized in print these days.
But back to my mother and the printing of her secrets and dying days.

*    *    *

Exactly a week before she died, my mother sat in her hospital bed entertaining her troops—her legion of family and friends who seemingly couldn’t get enough of her stories; her prescriptions on life and how to live it; her pronouncements as to who and what were “just plain stupid.”

We—my wife, two daughters, and brother—had again fallen victim to her “stupid” indictment. Mom had liver cancer, and though she knew she was terminal, she didn’t know how long she had left. Nor did she know that her oncologist had told us that Mom would likely die this very Saturday, not knowing, of course, that it is in my mother’s nature—and perhaps in that of every Southern woman of her generation—not to heed any doctor’s warning or label and, in fact, to spite whatever pronouncement they might make.

“I just hate doctors,” she told everyone after she had undergone a lung biopsy earlier that year that came back negative. “They just put you through hell!”

So spite can prolong life for an indeterminate time.

We who still treat doctors as gods knew that her time was limited, though. When we’d return to her house at night for whatever hours’ sleep we could grab, none of us had the heart to sleep in Mom’s bed. Of course, each morning when we’d return to the hospital, she’d ask us two series of questions:

“What did y’all have her breakfast? Did you find the sweet potato bread I had frozen, or the sausages and bacon?”

“Yes ma’am, we did,” and though my wife had actually eaten her standard fruit and yogurt, enough of us had enjoyed the food Mom left that we felt our answer to be truthful and satisfying.

It was our answer to her second question that incurred her wrath:

“Now, where did y’all sleep last night? I hope someone slept in my bed!”

Our sheepish smiles told her everything.

“Well, Mike [my brother] slept in the back bedroom, Pari and Layla [our daughters] on the fold-out couch, and Nilly [my wife] and I slept on the air mattress,” I confessed.

Mom looked at us just like we had decided to touch an electrified fence.

“Well, that’s just stupid. You have that big comfortable bed with the Pillowtop mattress, and no one slept in it? And instead, the two of you slept on an air mattress? Why that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard!”

She was as mad and exasperated with us as I’ve ever seen her.

I wonder now: on this day when she was “supposed” to die, did our foolishness keep her going? It must have, as she proceeded to castigate us to all the friends who began dropping by her room at 10 that morning and kept dropping by until 8 that evening. One of her friends told us that Mom’s minister Alan Head, who came by that afternoon, reported the next morning from his pulpit that Mom’s room was one big party:

“From the minute you get off the elevator, you see a line stretching all the way down the hall from her room. I believe I even saw the Chippendale dancers waiting to get in!” he joked.

My mother loved Rev. Head and allowed him to pray for her that Saturday.

“Just don’t go on like that chaplain who came in here yesterday did,” she told him. “I thought that man was never going to leave! I’m sure he was a Baptist.”

“Don’t worry,” Rev. Head said. “I’m going to give you a good old Methodist prayer, about ten seconds’ worth.”

That he might have pushed his blessing to fifteen seconds caused none of us, even the non-believers, any concern.

What I’m saying is that despite what we knew, despite how full of sorrow we were, and despite the reality facing us if not this day, then one day soon, we were thankful, and, yes, blessed to have this time with my mother. I remember saying to everyone who asked about Mom’s prognosis:

“We really don’t know how long we have, so I am just enjoying this moment, and the ones to come. If I’ve learned anything about this process, it’s that none of us knows anything about it.”

I knew my mother was not going to beat this disease. She was eighty-five and even if it would have helped, she had refused chemotherapy. Still, when I looked over all the people who loved her, I felt as though these moments of peace, of bliss, might last forever.

The night before, our first hospice nurse had visited. Ron was a kind man, and he took my brother and me to another room where we could fill out the paperwork and talk quietly. He offered us information about hospice services and promised to make this part of life as painless, as kind, and as loving as possible. His wife, Kim—also a hospice nurse—came the next morning to examine Mom, and she told me afterward that she didn’t think Mom was “imminent.”

“She looks good, actually,” Kim said.

Again, this was Saturday, the day her oncologist had predicted Mom would pass. So after Kim’s examination, I had every reason to think that we had many good days left, perhaps even weeks. Understandably, I felt better than I had since Mom’s diagnosis four days earlier. I felt something like joy.

And then Hell, otherwise known as a new hospice nurse, ascended.

Because I am a polite Southern man, I won’t name this woman. What I can say is that while I was standing in the hallway waiting on a nurse’s aide to finish giving my mother a sponge bath, this new hospice nurse appeared out of nowhere, walked over to me, and after briefly introducing herself, launched into the reason for her visit.

“Your mother is now in respite care, which means that you have five days to decide what to do with her. She has to leave the hospital after that time and either go home or go into another facility. That’s the government talking, not me.”

She might have reiterated this message two or three times, as if I were dumb. As if, somehow, I wasn’t grieving and in a semi-state of shock.

“You’re going to have to decide and come up with a plan by Monday.”

So much for the peace that passes all understanding.

Her work wasn’t done, however.

“Now I’m going in to see your mother and do my voodoo on her.”

At that point she was joined by the hospice case manager and by the hospital’s social worker; each spoke much more graciously and compassionately to us. Yet when they finally had all left us, I felt complete despair.

It was only after she left that my mother reported one other chapter of this voodoo woman’s hellish mouth:

“She asked me what religious denomination I belonged to, and when I told her I was a Methodist, she said, ‘Well I’m a Baptist. Don’t you know that Baptists are the best?’”

Maybe there is room for levity as a woman lies dying. But not from a stranger, and definitely not from someone whose main calling is to convey compassion and care.

“Oh Mom, I’m so sorry.” And then I added my own lightness, for I have that right, “If only you had a copy of my book with you!”

“Yeah, that would have shown her!”

My mother had inspired the title of my first essay collection: “Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother,” the advisory being something she had told me when I was fourteen and considering the world of girls. I did date some Baptists, though, and if she minded, she never directly said.

On the next day I called the hospice office and formally complained about this worker and her manner—her way of making us feel threatened, harassed, like we were being evicted alone and helpless into some netherworld.

“If she ever returns,” I said, “I will personally bar her from getting close to my mother.”

The manager assured me that we’d never see this woman again, that she had “too much on her plate” that day and shouldn’t have been sent out in the first place. She was “old school and spoke her mind.” Later, another hospice nurse told me that this old school voodoo nurse’s mouth had gotten her into trouble before, yet not enough trouble to keep her from being foisted upon us.

We never saw that worker again, and everyone else who came from that agency, especially Jennifer and Holly, provided just what we needed: comfort and care, honesty and compassion. I wish, though, that all their care could have undone those few moments of terror on the Saturday my mother was supposed to die. 

However, terror finds its way to us at any time, regardless of our emotional state, regardless of proper decorum or etiquette.

And especially regardless of whether we believe we are living in a place of refinement, proper manners, and the best breeding. Old southern charm and “our way of life down here,” are only words on a page, after all.

*    *    *

“Grandma, tell us about the strangest thing that ever happened to you!”

On this supposedly fated Saturday night, I started to say to my daughters, “Be careful what you ask for,” especially if the person you’re asking is your grandmother who loves to tell stories and who, in her dying days, might be especially uncensored.

“The strangest thing that ever happened to me? Hmm. Well, I guess it was when I was at Ramsay High School and was walking home one day. I was walking down Highland Avenue and this boy I knew, though I didn’t know him well, pulled alongside me and offered me a ride. I shouldn’t have gone, but I did. He was one of those blacks….”

At this point, I couldn’t think straight. First, for the last thirty years or so, Mom has referred to African-American people as “blacks,” a term she might have found inoffensive, but which always made me wince. The only other group she lumped into one category no matter the individual was the Baptists. Understand: I am not apologizing for her; these were her views, her life.

Though my mind reeled with this decades-old insult, I still couldn’t process my mother getting in the car with a Black man, circa 1948/49.

“Well, we rode for a ways, past the turn to my house. ‘Where are we going?’ I asked, but he wouldn’t say anything. And then he suddenly pulled over off the side of the road. Before I knew it, he was on me. He was one of the Blach’s.”

And then it hit me.

“Do you mean ‘one of the Blach’s’ like the department store Blach’s?”

“Yes, like I said, one of the Blach’s.”

Blach’s was one of Birmingham’s oldest and most prestigious businesses. Its store trademark logo, which the family registered, was “Fair and Square.” About the emblem accompanying this logo:

‘First you see the circle, indicative of [the] endless power of good within.
Second, you see the lily, indicative of purity. Third, you see the green leaf, indicative of everlasting life. Fourth, you see the square, indicative of true dealing. Then taking the lily in its fair whiteness and combining it with the square, you produce the well-known motto of this firm—Fair and Square—which has not a blot of unjust dealing against it’ (Hollis, Memories of Downtown Birmingham, 19-20).

Of course, for decades and into the 1960s, Blach’s engaged in complete racial segregation, as did all of downtown Birmingham’s retail stores, so “unjust” is entirely relative and subjective. Considering the earnestness of the emblem and its description, however, what my mother said next is particularly disturbing:

“Before I knew it, he came at me, and he had a pair of those dental braces dentists use to pry your mouth open while they do a filling. He stuck that brace in my mouth!”

“What did you do, Grandma?”

“I fought him off. Finally, I was able to get out of that car before he did anything else. I tell you, he was some kind of sadist.”

“Did you ever tell anyone about what happened, Grandma?”

“No, I never did. Oh, maybe I told one of my friends back then, but no one else. Not until now.”

Using the Google search engine, my daughter Layla tried looking up the name of this Blach boy, but she had no luck. Besides, time was running out on this night, and we all wanted to talk more. The stories turned lighter, and my daughters recorded everything Mom said on their iPhones. They had her say all her “southernisms”—“Bless your heart,” “Lord have Mercy”—and they even had her shout a big “Roll Tide.”

It’s hard to forget trauma, though, even and perhaps especially seventy-year-old trauma.

As I lay in the hospital cot next to Mom that night, and lying next to me, Layla, who didn’t want me to watch alone, I kept thinking of my mother as a naïve young girl, too trusting for her own good. It’s strange, indeed, what happened to her. I wouldn’t allow my mind then to contemplate just what this boy planned to do once he had my mother’s mouth pried open. Now, I can’t make my imagination stop.

Once when I was a boy, I overheard my grandmother telling one of her friends that my Mom “just isn’t kissable.” I must have been nine or ten, and I wondered what that meant, how my grandmother would know. Now, maybe I understand.

Less than three years after this assault, however, my mother met and fell in love with my father. She was eighteen, and he, twenty-five. They were married forty-eight years.

I coupled this scene of my mother’s near-rape with another incident she had told me about: a boy she was on a date with also tried to rape her in a remote Birmingham setting. She escaped and had to walk alone through downtown Birmingham late at night before she found a cab. According to her, she managed to get away before the very worst happened. That the worst could have happened; that I might not know everything about these incidents; that there might be other incidents keeps me from sleeping well.

I think one of the worst things I can imagine and envision is my mother, a girl alone, vulnerable and innocent, being treated in the worst possible way. She did her best to protect me, but who protected her?

In one of our last conversations alone, I was telling my mother how I never wanted to be parted from her, how when I was a boy, my bouts of homesickness when I spent the night with friends, were due to missing her.

“I was the same way when I was a little girl,” she told me. “Once, I was spending the night across the street with Emily Staub, and I got to missing my mother so badly that I just got up and ran across the street home. I was just a little girl.”

As a boy in kindergarten, I had to recite with my class every morning the 23rd Psalm. When we got to the part about “walking through the valley of the shadow of death,” I’d start crying, every day. No teacher could ever extract from me why I cried. No one made the connection between verse and my tears at all, and I couldn’t tell them what I saw when I heard those words.

Until kindergarten, I was with my mother every day, and on many of these days, we’d walk down the sidewalk in our neighborhood, our shadows looming in front or behind, as the sun goes. Sometimes, Mom would pick up a rock or a stick to ward off unfriendly dogs, holding my hand all the while. I always feared the one place at the end of the block: a vacant lot bordered by high, untended shrubs, which anyone could have been lurking behind. I imagined that after I went to kindergarten, she’d walk down the street alone, without me, and whatever comfort or protection I could provide.

That was when I’d cry, when I saw her all alone.

Two days after the deadline hospice had given us for leaving the hospital, from some quarter of my brain, I saw my sidewalk path clearly. My mother still looked good, and if we had to go somewhere, it would be to her home. Though I had to get a hospital bed, I could put her sheets and pillows on it. There is a comfort in home even when it’s bound to be your dying place. Leaving the hospital that late morning, Mom dressed up again, complete with makeup and lipstick. She would never go anywhere looking like she had just gotten out of bed, like she was sick or alone, vulnerable or dying.

She lived another four days, spending most of that time in bed or in her recliner. She took to that chair, her favorite in the house, where she watched her “programs” like “Chicago Fire,” “Law and Order: SVU,” and MSNBC’s lineup of progressive news. She particularly loved Chris Hayes’ “Thing 1 and Thing 2,” and of course, Rachel Maddow. The darkness of the Trump era revved Mom up, and her dearest hope was to live to see “that stupid fool” impeached or otherwise gotten rid of. 

I know what she would have thought of the Kavanaugh affair. I can hear her now saying, “Such a disgrace.”

And I’d understand that for her, this wasn’t just politics. Like many other women I know, this assault was her awful reality.

My wife, my brother, our good friend Sally, and I were with her until the end—comforting her, helping her walk into that valley, as she departed us.

I thought about trying to find the man who hurt her, the one who forced a dentist’s vise on her. He’d be in his late 80’s now, if he’s still alive. I thought about doing more research into his family, even contacting them. But what would be the point? I couldn’t prove anything, and the victim herself can’t tell her story. I am even taking a risk by naming the predator as far as I have.

A man named Blach, from a once-prominent Birmingham family.

That’s all I know, and it will never be enough. But I believe it happened. I believe my mother. Like in the other #MeToo cases I’ve heard, I know that there is nothing to be gained from her making this story up. I know that in this memory, my mother was definitely not “mixed-up.”

A couple of weeks after the Kavanaugh confirmation, I was discussing with my Intro to Literature students an act of violence against a woman in Chris Offut’s novel, Country Dark. One of my male students asked if I thought things were turning around now, meaning that women were now gaining the upper hand by falsely accusing men of rape and other acts of violence or by waiting so long to accuse these men that no one can prove whether the act actually occurred or not.

“No,” I said. “I don’t believe things are ‘turning around.’ Kavanaugh is now a justice, and Dr. Ford has been ridiculed by many, including the President.”

I didn’t stop there, however; I decided to tell my mother’s story. Maybe she wouldn’t have wanted me to. But given the stunned silence that followed this telling, I think I did the right thing.

“That’s nearly seventy years she waited before telling this story,” I said. “She figured no one would believe her, or that telling would cause trouble for her family given that his was so socially prominent.”

As I continue to tell her strange secret, I don’t feel so alone now. But I do feel the sorrow, the emptiness, and need to make sense of all that happened to her. To us. To rely on the goodness and mercy that she gave me and that I hope I returned to her, every day of her life, and especially when she felt as alone as I once did.

Artwork is “Collapse” by Brenden Barraza.