Last Sunday morning I sat in my kitchen, drinking coffee and listening to the rain fall on leaves and gravel.
When it eased a little, the squirrel I call Charles appeared, searching for me through the screen door. I tossed him peanuts and apologized for keeping him waiting. It was a lazy morning.
Later in the day, my friend Eddie Huffman sent me a link to a song, “You Missed My Heart,” the version sung by Phoebe Bridgers (written by Jimmy LaValle and Mark Kozelek). It name-checks some places we’d seen during a trip to West Virginia several years ago.
It’s essentially a murder ballad, along the lines of the Louvin Brothers’ “Knoxville Girl,” but with an arrangement and performance so delicate that it comes across more as a tender tale of heartache, of love gone wrong. It got stuck in my head and became the soundtrack for my week.
Sunday evening, I learned that my friend Michael Renegar had died.
His death was unexpected. I’d seen him in the hospital the week before, where he was being treated for complications from diabetes, and he had been cleared to go home. But he never made it.
I first met Michael when I reviewed his first collection of ghost stories, “Roadside Revenants,” for the Journal, some … goodness, 14 years ago. He was the best storyteller I ever listened to — not because of any level of polished technique, but because of his obvious enthusiasm for the tales. Michael knew the stories cold, their histories, their rhythms and details. They were part of his heritage.
He was also one of the gentlest people I’ve ever met. A big man, he could get fiery online, like so many of us do, but in person, he always spoke softly. Even in the midst of his health trials, of which there were many, he usually had a smile on his face.
I wish I could have shared one more Halloween with him.
An only child, Michael was especially close to his parents. His mother, Katie Lee, died about six months ago. A day never passed that Michael didn’t mourn her. And now, his elderly father, Flay, mourns him. So does his writing partner, Amy Greer; they were close enough that they called each other “Brother” and “Sis.”
And in that, in being mourned, Michael is blessed. There are people who gave a damn whether he lived or died. Not everybody has that. Not everybody gets to be someone else’s favorite person.
There’s a strange juxtaposition in America right now. There’s so much suffering, because of the virus, because of unemployment, uncertainty, and because of prejudice. At the same time, there’s so much anger — toward the people who are suffering. Some just don’t want to be bothered. They want to be blithe. But since they can’t be, they’re angry instead. People cry out — we’re being hurt, we’re being killed — and the response they hear is, “I’ve got everything I need, why don’t you?”
A minor case came before the Supreme Court earlier this month — a sort of clean-up detail from the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges decision. The Court declined to hear it, but Justice Clarence Thomas took the opportunity to assert that he thought the decision, which declared that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry under the 14th Amendment guarantee to equal protection of the law, had been decided wrongly. His statement made no difference to the law; it was just an opportunity to express a little spite, apparently.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett spent the week trying to assure Senate Democrats that she wasn’t going to destroy people’s lives, but Thomas reminded us that he’s not given up yet.
Remember how same-sex marriage was supposed to bring about the end of civilization? The Bible would be labeled “hate speech” and preachers would be forced to perform gay marriages in their churches?
It’s been five years and none of that has happened.
So you’d think we could move on. You’d think we’d have bigger fish to fry, like figuring out how to provide everyone with access to health care and a living wage.
But some will never give up trying to control other people’s lives.
They turn to young people, LGBT youth, who are ostracized and bullied and, as a result, have higher-than-average rates of suicide.
Treating them with dignity is literally suicide prevention. But that would call for caring rather than condemning.
People are separated from their loved ones, behind panes of glass in hospital beds. They’re desperate for touch, for comfort. The separation could have been prevented — if not by the government, by a citizenry that said, “Sure, I’ll wear a mask.” But.
Despite the beauty of this world, life can be harsh at times. People have to deal with its jagged edges, and it can crush them.
Anyone who can find love is blessed. Anyone who hears “I will have your back always” is blessed. Anyone who would be mourned is blessed.
Damn the people who stand in their way.
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