📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
In September 2018, three days before my twenty-second birthday, The Washington Post published an article called: "The Strawberry Capital of the World is the early death capital of the U.S.: lessons from a landmark dataset." It says that my hometown Stilwell, Oklahoma, has the lowest life expectancy in the United States. It says that people who live there are expected to die a whole generation, some twenty-two years, before the national average. It says: "Blacks and Native Americans predominate in many of the neighborhoods at the bottom of the list and have much shorter life expectancy than people of other races and ethnicities." Earlier, in 2016, the Tulsa World ran this headline: "Rural poverty: 'A way of life' for numerous Oklahomans." The story profiles someone whose cousin I went to high school with and calls Stilwell, "one of the poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Oklahoma."
Neither article says, "and we made it that way," though I don't expect them to.
Once the Washington Post article goes live, however, there is pushback, there is outrage. From the community leaders, the tribe, my mother's coworker's sister's husband. The study is flawed. The study is skewed. The Cherokee Nation works hard to correct the moniker, but it sticks. There are problems, pervasive, societal, systemic, influenced by race and yes, the places we live, but they can't be told by just numbers. Strawberry Land is still at the bottom, but not as far as they thought.
I can neither be smug nor relieved. There is no way to tell the whole truth without unraveling the past more than I can stand. I cannot get away from the instinct to protect, to shroud. Who exactly am I protecting, if not myself? If not—
But then—My father, gone, gone, gone. Like wind and rain, and—where is my tidy explanation? My statistics? I am made bereft by data. I am—
It doesn't matter.
The question remains: How can I contextualize the grief I'm not sure I'm allowed to have?
This, like all stories, is a ghost story. There are secret names, haunted houses, unanswerable questions, unutterable sentiments. I can tell you where I've been, where I'm at, but can only guess where I'm going. I can only give you what has already died.
My father dies the way he was born—screaming.
But first—I am folding laundry, dosed high enough on SSRIs that the overwhelming panic seeping through every second of my day is background noise, high static in my ears when I get the call. It is Big Brother and Big Sister's mother, my father's first wife. She says, your sister wanted me to tell you that George died this morning. She says he must have had a massive heart attack, we're not sure. Your cousin, *****, was there and he yelled for him, but when he got there he was already gone. She asks me if I'm okay and I say: this hurts more than I thought it would.
In the seconds after she hangs up, there is a headache already forming across my brow, pounding into the backs of my eyes. I call my mother, but she is in church, like every other Sunday. I breathe in and out. Hard, heavy. Then I call my grandmother. I don't remember what I tell her, but I must say something, I must because the call ends and there is no struggle. Then I text my friends. Then, I tuck myself into bed, shaking, and cannot bring myself to close my eyes.
When sleep comes, it's a soft wave. Where there once was a field of elk, a mouth in the floor of the woods, a hand stroking my hair, a prophecy, a premonition—there is nothing.
In earlier conceptions of this essay, I thought I would interview townspeople and businesses. I thought I might call the mayor. I wanted sources, yes, to confirm my lived experiences, to validate me, to—but I knew, and I know, that it wouldn't have helped. By writing this, I am betraying myself. I am marking myself as a traitor. They say once you leave, you can never go home again. They're right. My free therapist says, have you always been this afraid? And I—
I will tell you the truth, though. I didn't want to be Indian. I thought it was unworthy. I told myself this lie until college when my last name told my truth for me. Then, I wanted to know, I wanted to learn. I wanted to crack myself open and categorize. I wanted to know how much of me was white, like my mother, like the only parent I ever had, and how much wasn't. I was still getting it wrong. I was still stumbling. I had this privilege, I recognize it, though the guilt threatens to choke me. Clarity would come, eventually, but not without painful growth. By then, though, the only person who could tell me the truth was already lost in the woods.
I grew up in the foothills of the Ozarks in a single-wide trailer next to my grandparents. My mother was a high school teacher. My father was, too, for a little while, until he stopped caring about anything except fun and drugs and drink. He was excellent at Trivial Pursuit but tried to cheat at cards. He couldn't look me in the face. When my white grandfather died he said, I'm so sorry. He once asked me if I felt Indian and I couldn't answer him. I hated him. I loved him. I wanted him to see me for what I was, but I think his vision was split. I think he saw me as a little girl, hair wild, tan from roaming, and not yet made pale by winter. I think he saw me for what I could have been. I don't want to talk about that one.
I call Strawberry Land, Strawberry Land because it feigns authorial distance. It paints a picture. It transports us somewhere else. Don't you want to go somewhere else?
The name Oklahoma is taken from two Choctaw words which mashed together and translated means 'red people.' Red like earth. Red like blood.
They once called this place Indian Territory. With that considered, the name, then, seems more like a taunt than an honorific. Cyrus Bennington, though, disagreed. He said it was good. He was a missionary. He sought to improve Choctaw linguistics, to translate the Bible and its verses into something they could understand. Forgive me if I doubt this white man's motives. Forgive me if I don't trust him. Forgive me.
My mother doesn't like to talk about my father, nor the things she experienced in the Blue House in the Woods. I don't blame her, though it is one of the major ways we differ. I like to pick until I can feel the pain, see the flesh underneath. I don't stop there, I don't know how. The House itself was built by a now-defunct tribal program. The House itself makes my stomach churn. At one time, I liked to think of myself above ghost stories, before I knew that they are the backbone of our lives, that everything is haunted, that I was. Now, it frightens me, the House. I feel like there is something in there, a culmination of too much drunkenness, and shooting up, and crack-smoking, and fear, and pain, and—
This is what I do know. My mother went into labor and my father and his friend were both wasted. The friend drove my mother to the hospital, running all three stop lights in town. My father may or may not have been there at the time of my birth, but he was gone soon after. He was incredibly late to pick my mother up when we were sent home and when she called him to remind him, there was a party going on, and Creedence Clearwater Revival was blasting.
This is what I do know. My mother was so sick, and so was I. I would cough from the time I was born and every summer and winter thereafter until I was almost seventeen. She asked my father to bring her Seven-Up, and he came back three days later with a plant from a roadside stand and the tiniest can of soda she had ever seen. It was Mother's Day.
This is what I do know. The day we left, my mother came home to my father digging a trench, filling it with water, and cutting off his own hair. He was trying to banish something, probably. It scared her. She was probably always scared, though she won't tell me. He was beyond words. He was somewhere else. I want to reach back into that memory and shake him free. I want to hurt him. I want him to hold me.
When my mother tells me these stories, I lay my head in her lap and think you can never leave me.
It is too late to save him, but I wonder if things would have been different had my father been born somewhere else, someone else. They almost certainly would have. He lived just past the false life expectancy at fifty-nine years and twelve days. The real average for our town is seventy-four years. For me, nothing changes.
In my dreams, the world moves, reshapes itself, like it always has for me, at least here. It says: Shall we move him a few miles away from Stilwell? Shall we imagine a new life for him? Shall we take away his joints and pipes and bottles of grain alcohol and cans of beer? Will it help? Will it hurt? Let's lay our father down, just for a little while. He is so heavy, and according to all the Etsy astrologers you pay when you are so sick from your own mind, you are going to live a long life. They don't say it's going to be good, but you don't expect them to.
When I die, they will print the news in the Stilwell Democrat Journal. I will have already written the obituary.
I started thinking about the movement of my grief in the humid, sticky summer after my dreams had returned. I snagged one of the only Airbnbs in rural Oklahoma and spent four days in a double-wide mobile home that had been converted into a cabin of sorts. The above-ground pool was closed for repair, so I sat on the porch instead. I read about the history of life here, listened to podcasts, and wept. It was in the middle of the woods and surrounded by dirt roads and pastures. I slept on the couch, not in a bed, and was awoken every morning by a large bird hitting the window at full speed. It was the same bird every time, and each time I closed my eyes he would knock again.
I stopped trying to sleep. I drove to my father's house and made the short hike to his grave, the back way. A long time ago, the Cherokee buried their dead on their property. It was a kind of symmetry, a deep lingering.
I heard the cicadas chirping and breathed in the honeysuckle. I thought about my father's first wife, how she treated me like one of her own, how she didn't have to. I thought about how at the funeral, I continued to feel isolated. No one said they were sorry to me. People weren't really sorry for me, in general. My father's sister's daughter even blamed him for her son's addiction, for his own lifestyle, and said this to my face, when no one else was around. When I had gone out for some air, to cry, to get away from the people I hadn't spoken to in a decade, more, I—
I don't think anyone saw me as his child, and I still didn't know how to feel about it. I scraped at the dirt with my shoes and stared into the treeline.
This was, I suppose, the closest we could get.
Later, when I was at my mother and stepfather's house, I said: this bird keeps knocking at my window, isn't that strange? I couldn't get the noise it was making out of my head where they buried George.
And my mother said he's saying he would crawl out of the grave for you if he could.
And I said—
If you're looking for answers, I am the wrong person to ask. I know that life is made easier and harder by a myriad of factors both beyond our control and within our reach. I know I have the kind of sadness that is semi-permanent, no matter how hard you wipe, there's still a film resting over me. I know that my father was a drunk, and a poet, and a crook, and a laugher, and a thousand other things I will never get the chance to know.
And yes, he was a terrible father. But how can you be a terrible father if you are never even there? Can I call that absence, can I name it? Can I—
He was my father. I have to live with that. I do. I can't help but wonder if he, too, had a hard time keeping himself alive. I wonder if he wanted to want to live.
In 2001, the Tulsa World printed this headline: "Stabbed man in serious condition." My father was thirty-nine at the time, I was not yet five years old. In the article, an unnamed reporter describes how my father was stabbed in the back, "abdomin", and leg. The weapon used was thought to be a hunting knife or switchblade. Of the 15 people in the bar parking lot, none would come forward with any names. Neither would he.
In some ways, I inherited this silence, generational, I suppose. But while he dabbled, I perfected it, until now, of course. Until now.
George lived a rough life. That's not even what people called him, but it's how I think of him, even now. He never said call me Dad, so I never learned to.
I had to find this article myself, on Google, in order to piece together a part of my life no one would ever tell me, not in any way I could grasp. It makes me think of a time when the prettiest girl in high school sat at my lunch table and told me that she and her boyfriend went out to my father's house to smoke weed all the time, he was so fun. And how I went to the bathroom and cried and cried, even though she didn't mean to be cruel, she just wanted me to be in on the joke.
At the viewing or wake, as we called it, my former sister-in-law says that my father did tell them who did it—meaning she and my brother. She recalls times when he would wake up yelling, throwing knives into the wall.
I, too, scream in the night. A roommate once told me she could hear me weep, too, but it's the screaming that scared her. Once she came to check on me after hearing a blood-curdling one, and I was barely stirring. If she didn't recognize my voice, she would have thought it came from somewhere else. Maybe it did. Or maybe—
It's time for me to lay my father down, if even incompletely. He is heavy, and I have been tired for such a long time. I have carried him up the mountain, and through the woods, and into the river. By telling this story, this haunting, I can give him over to you, if only for a while. I can sleep. Won't you hold him, cradle him in the dark? I told you once that if you wanted answers, I was the wrong person to ask, and I meant it.
It's my turn to tell this story.
In this next dream, you will know the truth, because I've told it.
Southern mourning rituals are community work. We're inviting fellow Southerners to share your grief stories with Scalawag—whether it's just a few words, or a full essay.
Apparently I'm my ancestor's wildest dreams. All I want is to be debt-free and to enjoy my existence. So far, it's not looking great.