I DON’T KNOW WHAT you look like. We will not meet. I don’t know how old you are. About my age, I would guess, which is 41. I don't know how many kids you have. I have two. My daughter is 15. and my son is 12. You have a 12-year-old son also.
My son was born in Ghana, and there was no doctor present. The doctor was overworked, and I was okay and normal, so there was only a midwife in attendance. She was a Ghanaian, a matriarch, four kids of her own, and no male doctor could have known what she knew. “It will be a boy,” she promised to me as the hours passed by. “Only a man could be so stubborn.” When T was in pain, she put out her hands to me and let me clench them, and T held to those hands as though they were my hope of life. “It will soon be over,” she said. “Would I lie to you? Look, I know. I have borne.” She did know. I had no anesthetic, and when she delivered him, she laid him, damp and thin and blood-smeared, across my belly. “There,” she said. “What did I tell you? Your boy, he is here.” She was the only other person present when I looked over God’s shoulder at the birth of my son. She had had her children too, and she knew what it was that was happening. She knew that it had to be felt in the flesh to be really known.
In 12 years, so far, touch wood, my son had been lucky. Once in Africa he had malaria, and a few other times, in Canada and England, he / continued on page 40
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“As a North American, I am involved in the U.S. dilemma”
had such things as throat infections or chicken pox. Each time I have been afraid in that one-way, gutsof-ice feeling that I could probably face anything at all except that something really bad should happen to one of my kids.
Now lie rides on his bike for
countless miles around the countryside. He is a science man at heart, and his electric-train set has complicated switches and intricate wiring which he has rigged up himself and which miraculously work and make the miniature engines do as he bids. He has lived life so far among
people who were basically friendly toward him. That is not to say that he has never felt pain. He has. More, even, than I know, and I know some of it. But at least until this point in his life, his pain has been something which he could, in some way, deal with by himself.
I have seen your son only once, Mrs. Bass. That was in a newspaper photograph. In Detroit, he went out one evening when his playmates asked him to. It was not an evening to be out. Your son was shot by the police. By accident, the paper said. Shot by accident in the neck. The police were aiming at Billy Furr, who was walking out of Mack Liquors, not with a fortune in his hands but with precisely six tins of stolen beer. When Billy Furr saw the police, something told him to run and keep running, so he did that, and he was shot dead. But the police had fired more than once, and Joe Bass happened to be in the way. The papers did not say whether he was expected to recover or not, nor how much a 12-yearold could recover from something like that. A Negro 12-year-old.
Your son looked a skinny kid, a little taller than my 12-yearold but not as robust. He was lying on the sidewalk, and his eyes were open. He was seeing everything, I guess, including himself. He was bleeding, and one of his hands lay languidly outstretched in a spillage of blood. His face didn’t have any expression at all. I looked at the picture for quite a long time. Then 1 put it away, but it would not be put away. The blank kid-face there kept fluctuating in my mind. Sometimes it was the face of your son, sometimes of mine.
Then I recalled another newspaper photograph. It was of a North Vietnamese woman. Some marvelous new kind of napalm had just come into use. I do not understand the tcchnicial¡ties. This substance when it alights flaming onto skin cannot be removed, it adheres. The woman was holding a child who looked about 18 months old, and she was trying to pluck something away from the burn-blackening area of the child’s face. I wondered how she felt when her child newly took on life and emerged, and if she had almost imagined she was looking over God’s shoulder then.
Mrs. Bass, these are the two pictures. I know they are not fair. I know the many-sidedness of that country in which you live. I know the people I love there, who are more heartbroken than I at the descent into lunacy. Also, I am a North American — I canot exclude myself from the dilemma. I cannot say them. It is forced upon me to say us. Perhaps you know who the enemy is — and perhaps it is I.
Once, a long time ago, from the eyes of 22, I wrote a poem about my father, or maybe about the local
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cemetery, in which the words said, Under the stone lies my father, ten years dead, who would never know as his, this bastard world he sired. It did not occur to me then that I would one day stand in that same relation to the world — no longer as a child, but as a parent.
I am not even sure who is responsible. Responsibility seems to have become too diffuse, and a whole continent (if not, indeed, a whole world) appears to be spinning in automation. The wheels turn, but no one admits to turning them. People with actual names and places of belonging are killed, and there is increasingly little difference between these acts and the fake deaths of the cowboys who never were. The fantasy is taking over, like the strangler vines of the jungle taking over the trees. It is all happening on TV.
Except that it isn’t. You know, because you felt the pain in your own flesh, that evening when the police shot your son. Is it necessary to feel pain in our own flesh before we really know? More and more, I think that it probably is.
I have spent 15 years of my life writing novels and other things. I have had, if any faith at all, a faith in the word. In the beginning was
the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The kind of belief that many writers have
— the belief that if we are to make ourselves known to one another, if we are really to know the reality of another, we must communicate with what is almost the only means we have — human speech. There are other means of communication, I know, but they are limited because they are so personal and individual
— we can make love; we can hold and comfort our children. Otherwise, we are stuck with words. We have to try to talk to one another, because this imperfect means is the only general one we have.
And yet — I look at the picture of your 12-year-old son on the sidewalks of Detroit, pillowed in blood. And I wonder — if it were in physical fact my son, of the same age, would I be able to go on writing novels, in the belief that this was a worthwhile thing to be doing in this year (as they say) of Our Lord? Mrs. Bass, I do not think I can answer that question.
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