On The Bus: My Uncle is Dead

Saturday–In Limbo, USA— I am too late for the train that will take me from my house to the station where the bus that can get me to the airport is waiting. It’s not just for me, but for those trying to get out of the city. Some are starting new lives. Others are escaping old lives. As for me, I am part of an ending to a life, but first I must get on this train, then a bus, then a plane. At some point later the order will be reversed: plane, bus, then train. At the hospital the elevator will be waiting like a death cab service and I will be delivered to my last Uncle’s bedside and final surrender. For now, I’m back in my car at the Carrollton (TX) Rail Station parking lot and reading a string of text message alerts on his condition: Dire. Get Here. Not Good. James Jr…He’s laughing and mumbling about, “A Swell Looking Gal”…WTF? Now, I’m laughing.

My Uncle “Heavy” was the first born to my Grandmother, Adla and Grandpa Herman. He is the last of her nine children to hear death’s bone-rattling knock at the door. This is it. His heart is surrendering to 93 years of joy, laughter, military service and societal norms that can crush a man’s spirit like a paper cup. He has served his family, his country and his time well on this earth. His marriage did not produce a single child and his estranged wife passed away two years ago after years of caring for an elderly parent and never getting back out to San Francisco, CA. My father died while living with this Uncle, his brother, who was away on a trip back home to see his distant wife. Since that time we have grown closer. I am the eldest man following his impending death. He is the first of nine. I am the first son in the next generation.

Over the years I have learned nearly every aspect and horizon of our family’s story. Everything from sharecropping to the hopes of his Grandmother. She was one of the registered Negro nurses during the Ark-La-Tex Oil and Baby booms.

Among those stories were the amazing years when his health failed and began to claim parts of his mind. Each time, I triggered his remembrances by recalling stories from the books of his youth. Chief among those hard won books from the drugstore book mobile was Erskine Caldwell‘s, “A Swell-Looking Gal“!

It became his most often regaled story when his mind began slipping during our long distance talks.  I found the Caldwell anthology and made DVD’s of me reading those stories. I later discovered that he had invited friends over to watch those “readings”. On another occasion my phone number on the DVD label was how I was alerted of one of his strokes.

My hands shake on the heated steering wheel.  It is becoming obvious that I will not make it to him in time. His eyes are closing even as the memory of his stories wash over me. I take comfort in knowing that he is losing this battle with some fondness in his heart.  He is talking up the angels from his hospital bed. Those around him don’t understand what he is babbling about.

Ahead of me the platform’s lighted sign flashes an alert of  “6 Minutes” before the next train.  I’m not going to make it to him before his laughter subsides…before his breath surrenders…before those around him shake their heads shamefully at the wandering places that death takes the mind.

“4 Minutes”…I exit the Jeep and head for the landing. He has never seen this car. The last time we rode together was in a bright orange model.  He squeezed his huge 6’6” 320 pound frame into place and chuckled,  “You know, James“, you couldn’t hide the Constable’s daughter in a jalopy this bright!” We laughed, as he used to say, “Hard enough to scare Jim Crow!”

“2 Minutes”…the distant whistle of the train reminds me that he was forced to leave home in the dead of night after a fist fight over wearing his Army Airforce uniform “one time too many” in town. He was already a hero and nobody could take that away from him. “I spilled a White man’s blood on the sidewalk of the RIALTO Theatre“. Nobody came to the racist boy’s side of the fracas. Mr. Wheeler Jones, who sat on the town’s Grand Jury, arranged for his late night train ride as being the best thing for Eldorado, Arkansas. It would be years before he dared to return “home”.

“1 Minute” and the train is humming to a stop right on the yellow stripe just beyond my toes. Stepping over that line and entering the train is like a rite of passage. I settle into my new role that the next text message will announce my arrival into. It does not come during the thirty minute race of this train thru the city. Instead, I am folded into my forearms on the shuttle bus when the phone starts to ring the tone that signifies Cousin Lois is calling from San Francisco. Her voice is a resignation that comes with sitting watch over life and death. Her sadness flows underneath her words like the undertow of the River Styx. My Uncle used to say that the boatman never rows on that journey, he just steers. In likewise fashion she steers me into my new role for the Mardis clan:

Cousin J.C.?”
Where are you, Dear?”
I’m on the bus…
Get here soon. He’s gone. I s’pose you know what needs to be done“.

For Ermon John Mardis


Jas. C. Mardis is an awarded Poet and Writer who was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame in 2014. He is also an accomplished Fabric Artist and Quilter.


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