ADVISORY AND CONTRIBUTING EDITORS
MFA EDITORIAL BOARD
The MSU Writers Issue
Robert William Head
Dale Daniel Leys
Table of Contents
The story of Deb Wylder, founder of the Murray State University creative writing program
Editor's Introduction, by Ann Neelon
Self-Portrait, by Charles Wright
The Novelist to His Characters, by Daniel Anderson
Land Between the Lakes, by Squire Babcock
Intransitive, by Christopher Buckley
Food for Death, by Ralph Burns
Homecoming, by Tony Crunk
Church Bells, by Tony Crunk
Genesis, by Christopher Davis
Little Crisis Framed in My Window, by Christopher Davis
Initiations: Dad in Light and Shadow, 1955/1964, by Philip F. Deaver
The Old King, by Pam Durban
Old Men on the Courthouse Lawn, Murray, Kentucky, by James Galvin
Hematite Lake, by James Galvin
Al-Baab: The Door, by James Hannah
Reality Show, by George Hovis
The Supremes, by Mark Jarman
Statues, by Mark Levine
From House Concert, by T.M. McNally
After Reading Miklós Radnóti, I Attend a Performance of Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific,
by Ann Neelon
Ars Poetica, by Ann Neelon
My Father's Ark, by Dale Ray Phillips
Nadine, by Joe Ashby Porter
Bottomland, by Ken Smith
Job and God, in a Slow One, by Richard Speakes
Patsy Cline, by Richard Speakes
When Humans Disappoint, by Richard Speakes
Delbert E. Wylder (1923 - 2004)
Deb Wylder started Murray State University’s creative writing program in 1977, after being hired as the new chair of the English Department.
Born in Jerseyville, Illinois, Deb grew up in nearby Morrison, where he graduated from high school before attending Coe College for a year. He planned to transfer to the University of Illinois for the next school year, but after Pearl Harbor was bombed he joined the Army Air Corps. He flew 63 combat missions in a P-47 Thunderbolt over Italy. After the war he attended the University of Iowa, where he inished his B. A. and went on to complete an M. F. A. in writing and eventually a Ph. D. in literature as well. He married while in Iowa City and had two children, Stephen and William. This marriage later ended in divorce
While teaching in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico, Deb met Edith Perry Stamm, an Emily Dickinson scholar who was also teaching there. They were married in 1965. They moved on to Colorado State and then to Southwest State University in Minnesota, where Deb also started a creative writing program and hired Stephen Dunn, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
When Edith and Deb came to Murray in 1977, they had a huge circle of friends among poets and iction writers. The irst year of the program they hired the husband-wife team of James Galvin and Jorie Graham in a joint appointment. Graham, who would eventually be both a Pulitzer Prize winner and a MacArthur Fellow, was a harbinger of the quality of writer-teachers Deb would convince to teach in the new program. In the irst few years these included Joe Ashby Porter (Academy Award in Literature recipient), Mark Jarman (NEA and Guggenheim Fellow), and Pam Durban (Whiting Writers’ Award).
The students in creative writing at Murray have also proved to be prize winners. To take just two examples, Sandra Moore had already won a PEN Syndicated Fiction Award for a short story before Harcourt published her novel Private Woods, and Philip F. Deaver, who eventually also taught in the program, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for his collection of short stories Silent Retreats and later a Pushcart Prize as well. The program that Deb Wylder envisioned for Murray now has a thirty-year history and is recognized by writers across the country. He was not only a scholar who helped start the Western Literature Association and who wrote critical books about Hemingway and Emerson Hough, but also an enthusiastic reader and writer of poetry and iction. He was convinced that writing programs give a vital core to literature’s study and promote literature’s growth.
Deb died in 2004 in Albuquerque, where he and Edith had moved some years earlier, after retiring from Murray State.
Squire is the director of Murray State's low-residency MFA in creative writing program, and author of the novel The King of Gaheena.
For Native Americans, this land where four rivers converge, where the Eagle, the Snake, the Deer, the Fish, and the wild Human have shared the abundance for uneasy centuries, but where humans dominate now with our cars and roads and tractors and computers and buildings under which runs the subterranean New Madrid “fault,” threatening to topple it all, is holy. For me, this land, home to Murray State University for over 80 years now and home to me for the last 15, is holy too. I am here because for complex personal reasons I decided in midlife to come alone to this quiet place. I am here because I miraculously found a job at the university after I arrived. I am here because my daughter was born here and thrives here. Like the Native Americans I succeed, I feel a deep spiritual connection to this place. I quit playing the Lottery recently because I have come to realize that I have already won. Living here is my prize.
The Mississippi River cuts like a central artery through the middle of our country, its tributaries reaching out like veins for thousands of miles to drain the Heartland. At the center of this vast circulatory system, near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, lies an unruly expanse of protected wilderness whose remote hills offer a glimpse into the American heart. We call the place Land Between the Lakes. Two summers ago on a visit there, I encountered the remotest regions of my own unruly heart.
Created in the late 1960s by the damming of two parallel rivers, the Tennessee and the Cumberland, Land Between the Lakes is a narrow peninsula that straddles extreme western Kentucky and west Tennessee. Two vast, man-made reservoirs, Lake Barkley to the east, Kentucky Lake to the west, crowd against its rocky banks like lungs. Deadly cottonmouth snakes inhabit its coves and streams. Coyotes stalk rabbits and wary deer through its pine and hardwood forests. Mating turkeys strut its wildflower meadows. People hike and camp and watch birds there. Murderers sometimes dump bodies there, too.
On June 13, 1966, the day the waters of Kentucky Lake were allowed to mix with the waters of Lake Barkley via a newly constructed canal, creating Land Between the Lakes, I was living in Louisville in an unstable, abusive home. When my parents finally divorced in late 1970, just a few months after my eighteenth birthday, I collapsed. I went from being an A student with a scholarship to a good university to nearly flunking high school. I dropped out of college after only a week and went back to Louisville where I started drinking and taking drugs. In 1972 I was arrested for possession of heroin.
To stay out of jail, I underwent counseling and began to comprehend my situation. Eventually I escaped the Louisville drug scene and the intractable insanity of an alcoholic family, but always, always, no matter where I was, in my romantic relationships, in my professional choices, within my social networks, I was seeking to re-create the family I had lost.
Finally, in late 1994, everything began to fall into place. I had been teaching at Murray State University in western Kentucky for two-and-a-half years when I met Pam, who had recently come to the area as a visiting artist in the local school system. She was 38 and I was 42, both of us products of turbulent times in America. Between us we had umpteen failed relationships and no children. On our first date in December, we went to the mall and watched people bustle toward Christmas. We confessed our own dreams of having kids, taking them to the mall, watching them on Christmas mornings around the tree, the whole American ideal. During our courtship, we created a vision, specific right down to who did the dishes (both of us) and what values we would teach the children (honesty, humility, how to catch a bass).
By the fall of 1995 we were invincible. Marriage and Family was topic number one when, one day in late October, Pam appeared at my office at Murray State, shut the door, and pulled a small flat stick about the length of a Q-tip from a plastic bag. She thrust the stick toward me and I noticed at one end a small swatch of pink. “Do you know what this is?” she said, her voice a mix of excitement, defiance and fear.
Pink meant pregnant. Pregnant meant marriage and family. I felt a primal, animal gathering of energy in my loins. I had fathered a child.
When a second test confirmed the pregnancy, we got married at the courthouse and announced everything to our families, friends, and colleagues. At last we would realize our dreams.
Doctors at the Murray Women’s Clinic warned that, for a woman Pam’s age, there were increased risks of having a baby with birth defects. We considered the options for prenatal testing. Pam ruled out abortion in the event of problems and I went along reluctantly, but I could not tolerate the possibility of having a surprise “defective” baby, so just for reassurance, we asked for an alpha-feta protein test of Pam’s blood. Unlike amniocentesis or other prenatal tests that can reveal problems, the test for alpha-feta protein presents no risk to the fetus.
The results indicated an increased likelihood of having a baby with Down syndrome. Based on the level of the alpha-feta protein in Pam’s blood, the odds of our baby having this genetic affliction were 1 in 56, we were told, but we were also told by doctors, friends, and several baby books that the alpha-feta protein test is notoriously unreliable as an indicator of birth anomalies. Ultrasound pictures showed a healthy, active baby with a head shaped much like mine. The technician said that our baby looked and measured perfectly normal. Though unwilling to say it outright, she seemed to believe that there was nothing at all defective about our baby (who, she speculated, might just be a girl, though it was too early to be sure). And besides, the odds were still very good. Give me 56 to 1 odds of winning at a casino and I bet the farm. Pam and I decided against further testing.
Subsequent visits to the doctor confirmed that our baby was developing normally. The heartbeat was clear and strong and regular. Pam suffered from indigestion, hemorrhoids, muscle strain and fatigue, but that, unfortunately, was normal too. One day in Wal-Mart I happened to pass by a family whose membership included an obviously retarded daughter, and I pondered briefly (and shuddered at) the possibility that our child might not be normal. I’d had little experience with such people and wanted none. They were lovable but a little scary, someone else’s problem. I was confident that our child was healthy and normal. All signs pointed that way.
We began to build the nest. Pam took charge of design. In her imagination she arranged and re-arranged the baby’s room. Procurement was my area. In the baby aisles at Wal-Mart I found a plain white crib made of sturdy tubular steel and picked out just the right stroller, lightweight, fold-up, removable sun-flap, cute clown design. After some agonizing over the disposable/washable diaper dilemma, I chose the largest package of a well-known and expensive brand of disposable diapers (Stage 1: Newborn).
My role in the construction phase was limited to the grunt work: moving the bassinet and the dresser over here, then over there, then moving them into another room when the original room seemed too small. Our friends held a shower, gave us a gift certificate plus baby blankets, toys, and little pairs of shoes and socks too small to believe. Inside Pam our baby was tumbling and kicking. At night we talked and sang to him/her. We were already a family.
Pam and I decided on names, Huck for a boy, Hannah for a girl, went to natural childbirth classes, read up on how to be good parents, imagined that our son or daughter might become a teacher, a musician or an astronaut, made plans to spoil our grandchildren. In short, we went through what billions of expectant parents have gone through: the anticipation and excitement, the fear, the wonder, the pride.
Hannah came two weeks early. On the evening of June 13th I got home from teaching a summer-school class and found Pam bent over the bed.
“Practicing your breathing?” I asked.
“No,” she groaned. “I’m having contractions.”
On the way to the hospital Pam’s contractions came every five to seven minutes. According to the training we had had, there was still plenty of time. It would likely be several hours before the baby came. I wanted the child’s birthday to be the 14th of June, not the 13th, just for good luck.
The obstetric nurse checked Pam and confirmed that we were, indeed, going to have a baby that night. I called Pam’s parents in North Carolina, then my own father in Louisville. I was still talking with Dad when I heard Pam yell my name from the birthing room. The contractions were growing more frequent and more intense. The nurse checked Pam again and dashed to the phone to call the on-duty doctor. The baby was coming now, on the 13th of June, the same day of the year, though I did not know it then, that saw the birth of Land Between the Lakes.
The history of human habitation in the isolated hills between the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers is as troubled as my own past. Native Americans were the first to inhabit the area, some tribes apparently believing that this region of great river confluences was not only the geographical but also the spiritual center of things. They roamed the wilderness hunting abundant game, occasionally fighting with each other, and building mounds to bury their dead. Then European settlers brought smallpox to the region. The Native Americans who survived were forced to leave on the Trail of Tears.
The new occupants of what had come to be known as “the land between the rivers” hunted, farmed, and made whiskey. They discovered iron ore near the surface of the land and brought in slaves to help process it. The Civil War divided and destroyed families. The area gained a reputation as a haven for criminals and misfits.
I held Pam’s hand, fumbled for my notes, tried to remember how she should breathe when the contractions were one minute apart. Three deep breaths? Or was it the quick shallow breathing? Pam winced and groaned and yelled. All I could manage was to squeeze her hand and say “Breathe.” No time for counting and checking notes.
The nurse stood calmly ready to receive the baby in case the doctor didn’t make it, but he arrived just in time to don a pair of rubber gloves and receive my daughter as Pam expelled her into the world. He held the tiny body in one hand, sucked her nostrils clear with a rubber syringe, and she began to squirm and cry.
My first words: “It’s a girl.” My first thought: She is ugly. A dark shiver raced through me. Ugly. Black hair. Ugly pug face. Not like me. Not like Pam.
Don’t panic, I told myself. All babies are ugly. Comfort your wife. Don’t let on that you think that baby is ugly.
Mechanically I asked the doctor if I could cut the cord. He handed me the scissors and I cut, but the ritual had no meaning for me. All I knew was the fire of panic inside me and the guilt I felt at not immediately reacting with joy and love.
“She’s beautiful,” I mumbled, staring at the strange creature cradled in the doctor’s gloved hands. My daughter.
Hannah’s little tongue slid way out of her mouth and back in, way out, back in. A second nurse joined the first and together they took Hannah over to a plastic tray under a heat lamp to clean her up and check everything out. The birthing room was suddenly too quiet. From the drama of childbirth, things had descended too quickly to taking care of business.
Pam’s attention was fixed on her baby: Was she okay? What were they doing to her? When could she hold her? I went over to the warming table to check on Hannah. She was blotchy red and strange. I felt no kinship. When she was cleaned and wrapped in a blanket, Hannah was brought to Pam, who was ready to yank the IV out and come get her if they didn’t hurry the hell up.
For a few moments Pam held and looked at our daughter, then asked fearlessly, “Does this baby have Down syndrome?”
It was the question that had lingered just at the edge of my consciousness, one that I hadn’t the courage to ask. The doctor stepped to the bedside, placed his hand on my elbow, looked at Pam, and nodded. “She has the characteristics, the protruding tongue, the low-set ears...”
I felt my life shifting, as if great tectonic plates had suddenly given way, leaving a drain hole into which all that I had known and been was drawn down and down. Until that moment in my life I had clung like a fundamentalist to a fixed concept of reality, believed in my understanding of the past and of the possibilities of the future. I’d had the glib notion, bred perhaps by my “higher” education, that all effects had causes, and that I knew what the causes were. Now I was lost.
Another doctor confirmed the diagnosis: Down syndrome. Our daughter would be retarded, ugly. She would be the brunt of abuse from other children. My family would be looked at askance. We would be misfits.
The nurses and the doctors left Pam, Hannah and me alone in the equipment-laden delivery room. We were a family for real now, but there was no joy. Pam attempted to breast-feed Hannah as I paced the floor. “I can’t believe this,” I said over and over.
“Look, she’s eating,” Pam said.
I felt growing antagonism. How could Pam care about that mongoloid creature at her breast?
At one point, Pam and I acknowledged each other with a long look. “Our baby is retarded,” she said.
“This is cruel,” I said. We cried together as the baby squirmed in Pam’s lap.
Retarded. The word cut me as a new knife would, quick to the bone. How could a mentally deficient creature be mine? I turned my back on Pam and the baby and tried to look into the future: the specter of caring for a retarded child the rest of my life blotted what had been my dreams. There would be no soccer or baseball games, no intellectual discussions, no exotic adventures, no grandchildren, no easy-street retirement. Hannah would require constant training and maintenance. She would never go to college or have a real job, never be independent, perhaps never even learn basic living skills. I would never get free of the burden. How could I handle it? How did those people in Wal-Mart handle it?
“This will change me forever,” I said.
“She looks like she’s from Mongolia,” Pam said.
In our private hospital room Pam and I discussed the dark feelings we felt toward Hannah, how we didn’t want her, how we wanted her to die. Then we felt ashamed and cried quietly while just down the hall other new parents were celebrating. Why had this happened to us? Was it punishment for past sins, or was it just bad luck? I dimly sensed meaning in Hannah’s arrival, but that meaning was elusive.
Later, as I stood at the nursery window looking at Hannah and the other newborns, a young guy, barely twenty it seemed, stepped up to the window beside me. “Which one’s yours?” he asked cheerfully.
“That one,” I said, pointing at Hannah, who lay still and quiet in her little cart.
“You’re lucky!” the guy said. He pointed to the nearest cart, which held a perfect little boy who was screaming bloody murder. “That one’s mine.” The young guy shook his head. “He won’t shut up.”
While Pam and I struggled to cope with shattered dreams, Hannah struggled with jaundice. Her liver was not functioning properly, perhaps because of the Down syndrome, perhaps because she was two weeks premature. Two days after she and Pam were released from the hospital, Hannah was briefly readmitted for dangerously high levels of bilirubin (bile). I had to hold Pam back while the nurses tried to insert an intravenous line into one of Hannah’s minuscule veins. Hannah screamed and screamed. “We have to do it for insurance purposes,” the head nurse had explained. When they finally got the IV line in, the nurses stripped Hannah naked and put her under a powerful ultraviolet light to lower her bilirubin level.
At home Hannah had to sleep under a rented ultraviolet lamp. Pam and I received visits and flowers and cards from friends, family, even strangers. Some people acted as if there were nothing about this birth that was different from any other birth. “Congratulations!” they said, the word piercing me like a dull IV needle. Others uttered grim condolences, as if someone had died. Others talked about Down syndrome directly. They had cousins or friends who had a family member with Down syndrome, or they had gone to school with or worked with a person who had Down syndrome. Everyone, it seemed, had experience, mostly indirect, with Down syndrome, and everyone said the same thing about people with the disorder: “They’re so sweet!”
One of my colleagues at Murray State who was having difficulty with her teenage daughter said, “Well, at least you won’t have to put up with teenage rebellion.” I thought I would go mad.
Parenting involves a paradox. You have children for selfish reasons, but to be a good parent, you must be unselfish. In the normal, healthy paradigm of parent-child relationship, that sacrifice is rewarded with love, with the complex joy of interacting with an extension of yourself, and perhaps most important to our biology, with the hopeful satisfaction of seeing your offspring live on in the world. For the parent of a child with a mental or physical disability, however, the usual rewards diminish to the extent that the child’s capacities are diminished. For the unselfish parent of the most severely disabled child, the reward is spiritual stature.
I was not getting off to a very saintly start. I kept up appearances, but inside I was despicable. People remarked on how well I was handling things, but I resented them and their normal children. There were jerks everywhere who did not deserve the normal children they so carelessly abused or took for granted. Though I went through the motions of caring for and providing for Hannah, I did not see the point. Why raise a girl who would be dependent her whole life? I wanted her to die.
Most species reject their defective young, either killing them outright or letting them die of neglect. Even in some human cultures unwanted children have been cast out and allowed to die. It was my primal urge, my biological job, to reject Hannah. She was not me. My genes had not been perpetuated; they had been corrupted.
On the other hand, I felt deep guilt. I was aware of a strong moral impulse compelling me to take her in, accept her, protect her, give her the best life I could, in short, to love her. The compulsion to care for the unwanted and unproductive derives from the civilization of the human animal. To be civilized, in the highest sense of the word, is to subordinate self, is to love unconditionally.
Animal urges competed in me with civil impulses. I could not see how I was going to reconcile the two. It was as if I existed in an isolated wilderness between two vast reservoirs of feeling: the Land Between the Lakes.
By the Great Depression, the bison, deer, turkeys and iron ore were gone from the land between the rivers, but many people stayed. Roosevelt’s New Deal created the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide power, transportation and jobs to an impoverished region. TVA’s project to dam the Tennessee River was completed in 1945, creating Kentucky Lake. Thousands of people were displaced. Work on Barkley Dam began in 1961. To settle partisan wrangling in Congress, and to fulfill a promise to salvage the environment from human exploitation, the Kennedy Administration proposed that the narrow expanse which was to be left between the lakes be set aside as a national park. In 1963, TVA unveiled its plan to create Land Between the Lakes, a protected outdoor recreation area.
By 1970, the year of my parents’ divorce, all of the human inhabitants were gone from Land Between the Lakes, including the misfits, and the deer and other wild animals were making a comeback. Recreation was limited and development prohibited. A national experiment was underway. Out of a sordid past and a ravaged landscape we were attempting to create a new kind of place. In a sense, this new place called Land Between the Lakes would symbolize the national heart, what we had been, what we hoped the nation could become.
Pam handled Hannah’s arrival better than I did, dismissing her own pain and focusing on Hannah’s needs. Pam grew up in a family that knew disability: her brother Victor was born in 1952 with spina bifida. The doctors told her parents that Victor would be so severely incapacitated that he would probably never even know their names. Those were medieval times in terms of our social and medical handling of genetic anomalies. In 1952 parents were encouraged to institutionalize their “defective” children. The diagnostic phrase used to describe a child with Down syndrome was “mongoloid idiot.”
But Pam’s parents kept Victor and fought for his well-being. Indeed, they devoted their lives to his well-being, moving from town to town, job to job, chasing after medical expertise and services that could help him. Today Victor is paraplegic, but he is as intelligent and articulate as his three able-bodied sisters and lives a full life.
My family members are all able-bodied, intelligent, proud of our looks and physical abilities. I was captain of the football and baseball teams in high school, president of the student council, editor of the yearbook. Later I owned a business and became a college professor. When Hannah was born, I felt diminished. I had fathered a child not reflective of me. People in Wal-Mart would stare at me and my mongoloid idiot.
Hannah’s bout with bilirubin lasted three weeks. There was conflicting advice: one doctor said breast-feeding was the problem; another said that breast-feeding was the best thing for Hannah. Various nurses and relatives advised us to ignore all doctors. At times the stress, confusion and emotion were too much, and Pam and I battled like weary alcoholics.
I felt my loss constantly, as if it were a dense stone tied to my heart. On a trip to Wal-Mart for baby supplies, I spotted a woman with a small boy of about two who had the look: almond eyes, high forehead, flat nose. “Down syndrome?” I said to the woman. She nodded. “I just had a little girl with Down syndrome,” I said. The woman smiled, and I felt as if that welcoming, understanding smile was my invitation into another world. I did not want to go.
On another trip to a computer store, I saw a severely disabled man, probably thirty or thirty-five, wheelchair bound, unable to control his body or to speak, being pushed down the software aisle by his mother. There was an unselfconscious calm in that woman, an air of the routine, even the mundane, that I could not fathom. She had been taking care of that fellow for thirty or thirty-five years, had been forced to abandon her dreams and ambitions when he was born. How was she not embittered and broken? How could she be so nonchalantly looking at software?
A book for parents of children with Down syndrome told me that my grief, my bewilderment, my darker feelings were all natural and that they would go away with time. The book quoted parent after parent who said that, once the shock and disappointment were over, they grew to love their retarded children and would not trade them for anything. I thought I detected an undercurrent of denial. Those people had simply convinced themselves that their retarded children were wonderful. What else can you do?
Three of my immediate family members came to meet Hannah. My brother and my father, usually rigidly uncomfortable with intimacy, held me, held Hannah, offered heartfelt encouragement. My mother, usually overwhelming, came separately and was attentive, undemanding, helpful. My sister, who lives in Michigan and was struggling with serious illness, called, listened with care to my wailing, sent generous packages of baby stuff. My family had never been so unselfish and warm. Was that the meaning of Hannah’s birth? Was she here to redeem us?
When Hannah was about two months old, Pam and I packed up the car and drove to the Land Between the Lakes on a fine, late-summer day. Hannah had fleshed out and begun to examine the world. She could even manage a fleeting smile. I still did not want her. I wanted to wake up from this long nightmare and recover my future.
Near the nature center in Land Between the Lakes is a hiking trail that includes a short section accessible to handicapped people. I pushed Hannah’s clown-print stroller along the flat trail a little way, then Pam suggested we veer off on a side trail which led to a stream. I turned the stroller into the woods, watching for cottonmouths. Hannah bounced in her seat as the stroller bumped over rocks and roots, but she didn’t seem to mind. In fact, Hannah was an uncomplaining baby in many ways. Everywhere we went, people remarked on what a good baby she was. I saw her good nature as typical of babies with Down syndrome. They’re so sweet.
The stream was perhaps thirty feet across, and deep. Western Kentucky had recently been washed by heavy rain. We mounted the bridge and watched the water moving beneath. Pam wandered toward the far end to examine the plants and rocks along the bank. I stood in the middle of the bridge, one hand on Hannah’s stroller, the other on the bridge railing. There was no barrier attached to the railing to guard against something falling into the water.
I stared at the muddy water just a short distance below my feet and imagined Hannah’s stroller slipping over the edge of the bridge. I pictured her under that swirling, shifting surface, struggling to get free of the strap holding her in the stroller, trying to breathe, inhaling the dirty water, losing consciousness without knowing why. I imagined my diving in to save her, too late, for the water was swift and deep and she was very little. How would I explain everything to Pam? It was an accident. Would Pam ever forgive me?
The desire to drown Hannah, deeply instinctual, strong as the current beneath my feet, urged my arm forward. Push the stroller, let it slip into the water. It will sink fast. She will never survive. It will look like an accident. No one will accuse me of murder.
The compulsion to care for Hannah held my arm still. Hannah cooed and clucked and stuck her tongue out at the water and the trees. All around us the world was vibrant, shimmering, indifferent.
For a moment I hovered in a dreamy space, suspended above the murky water and the images of Hannah’s death but below the images of a future devoted to raising a retarded child. I had arrived in the paradoxical wilderness of my heart, the land between two unfathomable lakes, one a sinking, dark vastness, the other a rising tide toward light. I understood suddenly that I had always dwelled in the Land Between the Lakes, and that I always would. My life was a stream winding through the wilderness. I could allow myself to be carried down toward the lake of darkness, or I could fight the current and attempt to reach the light.
I began to see the meaning of Hannah’s presence in my life. She was not here to make good the loss of my original family, nor to satisfy my ego, nor to punish me, nor to redeem my wretched soul. She was just Hannah, a little girl deserving of the best life I could give her. Only by asking nothing of her could I hope for anything in return.
Pam came back to Hannah and me at the center of the bridge. She knelt down, adjusted the towels wedged against Hannah’s head to keep it from sagging, spoke lovingly to her, kissed her on the forehead. Then Pam stood up, wrapped her arm around my waist and gave me a little hug. “Ready to go?’ she said.
I swung Hannah’s stroller around toward the handicapped-accessible trail, toward the car, toward the future. “I guess,” I said.
Pam took hold of Hannah’s stroller and pushed it forward. My head was light, my hands shaking. I followed Pam and Hannah back across the bridge and down the trail.
It is 1998 now, the end of the millennium more or less, and there is a crisis of heart in the United States. Land Between the Lakes is threatened. A proposal before Congress would relieve TVA of its responsibility for Land Between the Lakes so that the agency can focus on meeting increasing demands for cheap power. Politicians are wrangling again over the question of federal responsibility for the preserve. Environmentalists and recreationists fear development of an orphaned Land Between the Lakes. Local merchants anticipate the possibilities of increased commercialization. Residents displaced by the damming of the two rivers feel betrayed.
Hannah is one and a half now, a compact, twenty-pound, twenty-eight-inch package of curiosity, drive and good nature who keeps her mother and father smiling. She might not look much like Pam or me, but she’s beautiful in a pink dress. She’s got fine, brownish-blond hair and blue-green eyes that sparkle when she takes a tentative step, rides her rocking horse, or spots Babe, the family dog. Her first word was “woof,” imitating Babe. There will be soccer games and intellectual discussions and exotic adventures, if that’s what she wants. There will probably be teenage rebellion, too. Who knows, she might even become a teacher, a musician, or an astronaut.
I took Hannah to the county fair for her first birthday. She screeched with glee at the sight of other kids romping and having fun. Apparently she cannot wait to get on the loudest, most dizzying ride there is, and I cannot wait to go with her, if she’ll have me. She also flirted with every hard-bitten, road-lonely huckster on the midway. They seemed to recognize her as one of their own: a misfit.
Hannah will grow up in a country that, miraculously, cares about her. Every day of the week, Pam and I have at least one specialist in our home to work with Hannah on her motor skills, speech development, or her intellectual growth. This early-intervention program is part of a taxpayer-funded program in Kentucky called First Steps, which exists to provide a wide range of free services to the disabled and their families during the critical first three years of life. Later, Hannah will go to public school right along with the other children in western Kentucky and get extra attention or special equipment if she needs it. And when she’s an adult, no business owner can refuse her a job just because she has a disability. All of this has become law in this country since the creation of Land Between the Lakes.
It seems that our disabled countrymen and women have shown us a different path through the wilderness, one that rises past preoccupation with self to a higher plateau of compassion and understanding. But the experiment is not over, the results not in. My heart, the national heart, the Land Between the Lakes: they are not yet places of sustained harmony. We still wrangle like wretched alcoholics, still exploit the land and each other, still overindulge our primitive selves. It is a difficult journey through the Land Between the Lakes, and we are weak. Thank God the path is handicapped-accessible.
"Land Between the Lakes" by Squire Babcock appeared in Volume XXV, The Colorado Review, Fall/Winter 1998. Reprinted by permission of the author.