All I can do is drive. Past cornfields and cotton fields. Past churches and casinos. Past fireworks stands and billboards asking, “Got Jesus?”
His voice leads me forward: “I met a girl in Vicksburg/Bertha was her name.” He sings me across the Mississippi, all that muddy water rolling down river to his sweet sad tune. He sings me down a highway draped by kudzu and studded with broken down cars, straight into Jackson. At twenty-three, I’ve never been this far south, and my clothes are all wrong. I’m wearing wool and thick tights that wrinkle at my ankles. April temperatures top eighty degrees.
At the newspaper where I land a job writing about bands and nightclubs, an editor takes one look at me and asks, “Why did you want to come here?”
Her eyes, wide and blue, widen further. I mumble something about Faulkner and Welty—her house sits just around the corner from the apartment where I sleep on a friend’s futon—I want to sound literary and college educated. I think I’m impressing this editor with my knowledge of her state’s most anthologized white authors. But she walks away looking more perplexed than when our conversation began.
The truth is more complicated. The truth is I’m borderline homeless. The truth is my mother died two years ago, but it feels like yesterday, and all I have left are two suitcases full of unsuitable clothes and a used Toyota.
I know nothing of The Sound and the Fury or One Writer’s Beginnings, but can sing the Johnny Cash canon by heart. His songs have sickly beautiful lyrics about shooting up, women, and life in jail. They voice a grief I wear like second skin, the kind of grief that sears your bones, leaves them aching forever.
I love his lusty ballads despite their affront to my feminism and the fact that my mother left my father because he beat her. She died from juvenile diabetes, not his hand, but Cash’s death, a year after my mother’s, gives me my first taste of public grief. Like me, fans cry in the streets, offer their pain to the sky and cement, behave as if they’ve lost their own fathers.
In newspaper photos of his funeral processional, I fixate on an image of his daughter Rosanne. She wears sunglasses and a pitch black coat. Her head slopes gently, as if resisting a weight. In her posture, I see myself. I know the tension of early mourning, the way grief burrows into our bodies, the tug-of-war between giving up and going on. But I don’t listen to her music for three more years, not until after I leave Mississippi for Louisiana and my fiancé leaves Black Cadillac on the passenger seat of my Toyota.
He hears an interview with her on NPR and buys the CD immediately because she reminds him of me. Black Cadillac narrates Cash’s experience in a territory I know well, a world dimmed by the loss of a parent. The album chronicles the two-year period in which her father, mother, and stepmother all died, one by one, petals floating to the wind. A red rose plunged in utter darkness forms the central image on the CD’s front cover.
I’m driving on Interstate 20 when I first listen to the title song, somewhere in the piney parishes of northeastern Louisiana. Rain bleats against the Toyota’s roof, and I turn the volume up as high as I can:
It’s a lonely world
I guess it always was
My car fills with her voice, her strong and gentle voice, a voice like a river breaching its banks, a voice like her father’s, that cry of a prophet in the wilderness. In her voice, I am held, cradled even. I am equal parts longing and hope. I am home.
For an entire year, Black Cadillac plays on my Toyota’s CD player until the electronics burn out and I download the CD’s thirteen tracks to my iPod.
The song I listen to most addictively is “The World Unseen,” track seven, where Cash sings, “I will look for you in morphine and in dreams./I will look for you in the rhythm of my blood stream.”
I’m also looking for a parent, for my mother, and talking to her too. She never answers me back. I meet her in my dreams. We gather in the forest, beside a stream or river. She leads me through abandoned houses, then disappears, becomes smoke or a shadow. I cry out for her until Carl, my fiancé, shakes me awake.
But here she is, in Cash’s song. My mother exists here too. This song tells me she’s my body and blood, the one-half of my heart beating wildly beneath my hand.
The year I discover Black Cadillac, I’m planning my wedding. I’m told by daytime television and Hallmark and a few aunts that this is supposed to be the happiest time of my life.
I watch my sapphire engagement ring catch morning light and know I chose this ring because its stone reminded me of the ocean, all the beaches my mother walked barefoot until stress fractures ruptured her feet. I remember the last trip we took together, when I swam and she dozed in her black bathing suit, not knowing the transplanted organs inside her were already withering. As I toweled off, I had no idea of who I was becoming, an unfurling list of everyone I have to lose Cash names in “The World Unseen.”
I listen to this song again and again, until I feel a kinship bloom between Cash and me. Here we are, two mourning daughters, lost in the dark together, climbing across our sadness.
Dreams of my mother haunt me as I plan my wedding. I have no headspace for gowns or flowers or hors d’oeuvre. I tell my bridesmaids to pick out their own dresses in funeral black. It’s fine by me if they wear a dress already hanging in their closets, so long as they cover their shoulders with dark shawls, the way widows do in Greece and Sicily. I cloak them in the black heart of pain Cash describes on Black Cadillac’s title track. For the first time, I’m understanding how sorrow muffles my joy, how all my days will hold the negative image of my mother’s death beneath them.
So of course I hold back tears the first time I try on a wedding dress at a David’s out by the Interstate. My friend Lunzeta holds the bodice open, and I step inside, the same way I’d enter the shallow end of a swimming pool, with my eyes squinting and my body bracing for shock. I order wedding cake over the phone, without any taste tests. Who am I to partake in the most fun wedding planning ritual? My flowers come from Costco.
I tell myself, tell Carl, I’m being low-maintenance. I don’t want to be Bridezilla. He nods, then pulls me into a hug. We both know I’m sinking into depression.
“Once we had a mother/but that’s all over now”, Cash sings on track eight, “Like Fugitives,” and I sing along while I’m making dinner, feeding the cat and backyard raccoon, telling Carl to take out the trash. “So wish her well and let her go/just as soon as you know how.”
I don’t know how to let my mother go, and truthfully, I don’t want to. I won’t scatter her ashes for nine years. I’ll dream about her all that time, ask questions before I fall asleep, hoping she’ll visit me in my dreams to answer them. Does it matter if my wedding dress is really a bridesmaid’s dress? Hair up or down? Would you like Carl? How can I know he won’t hurt me the way my father hurt you?
Some nights, before I fall asleep, I listen to track ten, “Like a Wave,” and Cash’s voice becomes my lullaby. I remember my mother singing me to sleep, her voice off-key and boundless. I think of that last beach trip we took and the precious time before illness stole her body and joy. The love I carry for her, the love Cash intones here, rolls like a wave through this sacred past where my mother still lives, always lives, and on past the grave, where I live beyond her.
A tear slips down my cheek because I’ve not yet found a place to lay her body down, a place to let loose her ashes, a place where I feel okay letting her go. Carl turns in his sleep toward me, reaches out his hand. I reach back. Track twelve, “The Good Intent,” begins to play. Cash named this song for the boat that carried the first Cash from England to Massachusetts. It’s an almost biblical song of genealogy, a ballad of death begetting life.
The ocean gave me room to roam
but the shore is calling out. So I will marry, build a home
and see what that’s about.
There is no end to this grief. It reaches forward and backward, barrels through memory and past imagination. There’s no going back, no fighting, just swimming, always swimming, to the shore, to a future I cannot see, to dry sea scraped land awaiting me.
I used to rewind track thirteen, “0:71,” back to track twelve and listen to “The Good Intent” once more, before forwarding on to track one and beginning Black Cadillac all over again. It took me ten years to realize that track thirteen was seventy-one seconds of pure silence, the darkness made audible, each second standing for one year of Johnny Cash’s life, and the silence after death.
That’s the worst part of my grief, the eternal silence. Once I had a mother, now she’s a mute glimmer in my dreams, fading before I awaken. Not even I can hold her there. And yet, in my memory, she lives, an echo and a ghost, ethereal and unreal. I never know when she’ll appear or disappear.
At our wedding, Carl and I do our best to pay tribute to our dead—his father, my mother. We light candles for them, say a prayer. Beneath our chuppah, I choke back tears. Here I refuse to cry. I take a tiny stand against grief. Carl’s eyes meet mine. I stay there, held in his hazel gaze, and imagine our future developing like a Polaroid left in the sun.
One afternoon, in the time when I’m still a new bride and still fast forwarding through track thirteen, I hold Black Cadillac in my hands, then set it on the table beside unwrapped wedding presents: a blender, picture frames, pillow cases. My fingers tap the CD case, draw circles along the rose.
I don’t yet understand what it means to live without a mother, to surpass her, to make music of survival. But I want to be the rose shouldering darkness. I want to be all those petals unfolding, reaching up like fingers to catch light.