Hold On

Hey Hugh,

Can we talk? I know this is weird, but this is Hugh. Like, I’m you, but in 2022. I’m from the future. Or rather, this note is from the future. I just came across this picture, and thought I would write.

It must be… 1987 there? I remember that sweater. Your mom – I mean, our mom, uhhm, Mom got it from the rummage sale. Those acid-washed jeans came from Walmart, and you bought them with your own money. And just out of the frame are some generic high-top basketball shoes because we couldn’t afford Jordans. And you were proud of that watch you had gotten for Christmas that year.

But I also know what doesn’t show in that picture. I know how ugly you felt, how uncool you felt, how that tiny high school in the middle of a dairy farm in rural Mississippi seemed like your whole world, how alone you were, and how you never belonged.

I know how tired you are. I know how you sweat alone at night in your tiny bedroom, lifting heavy weights so you can not be puny, so people will not push you around and bully you. I know how useless you feel, compared to everyone. It’s hard being Hugh Hollowell’s boy. When you have a father that everyone loves and who can do anything, it can be overwhelming if you are awkward and nerdy. I know that dark feeling you sometimes get, where you just sit on the bed and weep and rock.

This summer, it will come over you like a wave, and you will put a gun in your mouth when no one is home, but you won’t pull the trigger. It’s 35 years later, and I can still taste the gun oil on my tongue. I don’t know why, but you will decide to keep trying. I’m really glad you did.

Because you won’t believe how it all turns out.

You will go in the Marines, and you will like it there. You will have six-pack abs, and long ropey muscles, and women will want you. I know that seems impossible right now, but it’s coming. A war is coming too, and it will have repercussions for decades, but you personally will be OK. Lots of folks won’t, though.

You are gonna flop around a lot in your twenties as you search for meaning. You will simultaneously run away from Mississippi and crave it. You will marry for all the wrong reasons and regret it. A lot of people will get hurt along the way.

But in your mid-thirties you will hit your stride, finding both purpose and a life partner. Eventually, you will be published in national publications and books, be quoted in Time magazine and elsewhere, be interviewed on TV, and speak to huge crowds who will give you standing ovations when you are done… it will be a wild ride.

Along the way, you will build incredible relationships with all sorts of people, you will swim in both oceans, travel to other countries, see mountains and deserts, eat foods you can’t dream of right now, and lose people you love.

But eventually, you will come back home to MS. And when you do, one day when you are 50, you will be driving through the Delta one fine, sunny November day, and you will think about how unlikely your entire life has been, and how while it isn’t what you planned you are so damned grateful for the chance to have been present for it. And you will think about how far you have come and how far you still want to go, and you will think back to that summer day in 1987 and the taste of gun oil on your tongue, and you will be really, really glad you didn’t pull that trigger.

So hold on, my dude. Hold on. Because while it is trite (and not always true) to say that it gets better, it will for you. Your life will be magical.

So hold on.

The Third Row

Monday morning at 7 AM I was heading north on Interstate 55, heading toward my hometown. A woman I knew had died. She and her husband lived down the road from Mom on a few acres we had sold before I was born, and she and Mom were close.

Growing up, some of my earliest memories were of going to their house. The adults would play Yahtzee, and I would play in the living room, on the improbably white carpet. He was a few years older than Dad, and they had grown up together and had similar interests. They were very much a part of my life growing up.

Our lives revolved around the church down the road. It was a small brick building in those days before they added the fellowship hall and the new sanctuary. My granddaddy’s name was on the cornerstone, and my uncle had run the electrical for it when it was built. And generations of my people are buried across the street, in the cemetery there, including Dad.

They don’t really use the old sanctuary much anymore. It’s still there, though, and when I had finished eating my spaghetti Monday in the fellowship hall after the service, I crept over to the old building to look around.

It still looks the same as it did 40 years ago, except it doesn’t, mostly because I’m no longer the same. The first thing that grabs me is how small it was, just six rows or so of pews, and none of them really long. No wonder it always seemed packed in my memories.

The hardwood floors are still there, blessedly uncovered by carpet, as is the fate in many churches that tire of the upkeep required for hardwoods. The area behind the altar rail is carpeted now as it was then, although, in my memory, the carpet was maroon instead of the blue it is now. It is, of course, entirely possible they changed the carpet in the last 40 years, but it is far more likely that my memory is playing tricks on me.

The pulpit is now in the new sanctuary next door, with a piano in its place, which in my childhood was in the alcove to the right of the door. There was no sound system in those days, either, forcing Brother Leon to use his preacher’s voice.

The Heinrich Hoffman print of Jesus praying in the garden the night he was arrested is still there, in the same spot it was every Sunday of my youth. Just out of the frame of this shot, there were additional pictures of Jesus on each side wall, one a headshot and the other an improbably young Jesus, also prints from Hoffman. The headshot is still there, but the picture of adolescent Jesus is gone, a nail still sticking from the wall being all that proves I was not making it up.

Adolescent Jesus captured my attention to no end as a child. I would stare at him on the wall, beardless and with unruly hair, and wonder if he knew what he was in for, if he got in trouble a lot, and why his dad didn’t make him cut his hair.

The hymn board is still there, too. It always had the list of the hymns we would sing today, along with how much money folks had put in the offering the week before. I liked that the hymns were enlisted, as I would go through the hymnal and find the songs ahead of time and slip pieces of paper in to mark them so that I could find them later instead of being flustered and pressured when they were announced. Even then, I was searching for coping mechanisms.

In my memories, as a family, we always sat in the third row in this photo, on either side, but always toward the aisle if we could. I have lots of memories here. Mr. Hays interrupting the preacher, mid-sermon, that he had preached too long and it was time for lunch. Billy, who was what my people called slow and would now be considered special needs, always sang off-key but made up for it with volume and exuberance.

And I remember my daddy’s hands, curiously enough. In this memory, we are on the right-hand side of this picture, on our customary third row. He was wearing his one suit, dark blue, with a white shirt and red striped tie. I am to his left, and the preacher is praying. Daddy’s elbows are on his knees, his scarred fingers interlaced, forehead resting on his clasped, callused hands. His eyes were scrunched closed tightly as if, by sheer concentration, his petitions would go to the head of God’s line.

You could not have convinced me then that they did not.

Seven years ago tonight.

Seven years ago tonight, our lives changed.

Renee, who was on the heart transplant list, had gotten the call. And this time, it wasn’t a false alarm. This time, it was real.

I was in a staff meeting at work when she called me. I told the staff, said I would keep them posted, and then left. I would not be back for two weeks, but we didn’t know that then.

I called Brian. He was four hours away and had a day full of meetings lined up. Within an hour, he had rescheduled everything and was on his way.

That night, we all sat in the preop room, waiting on them to take her to surgery. The picture up there is her talking on the phone to her dad that night, 7 years ago.

I’ve written oodles about that time. Many thousands of words. But that was the night our life changed.

That was the night we got a second chance. The night that some other family’s nightmare became our salvation.

My phone was ringing off the hook once word got out. People were texting me with offers of all sorts of help. I didn’t know how to pray or what to pray. I just wanted my girl to be OK. I wanted us to get through this and for us to have a good life. I wanted us to be able to build a life together. I wanted us not to be afraid all the time.

After midnight, the surgical team came and took her back, and we were shown to the waiting room. There were several of us – Brian, me, Renee’s sister, and her kids. And we lay on the waiting room floor and slept, or tried to. I dozed fitfully, and around three in the morning, I thought about all the people who were praying for us, who loved us, who were mobilizing on our behalf, raising money, and putting meals together. I heard the snores of the others, these people who loved us enough to disrupt their lives and just be with us.

And in the midst of all that, I felt this tremendous sense of peace wash over me, and I knew it was going to be OK. She was going to be OK. We were going to be OK. And I fell sound asleep.

Before it was daylight, I would get woken up, and a doctor younger than I am would tell me that she had come through the surgery just fine and that she had a hard few days in front of her, but her long-term prospects looked great.

She was going to be OK, he told me.

He was right.

The Cat with Magic Ears

It was the middle of July in 2016. I had just walked in the door from work. Renee was 11 months out from her heart transplant, and I was running a day shelter I had founded. It had been a particularly bad day. I had a lot of them that year. I was getting something to drink in the kitchen when she called me into her studio.

“I want you to hear me out before you say no,” she said.

Over the winter, our orange tabby Tony had caught a blood clot in his legs, and we had to take him to the vet in the middle of the night and have him put down. Tony had been Renee’s cat – they even shared the same heart disease, called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, which is very common in cats and very rare in humans. In the days after her coming home from transplant, Tony had laid in the bed next to Renee as if he knew she needed more comfort than normal. His loss had been felt very keenly.

So she had been crawling the pages of the local no-kill shelter, looking at orange tabbies. It was just window shopping – we knew we lived in a small house, and the two cats we had were already pushing our limits.

She showed me a picture of the most bedraggled orange cat ever. He had deformed ears and terror in his eyes, and his hair was thin. He looked like a stuffed cat that had lost half his stuffing. She told me his name was Pepe, and he had been at the no-kill shelter for more than a year. Because he was ancient and ugly, nobody wanted him. He also had a healthy dose of anti-social behavior.

I reminded her that we had said we were a two-cat house, and we already had two cats. Since he had been there a year, she asked me if we didn’t adopt him, who would? I think he might be a lost cause, I said. That has never scared you off before, she said.

I asked what the fees were. She told me that she had already reached out to the shelter, and since Pepe had been so hard to rehome, they would waive all the fees if we came up that Friday.

So that Friday, we went to pick up Pepe, the cat with the magic ears.

If anything, he looked worse in person. He was so skinny, and his fur was patchy. He and several other cats had been dropped off at the shelter the year before. At some point, Pepe had a horrible ear infection that ate away at his ears and damaged his hearing. He had been covered in fleas when they left him at the shelter. He was afraid of people – the shelter folks believed he had been beaten in his past.

He lived in a giant walk-in cage with other cats but was cowered under some boxes, hiding. He looked virtually catatonic. He didn’t want to be held or petted or played with. He came out of the boxes long enough to eat the snacks we gave him, and then he went back into hiding.

The shelter tried to be realistic with us.

“He has been horribly abused. He doesn’t like to cuddle, and he isn’t really affectionate. But he is special and needs a home where people will love him.”

So we signed the papers and agreed to take care of him for the rest of his life. Our first clue to how hard this was going to be was fighting to put him in the cat carrier and his screaming once we shut the door. We had to wrap the carrier in a towel to calm him down, and while most families have pictures of the adoptive parents holding their new kitty, we have one of us holding a towel-covered pet carrier with dazed looks on our faces.

We gave Pepe his own room at the house, with a closed door so he could be comfortable before we introduced him to the other cats. He promptly found every hiding place in that room and spent much time just staring into space. If you tried to pet him, he would attack your hand and then go hide again.

It went like that for about four months. But in the mornings, we would find his toys scattered, and his food had been eaten, so apparently, he was having a ball when we weren’t looking.

Eventually, things changed. He began to come out of the room, began to play with the other cats, and even would sit on the couch with us. He was our very introverted kitty – he wanted to be near us, but not actually touch us. As introverts ourselves, we understood this.

He was still very shy when we loaded all the cats into cat carriers two years later and moved 12 hours away. But I swear Pepe in Mississippi was a whole new cat. He was no longer the tentative, shy cat. He was full of confidence in our new home. Instead of hiding in the corners, he would lay in the sun on the rug in the middle of the floor. Our vet suggested that moving had put all the cats on an equal footing n the new house. Literally, the pecking order had changed.

In any event, for the next year, Pepe thrived. He gained weight, his coat filled out, and he would even climb in your lap and purr. The cat they warned might never love us back was affectionate and loving. It was the best year.

Things started to go downhill in the fourth year he was with us. His personality was still the same, but he wasn’t eating. The vet told us he had a horrible infection in his teeth and gums, and because of his FIV, he didn’t have the resources to fight it off. They gave him antibiotics and hoped for the best.

He recovered – for about six weeks. Then we had to go back for another round of shots. Each round, he had lost more weight, become more lethargic, and ate less and less. In the summer of 2020, it became obvious we were fighting a losing battle.

We had a foster son living with us at the time. He identified heavily with Pepe, and while the other cats would run and hide from him, Pepe tolerated his hugs. The night before Pepe died, we all sat with Pepe on the floor of the living room, and we petted him and told him we loved him; and that night, when I tucked the boy in bed, we talked about how when you love something or someone, you have responsibilities as a result. We had promised to take care of Pepe, and helping him die well was part of that.

I told the boy that you have to do the right thing for those you love, even when that is not something you want to do.

The next day a neighbor watched the boy while we went to the vet for Pepe’s last visit. He was purring in our arms when he got the shot. At that point, he was skin and bones, less than half his body weight when we had gotten him.

That was 23 months ago. A few months after Pepe died, the Boy went back to his family. Pepe is buried in the backyard, under a headstone Renee and the Boy made together.

I think about Pepe a lot. This cat that they told us would never have the tools to love us ended up loving us after all and taught us a lot about love along the way. He taught a hardened, traumatized boy in the foster system how to love, and he purred in our arms as we watched him die.

Shortly after we got him, when he was having such a hard time adjusting, we decided that if all he gets is to spend his remaining years in a loving home filled with kitty treats and toys and with people committed to loving him even when he doesn’t have the resources to love us back, that is a lot more than he would have had in the first place, and a lot more than any of us deserve. But for a few years, we got a lot more than that, and so did he.

False Alarm

It was about 6:30 in the morning, seven years ago today. I had already been up for half an hour. Renee, who is never voluntarily awake at 6:30 in the morning, was sound asleep. The cats were indifferent.

We were living in a small, 1000 square feet house in Southeast Raleigh in those days, a fixer-upper we had bought from a friend. The kitchen had concrete countertops, and I was leaning against them, my back to the window, sipping my coffee when, from the bedroom, I heard Renee’s phone ring with the ringtone from her cardioligist.

We had been waiting for it to ring for two months. When Renee was 12, she was diagnosed with a heart disease – the same one that killed her mother and grandmother and that, unless she eventually got a heart transplant, would kill her.

Heart transplants are funny things. They tell you over and over that they are not a cure for anything – rather, they are trading a condition they are unable to treat for a condition they know how to treat. So you don’t want to give someone a heart transplant too early – they need to be sick enough that they appreciate the increased quality of life they get from the transplant. On the other hand, if they are too sick, their body cannot handle the traumatic surgery that has to happen. And also, hearts are scarce, and so they want them to go where they can do the most good.

So, it’s a balancing act.

She came into the kitchen, hair askew and eyes wide.

“That was the call! They have a heart for me!”

They wanted us to be at the hospital in 90 minutes. They said there were still more tests to be done on the donor, but it looked good, and they wanted us there so we could do it quickly. From the time the donor dies, there is literally a countdown, and seconds are precious.

A flurry of activity ensues. She can’t eat, because surgery could happen in a matter of hours. We had been told to expect to stay in the hospital for two weeks – suddenly we are throwing things in a duffel bag, trying to guess at what we might need. She calls her family, and I call mine, forgetting that it’s an hour earlier in Mississippi and waking everyone up. And then, with our hearts pounding in our chest, we are on our way to Durham, in rush hour traffic.

The trip to the hospital would take 35 minutes unless it was rush hour, and then it took every bit of an hour and 15 minutes. Like the husband of a woman going into labor, I whipped in and out of traffic, took back roads, and cursed at the ineptitude of other, more placid, drivers. We pulled into the parking garage at 90 minutes on the nose.

The pre-op cubicle. Numerous questionnaires. Vitals taken. Blood tests. Peeing in a cup. Hospital gowns where modesty was impossible. The cardiologist comes by. The surgeon comes by. The nurses come by. We meet a cast of characters we do not know, and will never see again, but in whose hands we are placing her life. They are all remarkably calm. I am not. For us, this is the most important day of our life. For them, this is just Tuesday.

And then we wait.

And wait.

Someone tells us they are awaiting tests to come back from the donor. They won’t tell us anything about the donor – they never do. If the transplant is successful, they will, a year after the transplant, ask the donor if they want to know who you are, and if they do, the doctors will give them your information. And they might reach out to you. Or not.

And then, after we have been in the pre-op cubicle for 3 hours, they come in and tell us that the donor’s heart was nonviable, which means this is not going to happen and they tell her to get dressed. We can go home.

We drive home in shock. We had emotional whiplash, and as we come off the interstate in Raleigh we realize we are starving, so we stopped at Whole Foods to eat at the hot bar. We never did this, ever, because it was so expensive, and that we did it is a sign of how disoriented we were. We paid $40 for lunch and then went home, and I went into the office and she went back to bed and we tried to get on with our lives while we waited for the phone to ring again.