January is a liminal space. It’s cold and dark and so very calm compared to all the chaos of late November and December – it’s the perfect time to be quiet, to both reflect and anticipate, to look back and look forward. As I reviewed 2012, trying to come up with one photograph to represent each month, it occurred to me what a rich, fulfilling year it was – and as I selected those pictures one by one, I also couldn’t help but think about everything I was leaving out.
Like the weeks I spent in Memphis last fall with my family, during a series of frightening health crises as my dad had two heart attacks and triple by-pass open heart surgery followed by a debilitating stroke. Unsurprisingly, there weren’t too many photos that could have captured those realities.
But there was one.
I’ve thought a lot about those weeks in Memphis, and have never been able to quite wrap my head around everything that happened. But this has to have been one of the most surreal moments – Mom was a nervous wreck. Both of her pockets were ringing non-stop; she had her cell phone in one and Dad’s in the other. She stood up and sat back down. She raced across the waiting room whenever the wall telephone rang. She’d go out in the hallway to talk on one phone and no sooner was she gone than the other one would start ringing. One of those calls was from an old friend of hers from church who said she was bringing supper.
I snapped this picture with my phone and sent it out to several friends with the hash tag #gayhell. It isn’t obvious from the picture, but I took this on my very first night in Memphis back in September, in the cardiac intensive care unit waiting room while my dad was in surgery. And I’m glad I did. When it happened I knew there was something disturbingly hilarious about what I was seeing, but being in the middle of Wait-And-See, with dad on the table and his heart on by-pass, I couldn’t fully appreciate it. As we spent the next seven days on the ward, though, I had a lot of time to ruminate. And here’s why – despite still being funny – this picture is so wrong.
1. It was a deliberate choice, and when that enormous bag full of chicken sandwiches and french fries came through the door, everybody knew it. My mother’s friend, who was kind enough to bring us dinner, was actively supporting the company – when she walked through the doorway everyone oohed and aahed. It was intentional – not against me; it had nothing to do with me. But it had nothing to do with the food, either. “There’s just something so wonderful about Chick-fil-A,” my mother said to her friend who brought it.
Later that week I had lunch with my cousin, who reminded me that all the hoopla over Chick-fil-A was not a `controversy’ I had to live through. And he’s right, I was mostly insulated from the uproar. I did know what was going on – it was impossible not to thanks to Facebook. But mostly I was able to avoid it all, not ever paying too much attention because I live in a place where I don’t even know where a Chick-fil-A is. The whole thing existed for me entirely online – the news reports and stories about long lines of people making a mess of traffic in southern cities and towns; photographs from Chick-fil-A father-daughter date night; crazy ranting status updates supporting free speech; a sudden, bizarre loyalty to chicken; and logically gymnastic comments about loving all people but hands off my waffle fries. Sure, I read about it. But apart from hiding a few more people on Facebook, the whole thing really skirted the edges of my awareness. I laughed out loud at what has got to be the best status update I’ve seen in a long time: only in America does a pilgrimage take place in a car and end at a fast food restaurant. But otherwise I was insulated. It didn’t affect me.
And yet, here it was, staring me in the face, a Gigantic Grease Bag of Hate. And I ate it. I reached out my hand and plucked one of those chicken sandwiches from the pile and wolfed it down. I was too emotionally drained to be invested in food politics right then, and besides, I was more concerned about that other glaring absurdity, you know, the one where no one else seems to find it odd to have a table full of artery clogging fast food in a cardiac intensive care unit waiting room.
2. There was a table full of artery clogging fast food in a cardiac intensive care unit waiting room. I get it, we’re in a place where on the four corners of every intersection there is a church, a Walgreens, a fast food restaurant, and either a cardiac or a diabetes clinic – and the parking lots are always full. Somehow I don’t think this is what Wesley intended with his famous quadrilateral.
But anyway, I was stunned. The entire week I spent at that hospital I was consistently amazed by how much fast food I saw coming in the doors – in the hands of visitors, patients, and physicians. On that first night, however, it made me angry, and incredibly confused. At one point a friend of my mom’s said, “My mom had this surgery thirteen years ago and she didn’t change a durn thing afterward and she’s doing great!” I couldn’t tell if she meant what she was saying or not – that because it’s medically possible to go in and reroute around the clogged arteries, it would be okay to clog up the new ones, too? It was meant to make us feel better, but it only made me feel worse.
The total insanity of being in a cardiac intensive care unit waiting room was compounded by hearing people, friends of the family, shouting over each other. Did everybody get some fries? Little shimmering grease smears all over the table. It was Southern Hospitality gone awry. And then someone said, “Dobie’s gonna come out of this just fine. It’s a new lease! He’s getting a re-set!” So I chose to focus on that instead, and took a bite of my sandwich.
Two weeks later, I was back in Memphis after Dad suffered a stroke while he was recovering from heart surgery. So it may come as no surprise that those long weeks were ones I left out when thinking about 2012, even though in many ways they were my 2012 – and because there was no way to capture them in a photograph. Except there was one picture I snapped while I was in Memphis for Christmas that sums up some of what I experienced in the fall – a visual reminder of both our joy and human frailty.