(Bill Barnett age two, getting a drink beside trailer, Traypark, Pecos, Texas circa 1960)
Today is the birthday of my little brother, Bill David Barnett. He died at age 42, alone and in torment. Today I will be saying the kaddish for him, listening for a message from him, and missing him.
(Bill Barnett circa 1965, age 7, by living room doors in Dilley, Texas)
When he died, I said one of the eulogies at his funeral. Over a hundred people came, most of them his friends, working-class stoners in the best dress-up clothes they had, standing with disbelieving faces around the edge of the canopy. What I had to say about him did him credit. In a quiet way, I ripped the secrets of my family out into the open and kept his memory honest. I then said the kaddish, right there in front of all the fundamentalist Baptists on Daddy's side of the family. The minister (Daddy's first cousin's husband) who was running the show wanted to come over and forcibly shut me up, it was plain to everybody, but managed to restrain himself to simply standing over me and ranting at me about Jesus. Afterward, every single one of his friends came to shake my hand, many of them weeping, and thank me for living up to Bill's expectation.
(Bill and Maggie Barnett, Christmas 1972, visiting grandparents in Oklahoma)
A year later, I wrote a performance piece about him, "Homemade Kite". A dream in which he appeared was one of the ignition points for the novel I'm writing, Ginny Bates, and he plays a big role in that book as well.
(Fourth of July Parade for Bicentennial 1976, Denton, Texas, L-R: Gretchen, Maggie's partner as suffragist; Bill Barnett as Revolutionary soldier; and Maggie as suffragist)
After the fold is the eulogy, the performance piece, and more photos. I wish you could have heard him play blues guitar. I wish you could have known him.
(Bill with the first of his beloved black Labradors, Thor, in Stoneburg, Texas circa 1970)
(Bill Barnett in eighth grade, Stoneburg, Texas, circa 1971)
(Bill in ninth grade, Stoneburg, Texas circa 1972)
(Bill in tenth grade, Stoneburg, Texas circa 1973)
My friend Beebo is a Buddhist
She says gently “Scared of dying? Not so much.
Dying badly, that’s what haunts us.”
And that's the final fence they build
between the have-nots and the haves --
the way you die. How fast you die.
And who's there with you when you die.
My brother Bill, we saved each other
every time we got a chance, which in my family was a lot.
As trailer trash who moved from place to place
School semesters begun and ended in different towns
We had no names or faces to other kids
But Bill and I were built-in friends. And though we were
too small to stop the man who used us years for sex,
I learned the way to lie and be that got him off
before he turned to reach for Bill. And afterward
Bill knew I shouldn't be ashamed.
We made it out. Not clean, but we were still alive.
And my plan was, we'd be together at the end.
We used butcher paper -- thick, waxy
Green lathes and cotton twine
The tail was torn from strips of
Daddy's old seersucker shirt
It was just past Easter
Bill did the running
because of my asthma
I, three years taller,
jerked our diamond into the wind
leashed, wheedled it higher
til the gods snatched it
He crawled into the circle of my arms
knowing I welcomed him
had wanted him since birth
the only one of us who did
His crewcut leaned back on my chin,
I could smell sun and little boy
I gave him the stick wrapped thick with string
and held him to ground
The gale jerked his thin arms out straight
We played the line to the very end
I didn't let him go
In every photo of us both, we're touching,
as if to draw strength.
Raggedy-ass children do grow up, some of us,
and grow up big.
I went west and found Dyke Nation. Aside from me,
his only images of lesbians
was in his porn. He gave up kicker bars
when one too many fistfights meant
the next one and he'd go to prison.
He switched to blues, and found a voice.
No matter how our worlds diverged
we saw each other every Christmas.
He could do the perfect Jimmy Stewart:
"Merry Christmas, you old savings and loan!"
My favorite show was "Meet in St. Louie Louie"
where Judy Garland and her sister
sing together in the dark:
"From now on we all will be together
If the fates allow…"
Bill walked the walk, he talked the talk,
the kind of redneck loudmouth guy
that all the clean white pretty boys
who write for movies or TV
find irresistible to plunder.
The kind of joe to thrill the throngs
of clean white pretty college girls
who dress in drag and strut on stage --
the kind of Tex they think means sex. They fail to see:
That leaning on the wall or hood, the stiff-legged walk,
the pocketed hands, are done to ease
a ruptured disk, the feet or knees
whose throb is just the way it is.
We hold our hands to drain the swell
or hide the missing fingernails.
A crooked grin conceals bad teeth.
We have to raise our voice to hear ourselves
above the motor of the gears
that eat the living, joint by joint.
And walking tough might get us hired.
Not laid. What you call cockiness
is hoping-to-live-to-retirement fear.
And if you're turned on by the wide-eyed smirk
of terror, well, then, big surprise.
The pain, it started in his side, he thought it came
from pulling on the mower cord. Took some Advil,
mowed the lawn, laid down a while.
But man, that muscle really ached. He told his wife.
He'd just changed jobs, walked out pissed off
and found another right away. But it would be
two more weeks before he'd qualify
for health insurance. And we'd all learned
from watching how our Mama drowned
that going to the hospital
without insurance? -- that will kill you. So he made do. Told his wife to shut her mouth. Did not call me --
knew well enough that I could push him anywhere,
get him to the damned ER. At least, I hope
that's why he didn't call me.
It got worse. Smoking dope helped a little.
He made it through another week. One more week
to go, and safe, at least, to call in sick one day
though he was new guy on the job. He told his wife
he'd lie down on the couch and rest,
TV on to master's golf. His face was pale.
But off she went, to Motel 6, they needed money
more than ever. She called at noon. He didn't answer,
but then, he was a heavy sleeper. She rushed her rooms,
got out of there by afternoon and drove straight home.
He was already cold.
The coroner said, the pouch of blood around his heart
at last ripped open, like paper stretched
on a battered kite, and all the red wind of his life
poured out into his chest.
© Maggie Jochild, 1 October 2002
(Bone Dance, blues band formed by Bill Barnett who played lead bass and sang vocals; Bill is second from right)
FOR BILL DAVID
I am here to talk to you about my brother. I know that many of you here knew him in ways I did not, loved him for things he shared especially with you, are reeling from your own individual world of loss. He would be so happy to be in the midst of this gathering, the center of our attention. He would grab that guitar and say he wanted to play us just one song, just one thing we needed to hear. Of course, it would turn into a lot more than just one song.
In between songs, he'd be throwing back his head and laughing loud and unrestrained; he'd be telling one of his vivid stories or coaxing one of ours out of us; but his hand, with those rattlesnake-rearranged fingers, would lie ever ready next to the guitar strings, twitching with possible melody. You may know that John Lee Hooker died the day after Bill did. I have imagined them meeting up somewhere out there, John Lee Hooker teaching Bill a few of his famous licks, Bill trying out on him a few lines that had been rattling around in his head. Bill was a bluesman through and through. We need his songs most of all right now.
It is so hard to think of him as dead. I can easily imagine him pulling up late there on the road, in a little shower of gravel, jumping out of his truck and bellowing "Hey, what's up?" He'd give us all hugs from those giant arms of his, saying quietly to each one of us "How you doin?"
But what I can tell you that is mine alone is what it was like to grow up with him. He was the finest brother you could ever have. I wanted him from the very beginning.
Actually, I wanted him before he was born. We were living in a rent house in Lafayatte, Louisiana, just back from Calcutta where Bill had been conceived. Mama used to tease us by saying Bill was the son of a Seikh taxi driver. He was so clearly a chip off the hold Harold block, it was a joke we all enjoyed.
I was three years old, and while I was aware that Mama had changed shape, was as big as my daughter is over there, I hadn't really understood that she was pregnant, what that meant. In 1958 people didn't talk about it as freely as they do now. I was taking a bath when Mama and Daddy came into the bathroom, together, to tell me something. This was new behavior on their part, and I was alert but not worried.
Mama sat down on the toilet to tell me that the reason her belly was so big was because there was a baby inside it, a baby that was going to come out and become part of our family. A new brother or sister. I was overwhelmed with gladness. I wanted to know which it was going to be, a brother or a sister? She said she didn’t know, we'd just have to be surprised. But I felt like I could not wait, and asked her to bring it home right now. They both thought this demand was pretty funny, although I didn't see the humor in it.
I waited for him with a toddler's patience, which is really none at all. When Bill came to live with us, they put his crib in my room. I was sure this was because I wanted him most of all. In the mornings, right before dawn, he would wake up and begin fussing for his bottle. Mama would be asleep in the next room, sleeping the starved sleep of a new mother. I would get out of my twin bed, crawl carefully up over the side of the crib, and gather Bill into my lap the way Mama had taught me to do.
I have the clearest memory of his round little face grinning up at me. I would sing him all the songs I knew, tell him all the stories Mama and my ayah in India had told me, play with his chubby little clenched fists, and keep him entertained for the hour or so it would be before Mama's internal clock would go off and she'd drag herself awake. When she would walk into our room, the sunlight just starting to fill it, she'd stop in the doorway and say, "Look at you two." As soon as Bill heard her voice, he'd begin crying loud and get whisked off for his bottle. Even from the beginning, he was that generous and cooperative. A hungry baby usually cannot be distracted from their need to be fed. But Bill was willing to give us a chance.
He was named William after his grandfather, William Rusk Atkins, and David after his great-great-great grandfather, David Mastin Armstrong. Bill Atkins fought in World War I, serving as a private in the 111th Engineers, 35th Division. He died at the age of 49, largely as a result of residue from his military service. David Armstrong fought in the Civil War, serving as a private in Company B, Morgan's Cavalry from Arkansas for the Confederacy. He died at the age of 46, largely as the result of residue from his military service.
Our Bill was also a survivor. I always thought that Bill David was the most beautiful name a boy could have. If I had ever had a son, he would have been named Bill David. But family names and family heritage are sometimes more powerful than we acknowledge. We keep losing our sweet Bills far too soon. Mama had to bury her own beloved brother Bill. There is one more brother and sister Bill and Mary combination still intact in our family, our cousins Mary Caroline and Billy Atkins. I fervently wish for them that they are allowed to spend a lifetime together. I had intended to grow old with my Bill. I am not sure how to do without him. It is a measure of him as a man that there are so many of us here today feeling the same way.
Bill and I were closer than most brothers and sisters. Our family moved constantly, and had no solid community. Bill and I were the only playmates we could count on, the only friends we had for years. When we moved to a new place, we had to face the challenge of being outcasts together -- and there is no exile like the exile enforced by other children.
In many ways, as the older one, I was his protector, but I was not that much older and he was a tough little bugger himself. It is more accurate to say that we looked out for each other. By the time we reached a small town where we wound up staying for a few years, Bill and I had the habit of living in each other's skins.
I invented endless story lines that we acted out, a daily adventure installment that went on for eight or ten hours a day. I did not keep all the best roles for myself; I let him sometimes be Batman while I was Robin, or Rocky Ranger Space Cadet while I was Junior Flash, or Dan'l Boone to my Mingo. Except for when we played Tarzan -- I never let him be Tarzan, and the real joke of it was me as a stick of girl, who wheezed whenever I did the Tarzan yell, trying that role at all, much less grabbing it for me alone. But Bill made such a good Cheetah, and let's face it, being a chimp is really as good as being King of the Apes.
So, here's a good example of how we spent our days. I was around nine and Bill was six. We were playing Tarzan and had decided we could not go any longer without swinging from vine to vine through the jungle. Unfortunately, in scrubby far South Texas, we had nothing like a jungle. We had a large magnolia tree at the front corner of the house, and that would have to do.
Bill scrambled up the tree with a long yellow nylon rope we'd stolen from Daddy's truck clenched between his teeth. He lashed the rope to a slender twig up at the top the tree, and this took maybe half an hour because Bill couldn't really tie knots yet. Finally, he shimmies back down and we both stand on one of the flat-topped brick pillars encircling the porch. We are easily 8 feet off the ground. The rope comes down from the middle of the tree, lies languidly along the ground for a while, then loops back up to our hands. We were clueless as to what was wrong with this picture.
Then we had a vicious fight about who got to swing first. Bill and I fought a lot, and not just arguing but actually tearing into other with swinging arms, kicking, whatever we could use to duke it out. Mama would be tremendously upset by our brawls, and tell us over and over that we'd be sorry some day, we'd miss each other with all our hearts. But Mama had been separated from her siblings when she was a child. She didn't know what it was like to eat, sleep, bathe, and share every possible secret with your brother or sister.
Bill and I were actually almost evenly matched as fighters, despite my three years on him. Bill had a way of evening things up. I remember clearly at age 13 realizing I could not possibly win another fistfight with him, he'd gotten so big, and so I put forth an earnest case for us settling our differences verbally from then on. He grinned and said, "You're just chicken." I admitted he was right, and he agreed to change how we fought. Just like that.
Anyhow, the day of the Tarzan rope fight, we couldn't really knock each other down because we were on a precarious position atop the pillar. I just kept hissing "No" and holding the rope out of his reach. Finally, in pure frustration, he burst into tears. And of course that worked. I said, "Okay, okay, shut up, you can go first" and put the rope into his grubby little fist.
We stood for a moment, imaging the glory of what he was about to do. I thought it likely that he would swing across the entire yard, reach the telephone pole on the corner, link one arm around it casually like Tarzan did, then reverse direction and swing back to the pillar. Bill pounded his thin little chest, warbled out the yell, clutched the rope in both hands and leaped off into space. He instantly fell flat on his face in the dirt beside the porch.
I was dumbstruck. What had gone wrong? He rolled over in agony, his nose pouring blood and choked shrieks erupting from his throat. I scurried down to him and when Mama boiled out of the house to find out what was wrong, I was cradling him in my lap under the tree, both of covered with blood. I felt absolutely terrible that it had not been me to go first and learn the hard way about rope tension. Mama cleaned him up, then Bill and I went back outside to revise our plans.
From the very beginning, Bill was endlessly curious about everything that crossed his path and paid sharp attention to things around him. He was extremely smart, not just in how much he knew, which was considerable, but also in how he constantly struggled to understand the why of things. I taught him to read and the basics of math well before he started first grade, and he was in fact disappointed when he started school at how little he was challenged by what they had to offer.
From his Daddy, from the Staffords, and from his grandfather Atkins he carried a love of figuring out how things work, especially things mechanical, and setting them to rights. Also from Daddy and the Barnetts, he had the habit of expressing his passion for his interests with wholehearted abandon. From his Mama, from the Atkins and Turners and Ritchies, he carried the gift of gab, the ability to charm the socks off folks, the conviction that his opinion mattered, the openness to speak to others heart to heart right away.
When we were little and did something commendable, Mama would say, "Oh, that's the Atkins in you!" When we did something bad, she'd say, "Well isn't that just like a goddamned Barnett." Daddy, need I point out, had pretty much the opposite point of view. Bill was a gorgeous blend of the two lines that marched forward through time to bring us here today. He was complex, complicated -- no matter what they tell you, the real truths in this world are always complex, and Bill not only reflected that, he was capable of understanding such complexity. Let's not sentimentalize him. He'd hate that. And he was too big to fit into any kind of tidy package, anyhow. The hole his passing has left is Bill-shaped, and will not be filled.
Despite his lifelong generosity and sociability, Bill was no pushover. He was sometimes called stubborn, but the fact is, Bill only balked when someone was trying to shove him around for no good reason except their own need to feel in control. As a child, when I encountered cruelty I tended to go silent and passive, waiting for the bad thing to go away. Bill watched this example, decided it wasn't for him, and early on began fighting back. By the time we were teenagers, I had begun trying out his way of doing things. He was a solid symbol of insisting on being treated right, and I am so grateful to him for that.
Bill was a hero, in the real meaning of the word. When you know what the odds are against you, when you are keenly aware of just how likely it is that you will get creamed and how much it may hurt, and you do the right thing, the hard thing, anyhow, well, that's heroism.
I know Bill would call me a bleeding heart liberal for saying this, he called me that more times than I can count, but he had enormous obstacles in his life. He struggled all his life with how to forgive injury. Those of us who knew him well know how angry he was. He had reasons for his anger, and it never frightened me. Behind his belligerent shoulders and loud bellow was the anger that comes from being a tenderhearted and wounded boy. I think a lot of us knew that and treated him as he deserved to be treated, with kindness.
I am sick at heart, now, to think that perhaps his anger needed an outlet it did not get. I wish he could tell us what maybe he did not tell us. Working class men like Bill labor all their lives to produce every facet of the tangible world we live in. They wear out too fast. They deserve shelter and comfort and a chance to be disappointed as well as brave and big-hearted. Since we cannot give that to Bill any more, let's be sure we give it to each other in his memory.
Bill was simply devastated by Mama's death. He was not yet done needing a mother. I mean, none of us are, we could use parents all our lives, but Bill was still a young man trying out his independence when she died. She and I had become close friends, we wrote each other and talked every week, and although her death changed my world view forever, there were not things left unsaid between us.
Bill, like me, lived with the daily fear of her dying. He could not quite bring himself to leave home and strike out on his own, the fear kept him coming back to make sure she was okay. When she died anyhow, he felt left. For a few months after her death, I had dreams in which she would appear, trying to tell me something, I never found out what. On a visit back home, I told Bill about these dreams. I will never forget the look on his face. It was that of a heartbroken little boy, pushed almost beyond endurance. He said quietly, "I'd give anything in the world to have just one more chance to talk with her", then got up and walked out of the house. In that instant I realized however much her death had hurt the rest of us, it was hardest on him.
I am not convinced of an afterlife. Mama herself believed in reincarnation, and told us she'd be back to live among us again. I wish I could find proof of that. But if there is an existence beyond this delicious incarnation of flesh and human connection, if the spirit endures, then Bill and Mama have reunited and he is now getting the mothering he still needed.
I want to thank his widow Sally, for standing solidly at his side these last several years and giving him a good home, for giving him the chance to taste fatherhood. I want to thank Daddy for giving me my brother Bill, and for giving him the model of manhood he grew into. Some time last year Bill sent me one of those internet quizzes, where you answer questions about yourself and send it on to friends. One of the questions was "Who is the person you most admire in this world?" Bill wrote, "My father. I try to be just like him."
I want to thank April, and Kim, for loving Bill well along the way. I want to thank his precious friends, Pete, Zach, Ross, Ballew, all the folks who have stuck by him for almost three decades now. Bill had a talent for friendship, not just for keeping them flourishing but also for choosing the finest people in the world to befriend. He was the kind of friend we all want to have. So were you, or he wouldn't have chosen you.
Since he died, I have every day been saying the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the death of someone so close to you it is hard bear going on without them. This several thousand-year-old prayer is very wise in that it does not try to give us answers or explanations for what has just been torn away from us. In Jewish tradition, close family members are not expected to find our way to god when god has done something we cannot quite comprehend. God is generous enough to allow us our disbelief and our shock. God will be there when we are ready to face life's goodness again. In the meantime, others start the prayer without us, a prayer that speaks only of god's love and peace, with no attempt at persuasion. It begins
Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba
(Mourners and Congregation) Ameinb'al'ma di v'ra khir'utei
v'yam'likh mal'khutei b'chayeikhon uv'yomeikhon
uv'chayei d'khol beit yis'ra'eil
ba'agala uviz'man kariv v'im'ru:
(Mourners and Congregation) Amein. Y'hei sh'mei raba m'varakh l'alam ul'al'mei al'maya
Yit'barakh v'yish'tabach v'yit'pa'ar v'yit'romam v'yit'nasei
v'yit'hadar v'yit'aleh v'yit'halal sh'mei d'kud'sha
(Mourners and Congregation) B'rikh hu.
l'eila min kol bir'khata v'shirara
toosh'b'chatah v'nechematah, da'ameeran b'al'mah, v'eemru:
(Mourners and Congregation) Amein
Y'hei sh'lama raba min sh'maya
v'chayim aleinu v'al kol yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
(Mourners and Congregation) Amein
Oseh shalom bim'romav hu ya'aseh shalom
aleinu v'al kol Yis'ra'eil v'im'ru
(Mourners and Congregation) Amein
Saturday, November 10, 2007
(Bill Barnett age two, getting a drink beside trailer, Traypark, Pecos, Texas circa 1960)