12 November 2008

James Sanders, 57

On October 31 I stood in line for an hour and a half before I was able to cast my vote for Barack Obama. While in line, I spoke with Henry DeJesus, whose mother was Puerto Rican and whose father was a black man. Henry was pretty convinced that Obama, if elected, would be shot—that the CIA and the Secret Service had a ready-made excuse in the reappearance from time to time of white supremacists. “Well, we can't get them all,” Henry imagined them saying. But Henry was casting his vote for Obama regardless. That's the kind of defiant hope that resonates with me. That hope that manifests itself in our acting, despite the unlikeliness that anything we do matters, despite even the expectation that our actions will, ultimately, be futile. It's the reason that I, too, voted for Obama though I know that he'll disappoint. It's the reason that I continue to go to church though I rarely feel like I've encountered God.

When the topic of church came up, James Sanders would start quoting the Sermon on the Mount. James went to church every Sunday until he was 17 when he started working. When I told him he couldn't serve both God and money, he said, “You got that right. I started making money and never went back.” But he still remembered the Sermon on the Mount. Or at least little bits of it.

On the day Barack Obama was elected president of the U.S.A., I worked in my local precinct, noting voter names as people came to vote. I saw very nearly all my neighbors, or a representative from their household, come through the doors. James' wife, Paula, stopped by at mid-morning and voted. Janet from across the street voted. Jay and Gabe, Dee and Denny, Matt and I-can-never-remember-her-name—they all came in and voted. And I felt like I was doing something worthwhile with my time that day. So when I returned home I was ready to watch election results, hopeful as to the outcome.

James, like Henry, was certain that if Obama got elected it would only be a matter of time before the Secret Service decided to go have coffee one day and leave him unprotected, and that would be that. James was also under the impression that he could not vote in the election due to having served time in prison—an impression that is not true in Indiana, it turns out. He was, over the summer, also of the impression that he would not live to see the election—another impression that was not true.

James had served several years in prison on a felony drug conviction. He yelled at his kids and beat his dog. He cussed too much, smoked too much, and drank too much, having once told me his goal was not to let lung cancer beat him—he was going to die of cirrhosis. He was insanely proud of his kids, friendly and outgoing. He was more effusively grateful than anyone else I know; strawberries given in June would be praised through October. He was welcoming to just about anyone who showed up on his porch while he was there, and inviting them to stop by at any time. And when the neighbors were gathered on his porch, which they were most days during the summer, he never had anywhere else to go. Nothing was as important to him as sitting there talking.

And he could talk. And talk. Much of the conversation included stock phrases, repeated.
“Big brown bug bit a big brown bear made the big brown bear bleed blue blood ... that's the B's ... bet you can't do that, and I ain't got no teeth.”

“The hell you say.”

“My daughter got her first paycheck last week, and you know what she paid me? She paid me no attention.”

“It's it and that's that.”

“I am just sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
And when I heard the wailing and the sirens, I knew. And I put on my coat and shoes, and headed over. The rest of the neighbors were already there, comforting the 2nd grader as best as they could. All of us, though we knew it was coming, a little stunned. Stunned by the election results; stunned by James' death.

Paula came out, said “He's gone,” and gave hugs. Ja'mia sat on the porch clear-eyed, flanked by Janet and Sherry. Watching a 2nd grader process her father's death is a difficult thing.

“I called 911 four, no, three times. Once when he had a seizure, once when he fell, and one other time. I guess I won't need to call anymore, because he's dead. But I'm not gonna cry. Daddy told me to help momma and not to cry, and I'm gonna obey.”

And Sherry turned her head away and wiped tears from her eyes so Ja'mia wouldn't see them. And Brian cleared his throat and spat. And Paula said that James had told her that day that he was going to go after the election and she had said, “Oh, come on, James, you been talking like that all summer,” but that this time he was right.

On the night that Barack Obama was elected president of the U.S.A., as all the networks were showing footage of celebrations in Grant Park, Nairobi, and Ebenezer Baptist Church, James Sanders, 57, died. So instead of celebrating the concession speeches and the victory speeches, I spent the night with the neighborhood grieving.

I like to think he was watching the election results, staying alive until the election was called, then deciding that he could leave. And I felt a symmetry in the wee hours of November 5. I've not been particularly happy with the way the nation has been run the last eight years. And I got the sense on that evening that James and the nation in which he lived were sick and tired of being sick and tired no longer.

Rest peacefully, James Sanders.

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