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Sitting in a doctor's waiting room last Friday, I read a short story by Flannery O’Conner. O’Connor wrote about the South, post World War II, pre-civil rights. That historical epoch when Andy Griffith ruled the Confederacy. But O’Conner, born and raised in Georgia, is without nostalgia and in her version of the South, Mayberry is run by the Ferguson Police, Sunday worship is at Westboro Baptist, and Aunt Bee is all-a-bother about “blacks” drinking from the “white” water fountain.

This particular story, “A Good Man is Hard to Find” centers on the matron of a southern suburban family who has insinuated herself upon her son (Bailey) and his family; the mother-in-law who came to stay; a singularly selfish woman.

The family heads off for a vacation of sorts (Georgia to Florida woohoo) and granny and her cat (Pitty Sing) are stuffed into the backseat with the children, John Wesley and June Star.

The old woman’s whining leads them to exit the highway and get off on some excursion in the Georgia backcountry. A sharp turn springs Pitty Sing from Granny’s lap and the cat latches onto Bailey’s head like tree bark. Seconds later, the car is flipping end over end comes to rest in a ravine. But everyone is alright. Sort of.

Through snippets of news and conversation the reader is aware that a sociopath named Misfit runs loose in the back country of Georgia, so when an ominous black car pulls up to lend a hand, there’s little doubt about the driver. It’s Misfit and two hillbilly companions (Hiram and Bobby Lee) straight from the movie set of O Brother Where Art Thou.

It’s here that O’Conner’s humor turns dark. Misfit has his companions take Bailey and John Wesley back into the woods and moments later two gun shots are fired. (Why am I reading this story in the hospital?) Next, the wife and daughter are taken into the woods and then more gun shots.

Even as her family is being disposed of one by one, the grandmother’s only thoughts are toward self preservation. But as Misfit turns his attention on her, something kind of wonderful happens: her heart melts with compassion for the killer, offering him mercy and hope of redemption. Misfit recoils at the sight of goodness and shoots her three times. (Didn’t see that coming.)

Staring at the dead woman’s body in a heap, Misfit offers this stabbing epitaph: "She would have been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

"She would have been a good woman...if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life:” I'm just sitting, thinking about that line. Last year about this time, Katie was finishing up her surgery. It was a double mastectomy. (Is there something wrong with me that my mouth doesn't want to pronounce the "t" in mastectomy?) One of my vivid memories is the way Katie went through the ordeal, which was pretty much like she went through any other day. Absolutely nothing different. No rethinking or reordering. For the last 30 years of marriage, she has lived with a thoroughly eternal view of life: what matters and what doesn’t.

After the surgery, lying in her hospital bed, wildly medicated, Katie said to me: “all day long I’ve been going through my to-do list in my head as if I were still at home.”

I said, “What was on your to-do list?”

She said, “Finish working on the birdhouse, make up the beds for the girls, fear God and not man…I thought that last one would be a good thing to have in my head going through the day.”

Who keeps a to-do list like that? I suppose anyone who wants to live their life like each day was there last.  

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” —Proverbs 9:10

Rick JamesComment