Written by Ellen Sullivan On
The year Dr. King was killed our lives changed forever. My father drank harder and my parents fought meaner and things fell apart all around us. I remember marching at the funeral and there were moments we wondered if there would be violence and we’d turn around and head back then someone would say we could go forward again.
Soon after Dr. King’s funeral my parents divorced, and my mother and I moved to the North. I’d go back South to visit Dad and I would talk with my fading Georgia voice and drawl and say y’all and slow down and pick up pecans off the ground and crack them open and eat them and make pies. I would cry every time I left, looking back at him. He would frown then quickly turn away. Up in the air I’d look down at the clouds and imagine jumping into a big one, landing softly and letting it carry me away.
My father lost his way after the assassination and the divorce and he couldn’t find his way back home. Like a pioneer blazing through the North Georgia woods in unchartered territory he was on a journey to nowhere. Dad could not turn around and go back, could not find his passionate heart again since it just exploded like it had been hit by that bullet.
One summer a psychiatrist doing research from Harvard University came to visit my father and our family and we’d sit out on the hot front porch in mid-town Atlanta talking about what it felt like to have been a part of the Movement and all the chaos after. Now all of that was gone and all I could do was watch my father drowning in the long whiskey nights. There was nothing left right then but memories. We would sit on the porch and listen to Dad’s tapes, the songs about holding on and overcoming and milk and honey on the other side– had to keep on a-walkin’ and wait for the prize but it never came. Just waiting.
The hope had ended. The dream was shattered. My family got swallowed and the Harvard people studied how it felt getting swallowed inside something bigger than us but there really was no way to fix it.
I remember another year went by and producers from New York came to make a documentary about what happened, and one day we drove to Savannah down in Low Country for a day of filming and my father was drunk so they called it off for the day. So we went to the beach out on Tybee Island and the dunes were hot and the waves were big and the beach was wild and deserted. We went out on a raft and before we knew it, we were in a riptide. Tried to get back the current was too strong and we couldn’t fight it. My brother swam out to rescue us as my father watched, paralyzed, from the beach. Then he dove in and swam out for us - then we all got caught in the rushing water, getting pulled further and further out. I remember watching as my brother kept going under then bobbing back up and it really was like they say in a bad situation, it happened in slow motion.
Out of nowhere came a little motorboat sputtering toward us fast and the man in it grabbed each one of us out of the water. The engine smoked and backfired and he said how lucky we were he came along since that undertow pulls you right into the Savannah river and into a giant whirlpool and people had died in there. ‘No way to get out once you’re in it’ he told us. He dropped us back on the shore, said ‘don’t y’all never go back in there again’.
We collapsed on the beach and we were all too tired to talk. Just strung out on the beach on adrenaline and as we looked at each other and realized we almost lost each other.
My father lit up a cigarette and coughed up salt water and I remember looking up, feeling dizzy watching the clouds, catching my breath. Looked out to the river and I tried to but I couldn’t see the water whirling.
My brother broke the silence and talking in a quiet voice he told us how all he could hear while he was drowning was the sound of his heart, beating louder and louder and how it just got stronger and stronger each time he went under and he couldn’t believe how strong the sound of his heart was – like an African drum pounding as he got pulled way under. And then sound of it – the sound of his heart was so strong it pushed him right back up again and he swore that was what saved his life.