Every seat was taken. People were sitting in all the aisles and jammed into every available space at the back of the huge auditorium.
But you could have heard a pin drop as a very frail Tim McLaurin made his way to the podium at the recent North Carolina Literary Festival. Our community’s noblest tradition is that which honors and nourishes writers. And Tim McLaurin is one of the best. His is a rare voice coming out of the dirt poor farmers who were once a majority of our state’s population. His language is as raw and unpretentious as the experiences he describes in his stories.
McLaurin has given new life and real meaning to literary expression in our area, cutting through the cute and clever stuff that comes out of most creative writing programs to reveal a heart-breaking and hilarious real world most of us never see.
As everyone who loves and admires McLaurin and his writing knows, he has fought and won several previous battles with cancer and he is now engaged in yet another. He faces death with the same grim reality and outrageous good humor he has faced his often difficult life. The farm boy and nature-lover has been a witness to life and death among other animals his whole life. He was afraid of snakes as a child, so he got to know them, learned about them, and learned they were just another creature like him trying to get along. Death, he explains, is no more to be hated or feared than those snakes were. It’s just another part of life. And he will deal with it. I’ve been told McLaurin already has one friend making his casket. Another is building a tomb back in the family cemetery out in the country from Fayetteville. Yet another friend showed me pictures of the concrete panels she is making for friends and family that will decorate McLaurin’s tomb. Dave Williamson ordered a snake to remind people of Tim’s love of snakes and all his stories associated with them; Tim’s mother’s tribute says: “Mama and Jesus Will Always Love You.”
To say our hearts were with him as he began to speak in a painfully hoarse voice is to under-estimate the moment. We were witnessing what is often the hardest kind of courage—simply getting up each day and carrying on even under the most difficult of circumstances. You could have powered a battleship with the good feelings that filled that auditorium as McLaurin spoke at UNC last Saturday.
This past Easter, he said, an intense complication from his chemotherapy landed him in the hospital and he got to thinking about another Easter a long time ago when he was just a kid. They were poor but he never knew it, he explained before he read the story he had written. There were always little treats at Easter, for example, chocolate bunnies and those little candy eggs tied up in green net. His daddy worked every Sunday and holiday at the Merita bread bakery and never once got to see his five children open the Christmas gifts he worked so hard to provide for them.
McLaurin said the tubes going in and out of him at the hospital reminded him of one particular Easter morning. His Mama came running in and told her five children, ages 4 to 13, they had to help. The cow was trying to give birth, but the calf was stuck with only the head sticking out. If they didn’t do something, they’d not only lose the calf but the cow and their vital source of milk.
And so, with five younguns in tow, the Mama went out and got a rope tied around the calf’s head, and had them all pulling. The cow was in such agonizing pain, she would try to get up and run, dragging five little McLaurins along with her. Finally, she stopped in total exhaustion and the calf was delivered in a gush of liquid and after birth.
That’s how he feels now, McLaurin said, with all these people pulling on ropes trying to keep him alive. He firmly believes there is a God, no matter what name folks ascribe to him; and he believes that after this life there is “another world.” He talks about it as yet another adventure in learning about nature and himself.
McLaurin finished reading this latest story. He left the podium and slowly made his way to his seat. The audience hesitated and then erupted in the loudest, warmest ovation you ever heard.
Author Clyde Edgerton, the funniest man alive in my opinion, was up next. First, he said, he’d have to tell a Tim McLaurin story. Edgerton said he had this airplane and he really loved it; but, one day he went flying and came in for a landing and the plane went belly-up. He was so shaken by the near-death experience, he had to call people and tell them about it as soon as he got home. He called one friend, who immediately responded: “Good God, Clyde, are you all right? Did you get hurt?” He called yet another friend who had the same response. Then he called Tim McLaurin, who listened very carefully to the whole scary report, then said:
“Damn. I wish I’d been with you.”
That is why all close friends and family and those of us who love and admire him through his wonderful writing are all pulling on the ropes, with prayers and concern, hoping to postpone his venturing into that other world at such a young age. The way mommern’em saved that calf.
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