The Canary in My Coal Mine - James Michael Starr

The Canary in My Coal Mine


YES, I HATE TO ADMIT IT, but even three years after she died, I was having a hard time forgiving my mother. Even while knowing all along that unforgiveness is a most illogical choice. It never makes sense, even when the accused is still with us.

And yet I’m getting there. With every word I write, I inch closer toward embracing her. Fully loving and accepting her. Ironic, ain’t it. Since she’s now only ashes and dust.

I recall the day, the very moment, the very place I first moved hesitantly toward someday forgiving her. Because it wasn’t at first a conscious decision to forgive.

I see it in my mind’s eye even as I write this.

I crept slowly down a small hill outside Chardon, Ohio, a half-dozen or so descending with me. The ground was still slippery from a snowstorm that had rolled in the night before, Northern Ohio’s infamous “lake-effect snow” coming off of Lake Erie. As we all took cautious steps down the icy path, I was struggling just as much with the shifting feelings inside of me.

On the little hilltop behind, I had just put my mother in the frozen ground.

If you had known her only a decade before, you might have said, When Joanie leaves this world, she’ll be seen off by throngs. No one could have predicted how it would actually turn out–that this tiny handful of people would be the only ones to huddle on a cold, windy hillside, in a strange town, to pay their last respects.

What would be my takeaway from the pain of this moment? If I could now accept the finality of it and relinquish the hope of ever having her back in my life, could I at least salvage something from all those lost years?

In that moment, I saw some sort of redemption in what I’d learned from Joanie, if only posthumously, about being an artist, about being anybody. And in that moment I felt a responsibility to do something with that. 

I have my own idea of how she came to such a tragic end, and I’ll write about that, too. Several books worth. But for now, I’ll get to the point and explain why the story is worth my writing, why I think it will be worth reading.

My mother’s death, in my opinion, was indeed tragic, and in the truest sense of the word. She didn’t just die lonely and alone. Her aloneness was, I believe, the result of choices she had made on her own, to give in to fear and seek out the safe and easy route. And the very thing she feared most was what became of her.

My folks were steelworker folks. But coal mines are more common than steel mills in West Virginia, just across the Ohio River from where I grew up. In the old days, if there’d been a fire or explosion down below, rescuers would reenter the mine carrying a canary in a small cage. If the bird showed distress, that was their warning that carbon monoxide was present and the shaft unsafe for miners. Thus the idiom canary in the coal mine, which refers to someone who’s sensitivity to a threat will serve as a warning to others.

The “Eulipions,” as jazz saxophonist Rahsaan Roland Kirk called us–the poets, the artists, the musicians–those of us who overtly make things–aren’t the only ones who’ll die of asphyxiation if buried in the frozen ground, separated from the thing we were made to do, the air that keeps us alive. We just freak out sooner than most. Everyone will succumb, eventually, to this suffocating lack of breath.

So excuse me while I wax all philosophical on you. But everyone has skin in this game. Everyone has something to lose.


(Photo above)
Die Steyr. Landschaft und Menschen am Fluß

by Friedrich Hochreiter (1842–1909)
You’ve just read part 10 of this personal account. To read the eleventh installment, click here. 


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