Deborah Esther Schifter
Editors' Pick

The Stories We Tell

“Deb, Alan needs you.” I bolted out of bed, past Alan’s caregiver, to the next room where my husband was rocking back and forth in his wheelchair, gasping for whatever air he could pull into his lungs. ALS had so weakened his diaphragm, he couldn’t get enough breath. The hospice nurse had told us lack of oxygen could induce panic, and as instructed, I gave him a dose of Ativan.

Alan gestured he was about to speak, so I put my face in front of his to make sure I caught every utterance. By then he had resorted to spelling to make himself understood.  “I,” he began, and I repeated each letter back to make sure I got it right. “W-A-N-T.”

“I want.”

Alan blinked to indicate yes and continued. “T-O.”

“I want to.”

Alan blinked. “D.” I waited, dreading the next letter. “I.”

“I want to die.”

The nausea of my own anxiety lurched, but for the previous eight years, I had had practice at pushing down my inclination to deny. We had talked about the end of life. We had agreed that when Alan was ready, we would turn off the feeding tube, and it would take several days, maybe as long as two weeks.

“We’ll call the doctor in the morning,” I said.

The caregiver helped Alan transfer to bed and went to sleep in the living room. I looked at my watch. Fifteen minutes had passed since the Ativan, and Alan was still gasping in panic.

“Do you want a dose of morphine?” I asked. The nurse had said, first Ativan, then morphine every fifteen minutes until the panic subsides.

After the morphine, I crawled behind Alan, and told him what I believed was the only secret I had left. “Lindsey didn’t want to tell you until she was sure,” I said of our friend. “If she’s pregnant, they want you to name the baby.” I lay with Alan and held him as he gasped.

Fifteen minutes later, I gave another dose of morphine, and climbed back into bed. Pressing my body against his back, my arm over his torso, I could make out my name between gasps. “I’m here,” I said.

“Deborah,” Alan called.

“I’m here.”

Alan fell asleep, and I followed. When I woke up, his breathing had stopped.

This is the story I tell if I am asked about the circumstances of my husband’s death.

*

Eight years after Alan died, I imagine him standing in the middle of the living room, eying the place, just as he did the first time he entered my rental apartment a few weeks after we met in 1985. Back then, he looked around and said, “Shoddy construction,” not a criticism, simply a valid observation. Just like then, today he is trim but solid, his hair a brilliant orange, and I watch as he makes his assessment. “You haven’t changed it much,” he says of the home we bought and decorated together in 2004. “You still hang that photo of Mike and me.”

“How could I not?” Two smiling robust men in their mid-forties, one white with metallic red hair, the other black, his afro just beginning to gray, both bursting with exuberance, hold up five large bass, their catch after a day on the Quabbin Reservoir. The picture was taken half a year before I met Alan, and a few weeks later, Mike, his close friend and comrade from the Civil Rights Movement.

“How are you?” Alan asks, stroking my cheek.

“Do you watch me?” I ask back. I rest my hand on his. “Sometimes you seem nearby. It’s hard for me, being alone, and I doubt myself. But sometimes I get the feeling you’re telling me I’m doing fine.”

“You wrote a book about me,” Alan says.

“When Mike read an early manuscript, he said you’d be proud, but I wasn’t sure.” Alan continues to stand, now looking down, stroking his goatee which had turned white during his last years but now is red again. He doesn’t comment about my memoir, so I go on to what’s next on my mind. “Sometimes things come up, and I wonder, why did you keep that from me? The evening after you died, twelve of us gathered for dinner, and after a while, people started telling stories. I know you were there. I felt you hovering, near the ceiling a little to my right. Do you remember Tom’s story? When a former Princeton philosophy professor was teaching in his department, once, after you left his office, she stuck her head in and asked, ‘Was that Alan Schiffmann? I always wondered what happened to him. Back in the 60s, he was a rising star.’ That night, sitting at the table with our friends, I looked up to the ceiling and asked, ‘Why couldn’t you tell me?’ But of course, you didn’t answer. I’m asking you now: Why did you deny your stardom?”

Alan says, “You already figured out the answer. I didn’t want to explain how I got from there to where I ended up.”

I say, “Early in our relationship, I said I’d love you as a philosopher, and I’d love you as a house painter. I loved you for something that went deeper than the work you did.”

“I know,” he says, “but on the way from there to you, I had to cope with too much judgment, not living up to my potential in other people’s terms. I guess not living up to my potential in my own terms. Now I can look back and say, I liked my life.”

“So here’s another thing,” I say, moving into the question that has been swirling in my mind for the last few years. “Whenever people wanted to hear about your experiences in Freedom Summer, you told two stories over and over, and refused to say more. I once asked if there was something traumatic that happened that you were covering up. You said no, it just made you uncomfortable to be treated like a hero when the black people of Mississippi were the heroes. But there was something, wasn’t there?”

“Why are you asking?”

*

In the summer of 1964, Alan took leave from his graduate program at Princeton to volunteer in Mississippi. The Council of Federated Organizations (COFO), comprised of four major Civil Rights associations[1], had launched Freedom Summer to register African American voters in the state that had severely and violently obstructed the black vote for decades. COFO recruited nearly one thousand out-of-state volunteers, largely from the best universities in the country, to work with local leadership. On June 21, before most of the volunteers arrived in Mississippi, three young Civil Rights workers, James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, disappeared in Neshoba County, making real to the volunteers what was at stake. In the next three months, Freedom Summer workers were arrested and beaten; black homes, businesses, and churches were bombed or burned. On August 4, the FBI found the bodies of Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman buried in an earthen dam.

When many of the students went back to their universities at the end of August, Alan stayed on to continue teaching in Freedom Schools and supporting voter registration. He left Mississippi in 1965 when he joined Mike Thelwell in Washington to work on another of COFO’s initiatives.[2] Whenever friends or acquaintances asked Alan about his experiences with the Civil Rights Movement, he told two stories from his time in Neshoba County. In his warm baritone-pitched voice, he’d say:

I had to teach summer school, so I didn’t get to Mississippi until the beginning of August. Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney had been missing for weeks and their bodies hadn’t yet been found. I was sent to the project in Philadelphia, and the first night, I was asked to keep watch over the office with another volunteer.

I interrupt Alan’s story to point out what I’ve learned since he died. Because it was too dangerous, the project didn’t originally have an office in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the seat of Neshoba County, where the three Civil Rights workers were killed. The decision was made late in the summer to assign to Philadelphia a select group of interracial volunteers, led by a young African American named Ralph Featherstone. According to Civil Rights historian Taylor Branch, that first night siege conditions prevailed. “The end is tonight,” was one of the tamer messages sent to the office, and carloads of armed whites prowled outside. A graduate student from Princeton, i.e., Alan, told the Times, “We decided to remain nonviolent to the death.”[3]

Alan’s story continues: Keeping watch that night, the other volunteer and I were terrified. Finally, the sun was rising, nothing had happened, and we felt relief. But then in the early light, we saw a car coming very slowly around the bend, very slowly driving down the lane. Just as the car passed the building, someone threw a long thin cylinder onto the porch. We ducked—not that ducking would have helped us on the top floor of that rickety building. When there was no explosion, we looked up at each other and decided we’d better investigate. Soon folks would be stirring and we didn’t want anyone to get hurt. We inched our way downstairs, nudged the door open, and there on the front porch lay a rolled-up newspaper.

Whenever Alan told a story, he held his listeners in thrall; his timing was perfect. Whenever he told this story, it took a moment for them to take in the punch line and let out a guffaw. But as the complete story was registering—just because it was a newspaper that time doesn’t mean it was any less dangerous; people were getting killed—Alan would launch into his second story.

Once the federal government got involved in the investigation of the missing Civil Rights workers, Neshoba County became the safest place in the South because it was crawling with FBI agents. One evening, there were several of us up there in the office, when a drunken racist came in with a gun, ranting and raving, yelling that he was going to kill us all. I thought my life was about to end. But then an FBI agent stepped into the office and asked, “What’s going on here?” The drunk saw the agent, dropped his hand with the gun, and slunk out of the office.

This second story became the source of my inquiry at the heart of this essay.

*

How many times did I hear Alan tell those stories? I can specify four different occasions, but I’m sure there were more. Seven? Ten? Twelve? When I was working on my memoir about Alan, I included those stories in a draft I shared with his friend, Mike.

The phone rang a few days after I sent off the manuscript, and when I heard Mike’s Jamaican cadences, I curled up on the love seat, the phone cradled at my ear, ready for a comforting conversation. I didn’t expect to hear, “Babe, you got the story wrong.”

I sat up with my feet on the floor. “What are you talking about?”

“You got it wrong, Babe. The story about the drunk in the office. It wasn’t an FBI agent who saved the day. It was Ralph Featherstone.” Ralph, who directed the Neshoba County project that summer.

“But I heard Alan tell that story many times.”

Mike said, “Look, I wasn’t in Mississippi, but I was working with Alan right afterwards.” Leaning forward, elbows on knees, phone at my ear, I listened to Mike make his case. “Alan was so filled with his experience, we spent hours talking each day, and he told me story after story. You know, he loved the black people of Mississippi. He loved their generosity, their dignity, and the eloquence of their language. And he told stories about Movement people, too. There were no stories about heroic FBI agents. Those guys weren’t there to help the Movement. Hell, they wanted all the volunteers to go home. But that was just the kind of thing Ralph would do.

“Alan told lots of stories about Ralph,” Mike continued. “There was one time when Alan went to the courthouse with a group of black citizens who were attempting to register. A crowd of whites was there to harass them, led by the deputy sheriff—Cecil Price was his name. Alan said Price was the meanest, scariest guy in Mississippi. You know, he was one of the sons of bitches who killed those three boys. Cecil Price was there, sneering at the black folks, riling up the whites, and things were about to turn violent. Then Ralph showed up. He was amazing. This young black man knew how to talk to Price, and he could stand up to that angry white crowd. That day, Ralph turned the temperature down, and everyone went home without getting hurt.

“Price and the sheriff—what was his name? Rainey, Lawrence Rainey—as racist as they were, they had a kind of respect for Ralph. Whenever they had to talk to someone from the Movement, they’d ask, ‘Where’s Feather?’ It was completely in character for Ralph to talk down that drunk waving his gun.”

When I got off the phone, I sat feet on the floor, receiver in my lap, head on the back cushion, staring at the ceiling. Did I get the story wrong? How could that have happened? Alan always prefaced his story saying, “Neshoba County was the safest place in the South because it was crawling with FBI agents.” It wouldn’t make sense without the FBI chasing the raving lunatic away.

Maybe Mike got the story wrong. But he made a convincing argument. The FBI had gone to Mississippi to solve a missing-persons case, not to support Civil Rights. I remembered Alan’s reaction to the film “Mississippi Burning,” a fictionalized account of those days in Neshoba County. Willem Defoe and Gene Hackman play liberal-minded FBI agents who sympathize with Mississippi’s black citizens terrorized by the abhorrent Ku Klux Klan. After the film was over, Alan was angry. “That’s not how it was,” he said, his voice tight. “It pisses me off to see the FBI presented as Civil Rights heroes. Those guys were at best indifferent to the way black people were treated.”

A third possibility flitted at the outskirts of my mind. Might Alan have changed his own story? But I couldn’t let that notion in. I had known Alan better than anyone. He would not have repeatedly told a story that wasn’t true.

How could I understand the contradiction between Alan’s story and what Mike told me? Somehow, Ralph had to be the key. When I got up from the couch after my conversation with Mike, I went to my computer and Googled Ralph Featherstone. The first site I opened was a scanned article cut from the Washington Post, the page creased and frayed, dated March 10, 1970. The headline announced, “Bomb Blast Victim Was a Noted Rights Activist.” As I read the article, a decades old, almost vanished memory surfaced. From the fragments of images, this is what I reconstruct.

It is 1986. Alan and I are in D.C. about a year into being in love, after half a year of living together. I adore him, even as we are still figuring out the balance in our relationship. It’s hot and humid, the sun is bright, and I squint through the light glinting off car mirrors and trim.

Alan has led me to the intersection of 14th Street and Fairmont in Columbia Heights. I grew up in the Washington suburbs, but this is not a part of the city I know, the heart of the riots after Martin Luther King was killed eighteen years earlier. Alan tells me, “Drum and Spear used to be here.” The Drum and Spear bookstore, founded by veterans of Freedom Summer, became a black literary haven and activist center. “A friend of mine, Ralph Featherstone, managed the store”—Alan watches me closely as he speaks—“until he was assassinated. A car bomb. The official story was that he made the bomb, but that’s not true. It was planted. Probably by the FBI.”

I can’t return Alan’s gaze and shift my eyes to the traffic. Having grown up in a liberal-minded family, the possibility of the FBI murdering U.S. citizens doesn’t penetrate my worldview. I wonder, have I fallen in love with a conspiracy theorist? But that thought hardly has time to settle when Alan grabs my hand. “Let’s go,” he says. “We’re supposed to meet your mother at the Metro stop.” Alan never again talked to me about the circumstances of Ralph’s death, though his name came up from time to time.

In 2004, veterans of Freedom Summer gathered in Mississippi for a fortieth anniversary and memorial service for Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney. By then, Alan’s illness prevented him from traveling, and so he wrote a statement to be read. After he invoked the era by quoting Dave Dennis’s[1] heart-broken cry at the first memorial service for those three young men—“I am sick and tired of going to memorial services….”—and after recalling Bob Moses[1] reporting in his quiet way that at that very moment, U.S. planes were dropping bombs on Vietnam, Alan concluded his comments: “There is another freedom fighter, one who died elsewhere, who I think deserves to be memorialized today: Ralph Featherstone, courageous, cool headed, sardonic, co-directed the Neshoba County project in its initial months. He, too, was among the best.”

I didn’t ask questions, instead dwelling on Alan’s paragraph just prior. “Since my health doesn’t permit me to be with you, let me add this personal note of gratitude: Participating in the Southern movement was an immense privilege and being taken in, taken care of, and educated by Neshoba County’s Black folk, a blessing equaled only by my marriage.” I glowed in my admiration for my husband’s courage, my respect for his eloquence, and my good fortune to have been loved by such a man.

*

What I subsequently learned about Ralph Featherstone: Born May 26, 1939 in Washington, D.C., attended D.C. public schools, graduated from the District of Columbia Teachers College. While working as a special education teacher, he joined in with the Howard University chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)[4] protesting discrimination and coordinating clothing drives for poor people. As Freedom Summer was getting organized, he asked to go to Mississippi.

Photographs show Ralph as a dark skinned, mustachioed, slender man. According to reports from Freedom Summer volunteers, with his quiet demeanor, Ralph didn’t stand out in a crowd, but you always knew when he was in the room. He helped establish Freedom Schools for youngsters and adults, teaching literacy, constitutional rights, and black history. And he directed offices in the most dangerous parts of Mississippi.

After Freedom Summer, Ralph engaged with the Civil Rights activities in Selma, Alabama. In 1967, he was elected SNCC’s program director and, along with the group’s new chairman, H. Rap Brown, helped SNCC transition from “an interracial group dedicated to integration and pledged to nonviolence to an all-black organization advocating and practicing self-defense against attacks by white racists.”[5] In 1969, Ralph returned to Washington to manage Drum and Spear.

On March 9, 1970, Ralph Featherstone and another SNCC official were killed when a bomb in their car exploded. Ralph was thirty years old. He had been married for three weeks.

In 1986, when Alan told me his friend may have been killed by the FBI, I had no context for taking his words in. Back then, I didn’t know about COINTELPRO, the FBI program initiated in 1956 to target Communists, later expanded to go after black activists, war protestors, and the women’s movement. COINTELPRO tactics included legal harassment, intimidation, wiretapping, infiltration, smear campaigns, and blackmail. Evidence is strong that COINTELPRO is responsible for the murder of Black Panther leader, Fred Hampton. It is not a far reach to believe the FBI killed Ralph Featherstone.

As indicated in that 1970 Washington Post article, within hours after the explosion, the origin of the bomb that killed Ralph Featherstone was disputed. Still today, some say the bomb was planted as an assassination; others say Featherstone and his colleague were intentionally carrying it to the courthouse where their friend, H. Rap Brown, was to be tried[6].

*

Alan had a briefcase, now resting in my study closet, that contains artifacts of his life: his birth certificate and diplomas from junior high and high school; the Phi Beta Kappa certificate he received at graduation from Brooklyn College; a document showing his honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy; photographs of two women he loved before me.

A large envelope is dedicated to the Civil Rights Movement. I remember Alan poring over its contents in 2002 when he was invited to talk to a second-grade class learning about Civil Rights. Alan took the assignment seriously and thought hard about how to connect to seven- and eight-year-olds. He selected a photograph of Ben Chaney, aged 13, speaking at the funeral of his brother, James. “Ben was so brave and eloquent in his grief,” Alan told me, “and he wasn’t much older than the kids I’ll be talking to.” The day Alan met with the class, I rushed home to hear how it went. But Alan said when he brought out the picture of Ben Chaney, he started to weep and couldn’t speak. The children were curious about what would make a grown man cry. Perhaps Alan’s tears had more of an impact on them than anything he could have said.

Flipping through the documents, I find the one I’m looking for today: three legal-sized type-written pages, double-spaced, headed STATEMENT OF THE CONGRESS OF RACIAL EQUALITY ON THE APPOINTMENT OF JAMES P. COLEMAN OF MISSISSIPPI TO THE UNITED STATES FIFTH CIRCUIT COURT OF APPEALS. The statement begins, “My name is Alan Schiffmann and I am testifying on behalf of the Congress of Racial Equality[7].” In 1965, Alan spoke before a Congressional committee against the nomination of the former governor of Mississippi.

“The parallel between Mississippi’s treatment of its Negro citizens and the Hell of Hitler’s Germany is hardly fanciful,” Alan stated. “This parallel … raises the deep and difficult question of complicity: for in the face of a social and political order based upon illegality, terror, and exploitation, an order that has killed the bodies of thousands of human beings and the spirits of literally hundreds of thousands, what is the measure of responsibility of the men who administer that order?”

It is this I consider now: how, in Alan’s Jewish soul, the fight in Mississippi connects to the horrors in Germany two and three decades earlier, the horrors that forced his parents, his grandparents, his aunts, uncles and cousins to scatter throughout the world; the horrors that extinguished the lives of family members who didn’t escape.

Alan was born two months after his parents arrived in the United States. An only child, he was raised by eight adults—his parents, his grandparents, two uncles, and their wives—all German Jewish refugees. His family spoke German and Yiddish, and when they said zu Hause, back home, they meant Berlin. “Zu Hause, your grandfather owned a famous fur store.” “Zu Hause, on the holidays, the house was filled with family.” But underneath fond reminiscences was a layer of unspoken terror and loss. It is in that subterranean space that Alan identified with the plight of the citizens of Mississippi who lived under a similar reign of oppression.

But in Alan’s case, in the case of his family, alongside the terror and loss was relief to have made it to the safety of the United States. In New York, the family lived in a world where due process was law. Not that national politicians always landed on the moral side of things. In spite of James Coleman’s record which Alan elucidated in his statement to Congress, Coleman’s appointment to the Court of Appeals was confirmed, and he served as a judge for sixteen years. Yet, although there were pockets of the country which, as Alan said, were ruled by a regime as profoundly evil as Nazi Germany, the country at large was not governed by a reign of terror. Along with the sense that Berlin was home, and along with anguish over the Holocaust, Alan grew up with confidence in the goodness of the United States.

And then Ralph was killed—Alan believed, by an arm of the federal government.

*

After Alan’s year in Washington working with Mike, he did not continue his studies at Princeton, but returned to New York. He was vague with me about those years. He said he had a very beautiful girlfriend. He said he taught philosophy at various institutions. He left New York again in the early seventies, retreating to a cabin in the woods at the far end of Cape Cod. He explained to me that, through his work in the Civil Rights Movement, he’d been introduced to Continental philosophy, out of vogue at universities in the United States. He finally chose to leave academia and went off on his own to study Hegel, Marcuse, Adorno, and Marx. I thought it was romantic that my philosopher was so interested in ideas that he would become a hermit to pursue his intellectual passions without the structure of courses or mentors. Alan lived on Cape Cod for three years, traveling abroad during high season since he couldn’t afford the skyrocketing summer rent.

Only later, after Alan had died, did family and friends tell me that something wasn’t right with Alan during those years. His cousin said Alan was ill when he visited her family in Copenhagen. I explained to her, “He came to you after he hiked in Norway for a month. His pack got waterlogged and he’d hurt his back.”

She insisted, “He was physically ill and mentally ill. Agitated and depressed.”

Alan’s uncle, Martin, said, “That summer, Alan talked me into taking him to Berlin, and it was the worst week of my life.” I assumed it was difficult for Martin to return to the city of his boyhood after the Holocaust. “No,” Martin insisted. “It was horrible being with Alan. He was impossible.” Martin was sure Alan had been taking psychotropic medication.

An old buddy told me he’d visited Alan on the Cape, but he was not in a good way. “It was a relief to go home,” he said.

I listened to Alan’s cousin, his uncle, and his friend, and wondered, how could I not have known this? Alan and I had chosen each other and committed to share our lives. We had loved each other and lived together for twenty-four years. I had known Alan better than anyone. Hadn’t I? But there were people who knew him longer than I did, who had seen him live through a stage of his life I had not witnessed. Alan had told me about his time on Cape Cod with delight. Had he misrepresented himself?

What I knew: Soon after Alan showed up on the Cape, he befriended a man, John, who came on weekends to build his summer home. Impressed by Alan’s curiosity and eagerness to learn, John taught Alan about construction, and they built the house together. When not working on the house, Alan would go for long walks along the shore. “There is nothing more beautiful than snow on the beach,” he said. Most days, he also went to the Audubon Sanctuary to watch herons lift off the estuary. If he needed to be around people, Alan got on his bicycle and rode to the Lighthouse, the restaurant where locals hung out all winter.

And he studied. He had to have studied, because by the time I met him, he knew those texts. All of his philosopher friends admired his knowledge and insight.

A few months after we fell in love, after high season had passed, Alan took me to the Cape and we stayed in the cabin he’d lived in. The owner was happy to see him. We visited John, too, in the house they had built together. Alan wasn’t hiding anything.

Or was he? Had he been depressed all those years? Was that romantic vision of the independent intellectual false? Or only part of the story?

How can I describe the feeling, what it’s like when an acquaintance provides you with a piece of information about the person, now dead, you loved most in the world, a piece of information that contradicts what you know about him? Alan’s cousin, uncle, and buddy can be cavalier as they tell me what they saw of him ten years before I came on the scene. As much as they loved him, the stories of their lives do not center on their love of Alan. Mine does. I knew him. I knew him best. That’s the story of my life. But I did not know Alan completely. That’s what I need to make peace with. After the death of the love of my life, the relationship does not become fixed. Alan, who resides in my heart, continues to change.

Questions about Alan’s truthfulness were no longer flitting on the outskirts of my mind. They pierced my walls and sought places to land. It took time for me to incorporate Alan’s mental illness into what I knew about him. But as this new information settled, it became a clue to the mystery I was trying to solve. Now I want to ask, “Alan, did you have a mental breakdown after Ralph was killed? Did you retreat from the world because his assassination was too much to bear?”

*

But Alan isn’t here to answer my questions, so I return to his story about the ranting racist in the Movement office and Mike’s refutation of the version I repeated. I review the three possibilities.

First is that I misremembered. But friends have confirmed the version I heard Alan tell many times over.

Second is that Mike was mistaken. But the version of the story I knew couldn’t have occurred. No FBI agent would have happened to stop by the Movement office on the second story of a dilapidated hotel in the black part of town.

The third possibility—by now I can say it—is that Alan changed the story. Over the years since that phone call from Mike, as I’ve worked to resolve the contradiction, the thought that Alan changed the story has wedged its way in and taken space. Allowing that consideration, as I comb through my memories, previously confusing moments click into place.

Two years before Alan died, a local author, Bruce Watson, was working on a book about Freedom Summer and made an appointment with Alan and Mike to talk about their experiences. While Bruce, Alan, and I sat in our living room waiting for Mike to arrive, I prompted Alan to tell his two stories. Alan acted confused. “What stories?”

I began telling the first one. “You had to teach summer school at Princeton, and so you didn’t arrive in Mississippi until early August.”

Alan took over, “Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney had been missing for weeks.” By that time, Alan’s disease had so compromised his speech, he could no longer modulate his voice—it came out as a thin, strained monotone—and he struggled to get his lips, tongue, and cheeks around the words. I was ready to interpret, but Bruce said he understood.

Alan got to the punch line, “On the porch lay a rolled-up newspaper.” Bruce was still writing everything down and didn’t laugh at the irony. He knew how dangerous it had been.

After Bruce looked up from his notes, there was an empty silence. “Alan,” I said, “tell the second story.”

“What story?” Alan asked.

It didn’t make sense that he didn’t remember. ALS does not impair memory. I prompted him again. “Once the federal government became involved in the search for the Civil Rights workers, Neshoba County became the safest place in the South.”

Bruce raised his eyebrows, Alan stepped in, and when the story was over we fell back into silence. Bruce flipped through his notes but didn’t ask anything. Fortunately, it wasn’t long until Mike entered, and Bruce launched into questions about SNCC strategy. I didn’t appreciate what felt to me was Bruce’s neglect of Alan, with his attention now focused on Mike. While it was true that Mike had been at the center of the Movement’s leadership, Alan had been the Freedom Summer volunteer, the topic of Bruce’s literary project.

Mike tried to deflect Bruce’s attention. “Look,” he said, acknowledging Alan’s progressive illness, “you can talk to me anytime, but this is your one chance to hear from Schiffmann.”

Bruce looked down at his notes, momentarily flustered. Then he asked, “How did the two of you meet?”

Tension in the room lifted as Alan explained that he had traveled from Mississippi to D.C. with Ralph Featherstone who led him down the steps to an unlit basement apartment, the Movement office. While Alan’s eyes were adjusting to the dark, he became aware of a tall black man with a large afro sprawled out on a mattress in the corner. Mike described waking up to find a stranger staring at him, a white guy with flaming red hair.

After Alan and Mike finished telling their stories, Bruce returned his focus to Mike and SNCC leadership decisions. A few years later, his book came out[8]. It included a version of Alan’s first story, but not his second.

When I look back on that afternoon with the possibility that Alan had made up the second story, it makes sense that he was reluctant to repeat it to someone who was researching Freedom Summer. The tension between Bruce and Alan becomes understandable: Bruce knew Alan’s story couldn’t have happened, and Alan knew Bruce knew.

But why would Alan have made up the story?

Three years after the phone call from Mike that sent me on this quest, I heard on National Public Radio the term decoy stories, and another piece of the puzzle clicked into place. Phil Klay, the author of a book based on his deployment in Iraq[9], used that term, meaning those stories told by soldiers to evoke a predictable reaction—whether horror or humor—to deflect attention from events that are closest to pain deep in the storyteller’s soul.

One day years before Alan’s illness, I told him that he knew everything about me; I kept no secrets from him. “That’s not true,” he said. “Nobody knows anyone completely. Everyone has something kept private.” I realized he was right, even if I couldn’t tell myself what was so deep inside I would let no one, not even Alan, see. But what struck me at that moment was Alan’s clarity. He knew he kept secrets, and maybe he could even see the territory I kept secret too.

What are my decoy stories? After Alan died, I compulsively told and retold the story of his death. Sometimes I started the Sunday before, the anniversary of the day we fell in love. Sometimes I started on Wednesday, with the second-to-last visit from the hospice nurse. Sometimes I started on Friday morning, when I went to meet the landlord of the apartment I was renting for Alan’s caregiver—I had no idea that Alan would die early the next day. For weeks, for months, I talked about Alan’s death to whoever would listen, desperately trying to find a version of the story I could live with.

I landed on the story that opens this essay, usually concluding with additional details. The hospice doctor arrived in the morning to call Alan’s death, and we sat together in the bedroom to talk. The doctor pulled up the shower chair, I sat cross legged on the other side of the bed, and Alan—what remained of Alan—lay between us. I told the story of Alan’s last hours, and the doctor said, “You did everything right; Alan had the most beautiful death, in the arms of his beloved.”

If I start the story earlier, it includes this:

On Wednesday night, I slept in the bedroom with Alan. In addition to my attending to routine tasks throughout the night—administering medications, filling the feeding tube with water, turning off the tube once it emptied—Alan woke me to bring him water to sip through a straw, woke me to move his wheelchair six feet forward, and then woke me again to move his wheelchair back. At six o’clock, I got up, exhausted, to dress for my workday: six hours of meetings two hours away. Alan said, “Don’t go.”

At the time, I thought those meetings were important. I got in the car and drove to work. When I got home that evening, I went directly to Alan, kneeled next to his wheelchair, and asked, “What can I do for you?”

“Be here,” he said.

The story of Alan’s illness and death can be told to illustrate the deep love between us. And the story can be told to confess the times I disregarded him. The story can relate how exhausted I became, how I once fell onto the bed and sobbed, exclaiming that I couldn’t go on. And the story can be told to justify how I needed to hold onto some sense of myself and not get completely swallowed up by the enormity of Alan’s needs. The story can include Alan’s ability to see my need to hold onto myself, or it can convey his self-absorption and meanness, or it can be told to demonstrate his compassion, intelligence, dignity. Any of those stories can be a decoy, building a wall around how unmoored I feel now without the love of my life.

*

And what about Alan’s decoy story from his Civil Rights days? The books I’ve read, the articles I’ve found, and the documents I received under the Freedom of Information Act will not resolve the question of who placed the bomb that killed Ralph Featherstone. But what’s important to me is that Alan believed Ralph was assassinated, possibly by the FBI. Given the information available to him and his knowledge of the character of his friend, Alan’s view is reasonable.

With regard to the drunk who came to the Neshoba County office with a gun, I have become convinced that Alan changed the story. When I recently got together with Mike, he relayed what he remembers Alan told him in 1965.

It was night, a Mississippi summer night, hot, humid, the insects making a racket out the window. After the workday, people were hanging out together in the office, chatting, laughing. Someone had just told a joke when a white man appeared in the doorway. He was drunk, disheveled, waving a gun, and ranting that he was going to shoot us all. I thought my life would end right then. Everyone in the room was paralyzed. Everyone except Ralph.

At that time, the media was filled with talk about how outside intruders were stirring up trouble, disrupting the Mississippi way of life; Mississippians knew how to get along with their Negroes; whites and colored people lived peaceably side by side. The radio called on all self-respecting white men to do their part to get rid of those foreign instigators. Ralph was the one person in the room that night who had the psychological insight that this man had to get drunk to fulfill his duty as presented by his community.

Ralph looked the man in the eye and started talking to him gently, “You don’t want to do that. You don’t want to kill anyone.” Inching across the room, Ralph kept saying, “You’re a good man. You don’t want to hurt anyone. You want to put the gun down.” The man stopped ranting and pointed his gun at Ralph, but Ralph didn’t flinch. “I know you don’t want to use that gun.” Ralph kept his eyes focused, talking softly, almost a whisper, his steps silent as he moved toward the man. When he got close enough, Ralph put his hand on the gun, lowered it, placed his arm around the man’s shoulders, and escorted him to the door.

I believe this version of the story is close to what happened. The story Alan told over decades was a decoy whose purpose was to play down the danger, minimize the drama, and steer away from his anguish over Ralph Featherstone’s death.

*

It is springtime as I wander through the cemetery reading headstones. On gray slabs, the  engraving, rounded over years of wear, reveals who died in the 1874 flood when the Mill River dam burst. Men’s graves state name, date of death, and age. Women are identified as wife of so-and-so or widow. In newer sections, the grave markers show more individuality. One smooth, shiny, black headstone has the Manhattan skyline etched into it. Next site over, a boulder declares, “Our love was just ducky.”

I come to the maple tree whose limbs arc over where Alan’s deteriorating body lies. His grave marker is composed of many materials: some dark, some light, sparkly quartz, and streaks of rusted iron. Of course, I selected a boulder with red tints. The engraver told me when the stone was in a molten state, it was pushed forward by the glaciers, and on its way, it incorporated whatever was in its path: an apt metaphor for Alan’s voracious curiosity. The stone leans to one side at just the angle Alan used to tilt his head. The crocuses I planted last fall are in bloom. The lilies, irises, and tulips are sprouting.

I take off my jacket to spread across the stone, sit, and lean back. The sun warms my face, my arms. The air is cool on the surface of my skin. I close my eyes.

If I could, I would relive that moment in 1986, the first time I visited Washington with Alan. As sunlight glints off the chrome of passing cars, when Alan tells me his friend had been assassinated, I return his gaze. I squeeze his hand and ask questions, wanting to understand what had happened, wanting to understand his experience. I tell Alan, who lies six feet below me, “I’m sorry I looked away.”

The chill of hard stone seeps through the jacket into my back; my face tingles with the sun’s warmth; orange shapes dance across my eyelids. When I feel the stroke of a familiar hand across my face, I rise. There you are, standing in front of me, solid and strong, as you were for sixteen years of our life together, before ALS intruded. You tilt your head and smile your lopsided smile. I grasp your muscled back, hold you tight, and rest my head on your chest.

 

 

[1] COFO member organizations were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
[2] Mike Thelwell and his colleague, Jan Goodman, led COFO’s effort to challenge the seating of the officially elected congresspersons of Mississippi to the U.S. House of Representatives. They argued that because of the disenfranchisement of so many of Mississippi’s citizens, half of the electorate had been prevented from participating in the election of those representatives. COFO endorsed, instead, a slate of legislators elected through a parallel, more open electoral process organized by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFPD). Ultimately, one hundred forty-nine members of Congress voted in support of the MFDP, a considerable achievement, but less than the majority required for the challenge to pass.
[3] Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years 1963-1965, Simon and Schuster, p. 454.
[4] SNCC, one of COFO’s member organizations, participated in organizing Freedom Summer.
[5] https://www.crmvet.org/mem/feathers.htm
[6] H. Rap Brown had been arrested in 1967 in Cambridge, Maryland, charged with inciting to riot after he gave a speech there.
[7] The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) was one of COFO’s member organizations.
[8] Freedom Summer: The Savage Season of 1964 That Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy published by the Penguin Group.
[9] Redeployment published by the Penguin Press.

 

 

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