A Big Cross

There’s a big cross a few miles below the lost town of Cairo, Illinois, down where the Ohio and Mississippi rivers run together. This white cross stands on a Kentucky bluff along the river’s edge, soaring above the treetops. A thin gravel path off Highway 51 leads to the foot of the cross and, after being on the road for several weeks and speaking at my grandfather’s funeral a few days before, I pulled over to collect my thoughts. Somebody believed this was a good spot to get spiritual.

Mrs. Geveden thought so. In 1937, she erected a small wood cross on the riverbank as a beacon, perhaps as a gentle warning to heathen sailors traveling the Mississippi. Over the years, the Fort Jefferson Cross grew in size and ambition, thanks to the efforts of several citizens, including a woman who was terminally ill at the time. The cross eventually reached 95 feet and consumed $316,405 in church donations. Although it’s visible from three states, the Fort Jefferson Cross is not the biggest cross in the world (that honor belongs to a 198 foot cross in Effingham, Illinois) but it really pops against the green trees and brown river. It’s the only manmade thing in sight and today it’s a popular site for weddings, vigils, and tourists.

Walking around the base of the cross, I half-expected a religious vision, maybe a sense of preternatural calm or more likely, an accusation that I did not belong here. But there was only the sound of the Mississippi and the distant engine of the occasional car. The little path looped behind a cluster of trees before cresting down to the river. Beer bottles and crushed cigarette packs dotted the grass. This was a great place to hide from the world. How many people came here to get stoned or laid rather than saved?

Laying in the grass, I thought about all the monuments to Jesus that I saw along America’s roads, the brimstone billboards and clever chapel signs. Heading down the wrong path? Jesus allows u-turns. It was love that held Jesus to the cross, not nails. Today’s forecast: Jesus reigns forever. All those little Jesus fish in the windows of restaurants and motels. Strange codes. Relentless tribalism. Driving home, I became convinced that the telephone poles were subliminal crosses.

I live in a nation where presidential candidates make fun of the poor and attack the unhealthy while trumpeting their Christian faith. Big crowds cheer them on. I looked up at that tall white cross and I wanted to tear it down. I imagined myself feeding scraps of plaster to the Missisissipi while I waited for the police to arrive.

A few weeks later, I thought hard about my own faith while undergoing a series of X-rays and MRIs that might uncover a horrifying illness. Instead, the scans revealed that I have degenerative disc disease between C5-C6 and C6-C7 with hypertrophic spondylosis and moderate to severe range bilateral foraminal stenosis. Each morning I read this diagnosis while I do my stretches and neck exercises, my cervical sidebends and Theraband rows. Next week I begin physical therapy.

I stare at prescription sheets for sertraline hydrochloride and benzodiazepines and anti-inflammatory pills. Perhaps medication is the obvious conclusion after years of driving, worrying, and reading the internet all day. The personal and the public have collapsed for me. Sometimes I scroll through the day’s headlines and it feels like the end of days. I question my loyalties and capabilities. If the nation exploded into war, would I fight? If a disaster struck my city, would I survive? Could I protect the ones I love from the heat of a mob? On the radio, Arthur Lee sings from 1967: “You’re just a thought that someone somewhere thought should be here.” Pills frighten me. The promise of better living through science seems too wonderful, too easy. I stash the scribbled prescription sheets in a desk drawer. Maybe later. Maybe tomorrow. For now, I’ll focus on stretching and eating more green things. Perhaps I’ll teach myself to meditate.

Yesterday I had an ultrasound on my neck. My doctor wanted to look at my thyroid. The MRI report said there’s a “nonspecific heterogeneous complex mass-like zone of signal alteration measuring up to 2 cm” so I laid back on the paper-covered bench and marvelled at this machine that can see inside of me. The grain of muscle, the black holes of my carotid artery and trachea. Little dots and bubbles occasionally swam across the screen. The lab technician located the small lump, applied more gel, and snapped more photos.

I comforted myself with the numbers. Math was on my side. Nearly 99% of thyroid growths are benign. Of those that are cancerous, nearly 75% of patients are still alive ten years after initial diagnosis. There is, however, an extremely rare form of thyroid cancer that leaves most patients dead within months. Of course my attention settled here.

What I would do if I was diagnosed with something terminal? I’d probably start smoking again. It would be my reward, my only consolation. Maybe I’d toss some books in a bag and walk south to Ushuaia at the end of Tierra del Fuego and disappear into the sea. But first I’d work hard to finish this next book, this novel I’m writing about an old man hitchhiking on Route 90 from El Paso to Death Valley. Disease or no, I should work harder and faster.

That big Kentucky cross flashed across my mind. Now I understand the need to build a monument to something you believe in before you go.