This piece was originally published in the Winter 2015-2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
Sitting in an intro philosophy class my sophomore year at Union University, I was asked a question: Would it be ethical to sacrifice a person (or a few people) in order to find the cure for cancer? Well, yes, of course it would, I said. We’re talking about cancer, right? I was nineteen and, apparently, omniscient—or so I thought at the time. The certainty of an arrogant college student is a certainty like no other. And if that certainty is buttressed by the moral arrogance of a young man who saw things in black and white, like I did then, that certainty might as well be truth with a capital “T.” Thankfully, over the years, I’ve learned that gray is not a bad color in which to see things. Gray might as well be the official color of empathy.
The years before that philosophy class, though, were spent growing up on Wilshire Drive in midtown Jackson. My family moved into that house at the end of my first grade year. The strange thing was that my mom had already lived there once before with her parents and two brothers. My parents simply bought it from my grandparents, and my grandparents moved across the street. I still remember going over to my grandparents’ “new” house across the street and exploring their walk-in pantry that had a sliding door. When I slid it shut, I saw these strange alien stickers that some other child had undoubtedly put there years before I walked in there. I remember looking at them like something that you didn’t want to look away from because if you did you were afraid whatever was on those stickers might come to life and ask for a snack. Luckily, my grandmother slid the door open or I might’ve stayed there all night just to make sure those things didn’t come to life.
My street wasn’t like the streets where most of my friends lived. When I would go to their houses, there would be kids to play with in the neighborhood. We’d play German spotlight, have bottle rocket wars, explore whatever woods were nearby, and either smoke or not smoke the cigarettes that one of the boys stole from their dad. For what it’s worth, I didn’t smoke any of them. I’m sure I can partly contribute my conservative decision-making as an adolescent to the fact that most of the people I grew up with in my neighborhood were receiving retirement and Social Security benefits. My neighbor to the left was Ms. Shipp. I don’t remember a lot about her or her house, other than she had a drainage ditch where my cat would go, and I would have to crawl under the street to get it out before it got dark. I know she had gray hair, and I know that I went to talk to her in her home before she moved to Virginia with her daughter because she was too old to live by herself. At least, that’s what I remember. Who knows if it really happened like I think it did.
To the right of my house lived two sisters who never married and lived together. They were retired school teachers who were friends with my grandparents. Their names were Faye and Louise. I remember Faye was always nice, while Louise was . . . well, Louise wasn’t Faye. I can remember my mom telling me once that Louise didn’t like the cat my mom had when she lived in that house as a teenager. Apparently, Louise disliked that cat so much that she snatched it up one afternoon and put in her car and took it to the mall and let it loose in the parking lot. The only reason my mom ever found that out is because Louise felt so guilty when she heard my mom and my grandmother calling over and over for the cat, she finally had to tell them that she let it go at the mall. It was a like a pet version of the “Tell Tale Heart.”
My grandparents’ house was directly across the street from mine. There were many afternoons spent there after school. There were Saturday nights watching wrestling and then watching the Atlanta Braves right after wrestling was over. There were family Christmases and Easter egg hunts. I can remember seeing my grandmother sitting on the porch and talking to three or four of the neighbors as they passed by on their afternoon walks. At the time, I didn’t realize how different my childhood street was from where most of my friends lived.
My bedroom was upstairs in my house, and my window faced my grandparents’ house. Beyond my grandparents’ house, though, I could see the hospital towering above our street. I loved seeing the hospital from my window. I used to imagine that it was part of a skyline of a big city I had visited. I especially loved seeing the hospital around Christmas because they would have lights that would run up the building and end at the star that was perched on the roof. I could see it every Christmas from my room. Every year when they would put it up was the unofficial start of Christmas for me.
When a relative was sick, we would just walk to the hospital. When my father’s dad was in the hospital, I could look out my window and see the building where he was. It was comforting. When I was at school during the day at Highland Park (right next to the hospital) I could see the hospital from the park during recess. It made me feel a little closer to him while he was there. When I was a child, the hospital seemed to be a benevolent place that accentuated my street and was a building that appeared to watch over our neighborhood.
Starting in the early 90s, the hospital began to expand and, in turn, began to creep closer to our street. What used to be something we admired from a distance started to get a little closer. The hospital purchased an open lot behind my grandparents’ house, which turned out to be great for us because it became a faux baseball field where my friends and I held our “home run derbies” every weekend. Soon, though, many of my neighbors began to age to a point where living alone wasn’t feasible for them anymore. Ms. Shipp was the first to move and someone purchased her home, but when Faye and Louise had to move to assisted living, the hospital purchased their home. The hospital also purchased three other properties toward the top of the street. What used to be something that was benevolent and just far enough away was starting to get uncomfortably close.
Over the next several years, my grandparents passed away, and the hospital purchased their home. The hospital also purchased several other recently vacated homes on our street. By this time, I had moved off the street and had my own home, but my parents would keep me updated on what was taking place. Each time I would go visit them, I would see something a little different. People from the hospital met with the remaining residents (which were my parents and the lady that lived to their left) and shared the vision for what would happen in the next several years. Because of the need for expansion, the houses on the opposite side of the street of my parents would be torn down—that included my grandparents’ house.
An empty lot sits there now. The hospital expanded the street and built a “green space” island in the middle of the road, but it’s never as green as what the drawings showed it would be. Two parking garages stand above the street like two imposing towers shielding the view of what I used to see from my bedroom window. The houses that the hospital didn’t tear down are now empty. The house where Faye and Louise once lived is covered in ivy on one side, and the grass that used to be mowed weekly when someone lived there, now usually sits in clumps after it has been mowed every three weeks. I realize now that the street where I grew up and the street that exists there now don’t resemble each other at all. Sometimes it feels as if that street still exists somewhere, on some alternate time line because it was too special to just disappear.
Today Jackson-Madison County General Hospital employs nearly 5,000 people. It’s part of the huge conglomerate known as West Tennessee Healthcare that serves over 400,000 people in West Tennessee. Recently, the hospital has helped build excellent care centers such as West Tennessee Heart and Vascular Center, Kirkland Cancer Center, and West Tennessee Neuroscience and Spine Center. There is so much good that the hospital does for Jackson. I think we take it for granted that we don’t have to travel to Memphis or Nashville to get quality health care. Also, the amount of jobs West Tennessee Healthcare and the hospital provide obviously helps our local economy. What started as a 123-bed facility in 1950 has grown to be one of the premiere healthcare providers in our state. But, as with all growth and expansion and discovery, there are things that have to disappear or move on for that change to happen.
As these changes were taking place, I thought back to my nineteen-year-old self in that philosophy class at Union who was so certain that smaller sacrifices were ethical in order to help more people down the road. My neighborhood street where I grew up and the homes there are a causality of a bigger vision that is undoubtedly a positive thing for Jackson, but I’m not as happy or as certain about it as I probably should be. No matter how much we say otherwise, at our core we are concerned about ourselves and how things affect us and our lives and our memories. The physical places of where I grew up have been wiped away, and someday when I’m older it won’t be as easy to bring them back to my consciousness as it is now.
In the end, however, I know it would be foolish to rail against this or try to stand in the way of something that will be beneficial for so many other people in our town. The hospital has done so much for our town and will continue to do even bigger and better things. Progress and growth are necessities, but they are also things that should be exercised with caution and be made to be held accountable by the community in which they are taking place.
At a school board meeting a few weeks ago, I saw signs and posters pleading with board members to save certain schools. My first inclination was to call those people selfish, and I wondered why they wanted to stand in the way of something that could be beneficial for our entire system. Then, I remembered my street. We live in a physical world, and we attach ourselves to physical objects. We know when we pass a building every day or walk through its halls, that the building is there even when we’re not . . . even when we don’t physically see it. Our emotions grow attached to that physical structure because of the experiences we had there or the people we knew there. When those buildings or homes vanish, part of us is gone as well. I empathized with those people holding those signs. I understood why this was so difficult for them. When I see the house next to my parents’ house, I don’t see a brick structure with ivy symbolically (and literally) choking away its former appearance. I see Faye and Louise in their nightgowns watching me ride my bike. I smell the awful smell of cabbage in their home when I would walk next door to try it because they had asked me to over and over again. Even in the empty lots, I still see the spirits of those homes because they were the personification of the people who inhabited them. Whether it’s the hospital, schools closing, or any other future directed vision that sacrifices the past; there is an opposite emotion at play on the other side. The curse of humanity seems to be that we’re always conflicted about our lot in life . . . hoping for a better future, but desperately romanticizing the past.
I don’t know what Jackson will look like in the future, but I know the shape of things to come. As people and as a community, we have to evolve in certain ways or we’ll die. If we want our community to grow and prosper, then there will always be change . . . and there will always be people resistant to that change because it directly affects them. And that’s okay. That’s normal. That’s human. We have to be able to see both sides of a situation, though. To live in a gray area doesn’t mean we don’t make a decision. It means we make a decision while understanding the difficulty of the other side.
Gabe Hart is an English and Language Arts teacher at Northeast Middle School. He was born and raised in Jackson, graduating from Jackson Central-Merry in 1997 and Union University in 2001. Gabe enjoys spending time and traveling with his daughter, Jordan, who is eight years old. His hobbies include reading, writing, and playing sports . . . even though he’s getting too old for the last one. Gabe lives in Midtown Jackson and has a desire to see all of Jackson grow together.