My county is a farm county and so I’m the son of a farmer and a child of the deep, rich soil of Clarendon County. Most mornings, just before sunrise, I stand sleepily outside our back screen door and see the world brighten around me to a maizy yellow, the color of corn before it fully ripens underneath the husk of a cob growing on a stalk. In the evening, just before sunset, I wonder wearily outside that same door and watch the tomato-y sun hang on the horizon, the color of a “goliath” the day we pick it off the vine. The long day in between is filled with cow milking, egg gathering, school going, weed hoeing, lesson learning, and cow milking again. The days are good, though, because I have a younger brother named Carver, who, as Momma and Daddy say, is my pea in the pod. He's my best friend.
A surprising thing happened on the morning he was born, a thing that turned life on our small farm in Clarendon County, South Carolina upside down. It was March 16, 1948. The window was open in my Momma and Daddy’s bedroom because spring had come early and Momma appreciated the cool morning breeze blowing through the cotton curtains after her long night of labor. With the breeze came a lightning bug. Did it stay up all night, flashing its light to the sleeping world? Or did it sleep all night, taking flight at dawn, shining its light on the waking world? “You always ‘a askin’ questions,” said my Daddy early to me one morning as I walked my shoeless feet through the freshly turned soil. His hands were on the plow and he was following our old mule Charlie and I was following him. “That’s a good thing, askin’ questions. Did you know questions drive the world forward, like I’m drivin’ ol’ Charlie down the row? Did you know questions can turn the world upside down, like the plow turns the hard, rocky ground into soft, helpful soil? Did you know questions are like the seeds we’re gonna plant in these rows? It takes a long time to get from seeds to fruits and vegetables and it takes a long time to get from questions to answers that can make a difference in the world. But seeds change to food that feeds people and questions change to answers that can make the world a better place. You keep ‘a askin’ questions always, Carter. Always keep ‘a askin’ questions.” I’ve always tried to do just that, to ask as many questions as I can ask.
There are two questions I haven’t had to ask, though, since that morning Carver was born. Here was the surprising thing that happened. My little baby brother was wrapped in a blanket, snuggled by Momma’s side with his wide brown eyes open. He was as still as the water in our farm pond on a mid May afternoon. The lightning bug that came into the room with the breeze lit gently on his nose. I watched in wonder as my brother blinked his eyes four short blinks and the lightning bug blinked its light four short times. He blinked his eyes three long blinks and it blinked its light three long blinks. Was my brother communicating with the lightning bug? Was such a thing possible? To help me see that I could believe my eyes, he blinked one short, two long, and one short blinks and the lightning bug blinked the same. He finished with one short blink and it gave a final short blink before it took flight and went out the window through which it came. It was at that moment I knew the answers to the two questions we all ask deep in our hearts – How can we be useful, of what service can we be? There is something inside of us, what can it be? I was meant to live life with my special brother and write down what was inside of us.
Just tonight, he stood quietly beside his desk with a magnifying glass in his hand. I looked at him from the splintered pine frame of our kitchen door where I was standing. He turned around slowly, like a person who is in deep thought, and looked at me through the lens of the glass. His magnified eye was astonishingly big and brown – as big as the globe in my second grade classroom and as brown as the turned soil of our farm.
- Carver, why you up? It’s the middle of the night.
- I cain’t sleep.
- What you doin’?
- I’m studyin’ a tomato.
I walked to him and knelt beside him. I turned his magnifying glass around and looked into his eye. I saw clearly the parts of his eye that my teacher taught to me at school – the colored part that is the iris and the black part that is the pupil. But it was Carver, my five-year-old brother, who taught me how these parts work together to give us our sense of sight. It was Carver who helped me understand how we see. His lessons always began and ended with questions and were filled with an amazing assortment of facts that came from God only knows where. Our talk about seeing went something like this –
- Carter, you know the five senses?
- Yeah. Let me think…seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.
-Did’ya know if we divided our brains into three parts, two of the parts would be filled up by seeing?
- Naw, I didn’t know that. Seein’ is that important, huh?
- Yeah. You know what a person who studies the inside parts of the body is called?
- Naw, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout that.
- Well, that person is called an anatomist. An anatomist is kind of like an artist whose art he’ps us know where those parts are and what they do. Did you know there were artists like that?
- Naw, I didn’t.
- Yeah, there was this anatomist in Africa a long time ago named Rufus. He he’pd us understand the parts of the eye. Do you want me to teach you about the eye?
- There’s a thin layer on the inside of the eyeball. It’s the retina. No one could see into the retina until microscopes were invented. When people looked inside the retina for the first time they found millions of rod and cone cells. The rods and cones find rays of light and turn them into signals for the optic nerves. The optic nerves send signals to the brain and it turns them into pictures. ‘Cause of the way lenses work, the picture is upside down. The brain turns it right side up. Idn’ that amazing?
- Yeah, it's amazing. And, you know what? So are you.
He taught me the parts of the eye that helped him see the world as everyone sees it. In that moment, though, deep in the dark of night, I tried to see the parts that I didn’t understand, the parts that woke my brother in the middle of the night to study a tomato while our corner of the world slept, the parts that helped him see the world as only Carver could see it. But those parts remained hidden to me. I gently put my arm around his shoulders and held him close to me.