God’s Mistakes

George Washington (David Gordon Green, 2000) | art by Tony Stella
illustration by Tony Stella

My cousin Nathan was supposed to be born one day before me. Instead, I was born a month early, he was born a month late. It’s probably the only thing I ever did before him.

We grew up like brothers, though, to be fair, I was probably closer to him than I am to my own brother. I was the cautious one, never jumping off the diving board first (or, usually, at all), he almost never looked before he leapt. I mean this literally—he once landed on another kid at the pool, bit through his lower lip, and ended up with multiple stitches.

Our young lives were a series of competitions, perpetrated almost entirely by him. He always had the most things, the best things. As we got older, he knew all of the obscure punk rock bands only six other people had ever heard of, he had the DVD collection that dwarfed my own. I did what I could, but “keeping up” was never really an option. No one kept up with Nathan.

We’d both been into movies for a while, but he was the one watching Miller’s Crossing at age 13, he was the one calling me on the phone to recount every scene of Lost Highway, as if anything he was saying made any sense to me at all.

And so it was that in 2002, as I was nearing the end of college, I unexpectedly found something all my own. Without knowing anything about it, I bought the Criterion Collection edition of a movie called George Washington, directed by a guy with a name that just sounded like he belonged making movies: David Gordon Green. Something about the cover struck me—a boy in glasses, far off-center, flexing his arm for the camera as railroad tracks extended behind him. It told me something.

I’ve always been more taken by a movie’s tone than its plot. Story is secondary to me, what matters is how it feels. I like a movie that takes its time, that gives me a chance to wander around inside of it, where I can get lost for a bit and come back and still be a part of its world. And from the droning chords that open George Washington, I knew, in a way, I was home. The movie is a dream, awash in golden light, floating, with an undercurrent of the kind of sadness that has always attracted me (and has gotten me in trouble more than once), a sadness that makes you ache more than it makes you cry. I’d seen all of these elements in movies before, but never anything that put them all together this way—all I knew of Malick was The Thin Red Line (give me a break, I was still learning), and I’d never heard the name “Charles Burnett.” But it was exactly what I’d always wanted.

Most important for me is the way George Washington tells its story in the in-between moments, how it does its hardest work when it seems like nothing’s happening at all. We’re living with the children and adults in this industrial town during one summer, and anyone who’s had a summer knows how much of it is made up of nothing at all, or what later seems like nothing at all. The children playing on trains, walking on tracks, throwing junk around in empty back lots, with no apparent purpose to any of it, other than to pass the time. The adults on their lunch breaks during work at the rail yard, with the most mundane conversation, talking about proper diet and who got fired, lamenting lost love. The neighborhood girls in the living room doing each other’s hair, the boys on the front stoop, all of them tossing around their stories of young romance, all so inconsequential, but—at that age—all so deeply important.

Green uses time the way a painter might use negative space—he shapes our understanding of what we’re seeing, not through a series of plot points, but by giving us moments that, taken alone, seem random or incidental. But taken together, as a whole, they give definition to these people, their lives in this town, their particular quirks and universal struggles. We begin to beat with the same rhythm as a slow summer day, and we know these lives in ways we couldn’t if we’d been too occupied by a “story.”

And this serves to make George Washington’s most devastating moment hit us that much harder.

My friend George, he told me he could read God’s mind. He told me he knew what God was gonna create, and who He was gonna let die.

David Gordon Green’s loose use of time and narrative allows us just to sit with these people and grow to know them. Buddy’s death shatters the aura of the world we’ve come to be a part of. To be sure, any death like this would be difficult to take, but if we’d been distracted by a story arc instead of simply given time to absorb Buddy’s energy, his hopes and his disappointments, I wonder if we would be affected in the same way.

But more than that, this is a death we do not expect. If we expect it of anyone, we expect it of George. It’s George whose body has betrayed him, with his soft skull that necessitates his wearing a helmet through everyday life and prevents him from going into the water. Certainly, we do not want anything to happen to him, but we know from the beginning that there’s some chance. It’s George’s body that has betrayed him. But it’s Buddy who dies.

Buddy’s death is a jolt. Buddy’s death makes no sense (though the death of one so young never could). Buddy is small, but strong—he’s the one we see on the cover of the movie, flexing his muscles—and he’s vital and alive. He’s nursing a broken heart, but he’s feeling, he’s living. Even a few moments before Buddy slips and falls in the bathroom, it’s George who hits his own head against the wall, another reminder of his body’s defects and the delicate nature of his place in the world. But George’s helmet protects him, as it’s supposed to do. At least, George’s helmet protects him physically—it cannot protect him from what is to come.

I killed him. I grabbed his head. It’s my fault he’s dead. I killed him.

In a way, Buddy’s death is also a betrayal of George’s understanding of himself: He is not responsible for it, but he did push Buddy directly before he fell, and this goes entirely against George’s idea of himself as a “hero,” as one who saves lives, not one who ends them. And, indeed, George blames himself for Buddy’s death. He explicitly takes responsibility, even while working with Vernon and Sonya to hide Buddy’s body in an abandoned alley.

The aftermath of Buddy’s death has much to say about the reality of grief, but George Washington also has something meaningful to say about what happens to Buddy’s body. George, Vernon, and Sonya endeavor to hide Buddy, out of fear that they’ll be caught and blamed for killing him. But first, they take Buddy’s alligator mask—which he’d been wearing earlier in the movie—and put it over his head before moving him. They move him to the alley and leave him with the mask on. To them, Buddy’s body is no longer Buddy. It’s something else. Undoubtedly, this separation is necessary for them to cope psychologically—their friend has just died in front of their eyes and they’re leaving him alone in an alley. But this also reflects what happens when we see the death of anyone we’ve been close to: there comes a time when that person is gone, and they are no longer their body.

The scenes that follow in George Washington represent a number of drastic shifts in tone, all of which confused me the first few times I saw the movie. We have the sadness and grimness of Buddy’s death, a tender scene with George and Nasia, Vernon’s struggles and Sonya’s stoicism, and Rico riding his scooter for what seems to be an unreasonably long time. But, then, isn’t this exactly what the world of the freshly grieving is like? There are times we are unbearably sad, and times we are angry, but also times we laugh, times we float off into daydream, and times we feel nothing at all.

The vast spectrum of emotions is even represented by the children themselves—George resolves to do better in life, to build his life around helping people; Sonya seems to have little reaction to the horror that’s taken place; Vernon is terrified, guilt-ridden, and wildly self-contradictory (at one point, he says in the same breath both “I wish I could just be by myself,” and also, “I wish there were 200 of me”). This is how it is. All of these feelings pour through you, whether you want them to or not.

George, in atoning for what he sees as his part in Buddy’s death, does what he needs to do to reunite Buddy with his body and move forward into his life of heroism. He returns to the alley, finding Buddy still there with the alligator mask on his head, and takes his body to the river. He removes the mask and washes the blood from Buddy’s wounds, washing away his own perceived sin, yes, but also cleansing Buddy’s body, making it whole again. Rico finds Buddy in the river, looking at peace, and we are reminded that Buddy was there, Buddy was real, Buddy was once alive.

George Washington spoke to me in ways I couldn’t remember feeling before, and I thought of Nathan, and how he always got to everything first, and I resolved never to tell him about this movie. He wasn’t going to take this one. This was for me. This was mine.

They used to try to find clues to all the mysteries and mistakes God had made.

When I got off the plane in Portland, I went straight to the hospital. It was dark out, so it must have been late, but they still let us in. I found my aunt and uncle in the waiting room, and in a few minutes I went in to see Nathan. He was lying on the bed in his hospital gown, eyes closed, mouth open. A little puffy. Yellow. Brain dead. Or at least close enough to it. They said a few cells might be firing here or there. I’d gotten the call a few days before from a mutual friend trying to reach Nathan’s dad, my uncle, who was on vacation in New Orleans. Nathan had been tutoring kids at an elementary school when he stood up, said he was terribly thirsty, and collapsed. They said it was a “spontaneous brain stem bleed,” whatever that means. The only reason he was still alive was because of how quickly ambulances react to incidents at schools.

They were strange, those days. Spending most of them hoping something would change. Spending part of them feeling numb. And spending a few moments here and there, to my shock and horror, wanting it all just to end and for all of us to move on. I visited Nathan a couple of times each day—or, I visited his body. There was no mistaking it for Nathan himself. Through our lives, he had been exciting, confounding, disruptive, fascinating, enraging, exhausting. He had always been alive. He went at life hard, felt things deeply, and sucked everyone else into doing the same.

But here he was. Or what was supposed to be him. And I didn’t know what to do or what to say to him now. He was always the one who filled our empty spaces. To think of it, his body had always been incidental before—he was awkward, uncoordinated, and not, honestly, a real physical specimen. But he was a completely irresistible force. And now that was gone, and he was only his body.

Nathan died on December 14, 2002. He was 24 years old.

And then, unexpectedly, his body meant something more.

I saw Nathan shortly after he died, and he looked even less like himself, but I forced myself to make him real. I touched his forehead, his face, his chest, so that I could know, for sure, that he was there, that I was looking at him, and that all of this had happened. Not just his death, but also his life. I could feel him, and I knew he was gone, but also that he had very definitely been here. And, in a much more literal way, his body continued to live on. Nathan was an organ donor, the first DCD donor in Oregon (that’s a big deal, look it up). Now, because of him, others could live.

If we’re all being honest, most of us would admit that we always thought there was some chance that Nathan would die before his time. He was erratic, impulsive, and reckless. He drove like a madman. He had a mouth on him. He was the type to run into traffic with the supreme confidence that the cars would stop. He once got in the back seat of his own car while driving on the interstate. His death was always a possibility.

But not this death. This was not supposed to happen. Not like this. His body betrayed him. He didn’t have a say in it. This was a death we did not expect.

I don’t remember the first time I watched George Washington after Nathan died, but I do know that when I did, I saw it differently. Of course, I’d seen death in movies before, and had even sometimes been affected by it, but now Buddy’s death struck me in a way I hadn’t experienced. I recognized the cruel randomness of it, how little sense it really made, and how nothing would ever be the same. And I understood what it meant for George to touch Buddy and to wash his body, to make him whole again, and to recognize the life he had lived.

All I know is I want to be the strongest man in the world sometimes.

After Nathan died, we went to his house to clean it and pack up all of his belongings—another surreal and alternately wistful and painful experience. To walk into a room that he left with the full expectation that he would be coming back to it, the thought of that alone was almost overpowering. Still, we packed up his (many) toys and his (many) CDs, and eventually we got to his glorious DVD collection. As I put the rows and rows, and piles and piles, of movies into boxes, I’d pause here and there to notice something we’d watched together, something we’d both loved, something I knew he’d been excited about that he’d told me I just had to see (which I probably ignored).

And, eventually, I found his copy of George Washington. Of course. He’d never told me about it, either. Of course. But I thought then, and I still believe, that I knew Nathan well enough to know that he felt the same way I did when he watched it. We both had the same attraction to that certain aching sadness. We both loved to wander in a movie and let it wash over you like a dream. And I was happy knowing that he’d been able to see this movie, and to feel that way, before he left. George Washington was for us. This was ours.