Don't Be Afraid: An Essay by The Black Lillies' Cruz Contreras

Cruz Contreras of the Black Lillies. Photo by Todd Purifoy

EDITOR'S NOTE: No Depression's monthly Spotlight program aims to get to know a band/artist a bit better. Earlier this month we brought you a feature story about September's Spotlight band, The Black Lillies, and now we have an essay from The Black Lillies' Cruz Contreras sharing the backstory of the song "Don't Be Afraid" from their upcoming album, Stranger to Me (out Sept. 28). At the bottom of this post, you can see a video of "Don't Be Afraid" that the band made just for No Depression live from a bathroom (yes a bathroom — don't they always have the best acoustics?) in Knoxville, Tennessee.

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I'll never forget the first time I took hold of the steering wheel of my uncle’s blue Ford tractor there on Hinchman Road in Southwest Michigan. It's a moment that seems forever frozen in my mind and buried in my soul. Wide-eyed and intent on keeping her between the ditches, nose to the west, I vividly remember thinking the cottonwoods were dancing and applauding for this most glorious of moments in a 9-year-old’s life.

We passed the cattail pond on the right, the cinderblock cold storage on the left, and my uncle’s house. It wasn't long before we left the blacktop and turned onto a rutted dirt road that meandered uphill through the orchards, past the frail migrant housing leaning to the right, arched wooden ladders strewn about, 100-year-old sweet cherry trees that contained an entire world and ecosystem within their canopy. I could almost taste the mystery, anticipation, and certainty of what lie ahead.

On the back acres of the Feather farm awaited what I desired most: work. A task. Responsibility and confidence. Something that my Uncle Thomas thought I was capable of, maybe even worthy of, I hoped. Even if in reality he was just looking after his nephew for a day, I would prove to him I was not only useful but valuable. I sincerely believed I could help him with the land that had belonged to his family for the past 150 years. It was the early ’80s, somewhere between a daunting and devastating time to turn a profit on a family farm and keep it afloat.

Uncle Thomas, who appeared to me a combination of the Marlboro Man and Angel Eyes from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, had an Achilles’ heel. I often got a sense that it was as much an internal unsettledness as much as a physical ailment. Physically, he suffered from early onset diabetes and heart disease. He had smoked Camel cigarettes since the age of 12. He seemed cut from cloth in a pattern that had long been forgotten or gone out of style. I knew he was a classic character in a quickly changing world.

That day, we pruned the nectarine trees, stacked the brush in piles, and loaded it up on to the flatbed trailer we were hauling. I thought we were the perfect team. He had the wisdom and experience; I had the motor, drive, and eagerness. I figured we could string a few of these days together, and no matter how tough farming was, I could help nudge things in the right direction. (Yes, at 9 years old I was the eternal optimist.)

Then the clouds rolled in. With little warning we were caught in a late summer thunderstorm. We ran to the tractor and began the race to the house. We were completely at the mercy of the piercing rain when the trailer detached and slammed into the ground, tossing all the brush we had collected into the mud. Now, it may sound a little dramatic, but at that very moment I comprehended mankind's perpetual struggle between effort and futility. The notion that you can build and toil and persist, and yet everything you work for can be erased in a moment. If this person whom I admired so much, and whom I believed was capable of anything, could have a day where it would have been just as well to stay at home — well, then, what am I in for in life?

Long before that day, my family had told me a story about my uncle that had made a big impression on me. The Green Beret who stashed his money under the floorboard, the country bumpkin that paid for a new Continental with cash (it was slick, white leather with red trim!), the man who would answer the door with a shotgun if need be, who had only cried twice (when he buried his horse and at my grandmother’s funeral), had these lasting words of advice that provided me with an instant sense of relief the first time I heard them. Simply, "Don't be afraid to die."

What!? I'm a kid. I never want to die. I'm programmed to fight to live. Always. Period. What could he mean? Don't be afraid to die? "It's the most beautiful feeling I've ever experienced, the light … I didn't want to come back." he said. See, when Thomas Feather was 30 years old, he went into a diabetic coma and fell off the back of a flatbed truck while making a delivery out of town. He had no identification with him and ended up in a hospital literally without a name. While on the table his heart stopped beating and he left his body. He saw a bright light and experienced an overwhelming sense of relief and joy. He could see his own body lying in the room and was conscious that he didn't want to return. But it was not yet his time. He had more life to live, a wife to love, a daughter to raise, and a message to share. Not a message he ever preached, but it came across when he shared his story.

I am grateful to have heard these words at a young age. It's fair to say that they have influenced and inspired my life. There was no high and mighty message, only a story from a man walking the walk and talking the talk. Not perfectly, but honestly. And I'll take honesty over so-called perfection any day, because I'm pretty sure life is, in fact, only perfect through its imperfections. Don't be afraid.