In opposition to the important themes of illness, wounds, and death, Sing, Unburied, Sing also deals directly with themes of feeding, healing, and care. Sing, Unburied, Sing pays close attention to the daily practice of caring for others, showing this to be both a form of love and a (sometimes punishing) form of labor. The person whose care the reader witnesses the most is Jojo. Neglected by Leonie, Jojo is left to take care of Kayla’s needs, and shows a level of devotion to her that at times seems beyond the natural capacity of a thirteen-year-old boy. Although Jojo, unlike Leonie, never expresses resentment or anger toward Kayla, it is clear that the level of care he gives to Kayla at times has a negative impact on his own life. Jojo is self-sacrificial in his attentiveness to Kayla, and in this sense his love for her resembles the ideal of sacrificial maternal love more than that of a kind older brother. Because Jojo has always felt responsible for Kayla, he never got a chance to take care of himself, and it is clear that this aspect of his caring role has had a negative impact on him.
Many other characters in the novel also practice unhealthy forms of caregiving, although in almost all cases it is because they care too little or too sporadically, rather than (as in Jojo’s case) too much. Leonie cares for her children, but can also be selfish and resentful of them, causing her to be cruel even at times when she aims to be kind. Furthermore, Leonie, Michael, Misty, and Al all care for one another in different ways, yet this care is distorted by their use of drugs. This causes them to at times negatively influence each other’s lives, prioritizing getting high over actually practicing the more difficult forms of care that would allow them and their loved ones to grow healthier and happier.
One important way in which the characters practice care is through healing. Mam has inherited healing traditions from her ancestors, and has used them for purposes ranging from curing illness to inducing abortion. Jojo has a deep respect for Mam’s healing gifts, and is heartbroken to confront their limitations when Mam acknowledges that she was not able to heal herself from cancer. Furthermore, Jojo implies that not everyone has the ability to be a healer to others. When Leonie attempts to employ one of Mam’s healing practices in order to treat Kayla’s sickness, Jojo tells her not to even try, arguing that she is not capable of healing anyone. He is so convinced of this that he forces Kayla to throw up the blackberry plant potion Leonie makes her drink, reflecting: “[Leonie] ain’t Mam. She ain’t Pop. She ain’t never healed nothing or grown nothing in her life, and she don’t know.” This suggests that even when people have good intentions, the distinction between a healing remedy and poison can be precarious, particularly when the person doing the healing is not a natural caregiver.
Throughout the book, care is also shown through food and feeding. Jojo is always hungry, a fact that serves as evidence for the neglect and lack of care he has experienced all his life. Providing food is one of the major ways in which characters care for one another in the book, but both Jojo and Leonie are careful not to accept food from certain people. Their suspicion over who is doing the feeding again emphasizes that not everyone is capable of providing healthy, positive forms of care. The link between food and poison is also underlined by the recurrence of vomiting in the novel. Vomiting highlights the fact that what can be taken as sustenance sometimes turns out to be poison, and that it is often impossible to know the difference until it is too late.
Feeding, Healing, and Care ThemeTracker
Feeding, Healing, and Care Quotes in Sing, Unburied, Sing
The only animal I saw in front of me was Pop, Pop with his straight shoulders and his tall back, his pleading eyes the only thing that spoke to me in that moment and told me what he said without words: I love you, boy. I love you.
She ain't Mam. She ain't Pop. She ain't never healed nothing or grown nothing in her life, and she don't know.
I lay there until I can't no more, and then I carry Kayla into the bathroom and stick my finger down her throat and make her throw up. She fights me, hitting at my arms, crying against my hand, sobbing but not making no words, but I do it three times, make her vomit over my hand, hot as her little body, three times, all of it red and smelling sweet, until I'm crying and she's shrieking. I turn off the light and go back into the room and wipe her with my shirt and lay in the bed with her, scared that Leonie's going to walk in and find all that red throw-up in the bathroom, find out I made Kayla throw up Leonie's potion. But nobody comes.
“All the birds go bye,” Kayla says, and then she leans forward and rubs my face with both hands, and for a second I think she's going to tell me something amazing, some secret, something come from God Himself.
It feels good to be mean, to speak past the baby I can't hit and let that anger touch another. The one I'm never good enough for. Never Mama for. Just Leonie, a name wrapped around the same disappointed syllables I've heard from Mama, from Pop, even from Given, my whole fucking life.
This is a miracle, I think, so I close my eyes and ignore Given-not-Given, who is sitting there with a sad look on his face, mouth in a soft frown, and think of Michael, real Michael, and wonder if we had another baby, if it would look more like him than Michaela. If we had another baby, we could get it right.
I know Jojo is innocent because I can read it in the unmarked swell of him: his smooth face, ripe with baby fat; his round, full stomach; his hands and feet soft as his younger sister's. He looks even younger when he falls asleep. His baby sister has flung herself across him, and both of them slumber like young feral cats: open mouths, splayed arms and legs, exposed throats. When I was thirteen, I knew much more than him. I knew that metal shackles could grow into the skin. I knew that leather could split flesh like butter. I knew that hunger could hurt, could scoop me hollow as a gourd, and that seeing my siblings starving could hollow out a different part of me, too.
We are all sinking, and there are manta rays gliding beneath us and sharks jostling us. I am trying to keep everyone above water, even as I struggle to stay afloat. I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the waves and breathe, but then Michaela sinks and I push her up, and Michael sinks so I shove him to the air as I sink and struggle, but they won't stay up: they want to sink like stones. I thrust them up toward the surface, to the fractured sky so they can live, but they keep slipping from my hands. It is so real that I can feel their sodden clothes against my palms. I am failing them. We are all drowning.
I ain't never have the talent for it. Seeing the dead. I could read people, read the future or the past in they bodies. Know what was wrong or needed by their songs: in the plants, in the animals, too. But never saw the dead. Wanted it so bad after Given died––
He ran so fast. Sometimes I had to follow him by sound. Him talking to hisself the whole time. Not hisself. His mama. Telling her he was coming home. That he wanted her to sing for him. Sing for your son, he said. Sing.
I said: It's going to be all right, Richie. He said. I heeled the dogs. Held out my hands to him, right side out. Moved slow. Soothed him. Said: We gone get you out of this. We gone get you away from here. Touched his arm: he was burning up. I'm going home, Riv? he asked. I squatted down next to him, the dogs steady yipping, and I looked at him. He had baby hair on the edge of his scalp, Jojo. Little fine hair he'd had since he sucked at his mama's tit. Yes, Richie. I'm a take you home, I said. And then I took the shank I kept in my boot and I punched it one time into his neck. In the big vein on his right side. Held him till the blood stopped spurting. Him looking at me, mouth open. A child. Tears and snot all over his face. Shocked and scared, until he was still.