I am doing the thing I said I would never do again. I am getting married to someone who changed my mind about the wisdom of the institution. Marrying Steve, a steady-as-a-rock British professor who patiently showed me what love is, involves a cross country move from Washington state to Ohio. A truckload of stuff I can’t let go of is already in Kent. I have been living in an empty apartment since it shipped, with not much more than a microwave and fold-out floor cushion.
After years of waiting for all our kids to be grown and settled, our wedding is planned, and my job quit. I moved my last day of work up a couple of times, much to my boss’s frustration. The first time was after my daughter, Jenny, moved away to Moses Lake and, my son, Henry, decided to live with his dad, all within the same week. Then a second time, when my work replacement was trained and couldn’t wait for me to get out of her way. There was no reason to wait until after the wedding to move. All signs pointed to the exit.
The week before I left town was spent scrubbing and spackling my empty apartment, schlepping loads of odds-and-ends to Goodwill, and surreptitiously setting boxes of free stuff out by the road. I stopped by my old office on Monday morning to pick up my last paycheck. The new manager had been there alone for exactly one week.
She slid my envelope through the reception window. “I have a thousand questions I wish I had asked,” she confessed, looking worried.
I swallowed my impulse to offer help, tapped the envelope on the counter, and said, “You’ll figure it out,” in what I hoped was an encouraging tone.
I turned down the stairs for the last time, feeling satisfied, but not as satisfied as I felt a few months later when she texted that she didn’t know how I put up with the place, that she had quit and walked out. And told the boss off on her way out the door. People without kids to feed have that option and I was glad and jealous that she did.
Steve took the red eye from Cleveland to Seattle Thursday night, arriving at the crack of dawn on Friday. I scooped him up, as usual, and we bee-lined straight back to Bellingham. We had long-distance relationship travel down to a science. That afternoon, my landlord stomped and grumped his way through the apartment I had inhabited for six years, inspecting every corner. My three youngest children had all lived there multiple times in various configurations, and the wear and tear were obvious. He couldn’t pretend to be sorry to see me go.
At 6:00 on Friday night, we met Henry, my youngest, for one last good-bye. The three of us chatted over steaming plates of Pad See Ew, keeping the conversation light. Steve and Henry discussed soccer, as usual, and I made him promise to visit, my mother’s radar up for any sign of distress. I detected none and wasn’t sure if I was relieved or disappointed. In the parking lot, I stood on tiptoe to wrap my arms around Henry’s neck, wondering again if I had any right to go.
Henry’s thick brown hair fell in a wave across his forehead as he laughed and extricated himself from my grip. “Love you, Mom.” He patted my back. “See you soon.”
I sat in my car, chin on the steering wheel, wondering where all the oxygen went as he drove away with a beep and a wave.
Back at the apartment, Steve and I watched the sun sink into the sea, and the sky turn black over Bellingham Bay. I looked as hard as I could while the stars popped out, memorizing the view that calmed my soul a thousand times. We slept on the floor in an awkward tumble,
crammed onto a fold-out cushion meant for one. The next morning, with our predictable efficiency, we ate the last two bananas, loaded the microwave, coffee pot, and cushion in the trunk and hit the road.
We drove south on Interstate 5, turned left at Seattle, speeding east on a pre-wedding honeymoon. Our itinerary planned a lunch stop in eastern Washington to see Jenny, but she wasn’t there. She texted me the location of the best taco truck in Moses Lake, and we carried on past windmills and wide-open wheat fields while I pretended not to be hurt.
It takes a long time to get divorced, not counting the lead-up. There are the years of unnamed misery, the emotional gymnastics of trying to fix things, the inevitable giving up, the breaking point, all before speaking the decision out loud. And then the excruciating process of unwinding lives and discoveries of secrets that were in plain sight all along, followed by a sharp, furious turn to lawyers and demands.
But then, then… when all of it is finally in the rearview mirror, freedoms (not financial, but other kinds) reveal themselves. A place of my own that feels like home, a lack of tension that feels like a cure, and a complete absence of science fiction movies. Now I was starting over again but, for the first time, not out of desperation.
After so many flights back and forth across the country, Steve and I were going to see the flyover states. Yellowstone, one white-knuckled sideways snowstorm, Bighorn National Forest, plummeting canyons whose striated walls mark time by eons, the white blaze of Mount Rushmore, wild moose in fields, crashing rivers, breathtaking expanses of sky-water-earth, where the power of the earth itself vibrates the air. I imagined Mother Nature allows us to play our little games, believing we have somehow tamed her. When she decides she has had enough, she will eradicate us, and it will be as if we were never here. I hope she wipes out Wall Drug first.
On road-trip day four, we came to the flatlands of South Dakota. No more site-seeing awaited us, just a long straight road to Ohio interrupted by static-y country music radio and overpriced roadside hotels. There are precious few vegetables and no wine to be found out there, only pork and beer. We planned on one brief stop in Chicago to see my older daughter, Emily, and then on to Kent, where we solemnly vowed, we would work off the wanton week of ribs and craft brew.
And then traffic stopped in the middle of nowhere. Between the car ahead of us and the semi to the right, we could see a smashed SUV facing the wrong direction. This vehicle had been walloped, crunched metal and shattered glass were everywhere. I saw no victims, heard no screams, no emergency vehicles. No other cars seem to have been involved in the accident. Silence. We sat for a moment.
“Do you want to go see if anyone needs help? I’ll call 9-1-1,” I suggested.
“I guess so,” Steve agreed.
He walked toward the wreck as I dialed. Neither of us realized the crash happened only moments before. We felt no sense of urgency. The first responder asked where we were. Good question. I looked around. Grass, grass, grass. More grass.
“Where are we? Do you see a sign or a mile marker?” I asked someone from the car behind me.
“Never mind,” the responder said. “Other calls are coming in. We got a location.”
I walked toward the SUV to find Steve. He was striding calmly toward me, gaze off to the shoulder, avoiding eye contact.
“Don’t look in the car, love. The driver has been decapitated,” he said, reaching for me but still looking away.
Steve would never panic, wild-eyed and crying.
“Ohhh, ok,” I breathed into his shoulder, knowing I would look. “The paramedics are on their way.”
“Do we have anything in the car we could use to get the passenger door open? It’s stuck, and I can’t get the woman out.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Three of the kids are sitting by the side of the road now. They’re ok, I think. Maybe you can check on them. There is another boy in the back seat, but I can’t get his door open, either.”
Time slowed as if underwater as we emerged from between the lanes of stopped vehicles, and the crash scene appeared. The westbound lanes seemed far away across a wide expanse of grassy median. The wrecked SUV sat, practically pulsing, straddling the lane lines on our eastbound side of the highway. I heard no sounds. I stole a glance in the direction of the driver’s seat. Someone had mercifully draped a blanket over the body of the driver, a body that started below the headrest, blank space where his head should have been. I turned toward the three kids sitting on the shoulder, facing away from the accident. A woman, someone from one
of the other cars, held a girl who appeared to be about ten years old. Two large teenage boys slumped beside them, bloodied, and quiet.
As I approached, the younger boy began to wail, “What happened? What happened?” Blood from a gash in his head trickled down his pimpled, sparsely whiskered cheek.
“It’s ok, it’s ok,” a man with an emergency kit and the air of military experience reassured the wailing boy. “I’ve seen worse,” he told me, and I believed him.
People were gathering around now, their voices floating behind me.
“Give them water.”
“NO, DO NOT GIVE THEM WATER. They’re in shock—they might choke.”
Oh God, I know nothing about first aid. These man-sized boys are just children, younger than they looked from a distance.
“Where are my parents? Are they ok?” the other boy asked to no one in particular. Someone said, “Yes, yes, they’re ok.”
“NO, THEY AREN’T,” his little sister shrieked, her eyes clear and green, as she clung to the stranger’s arms, head turned toward their vehicle. She could see.
I squatted down in the gravel beside the older boy, who sat with legs sprawled, looking at his dirty tennis shoes. Spots of blood on his tee-shirt and white crew socks, smears of mud on his legs, bits of gravel caught in his curly hair, but no apparent wounds. How do you start a conversation in this situation? I wondered, suddenly struck by the importance of saying the right thing and having no idea what that might be.
“Hi. Is it ok if I touch your shoulder?” I asked.
He nodded without looking up.
“What’s your name?” I rubbed his rounded shoulder gently. “Where are you from?
Oh God, my son’s name. My heart rose in my throat. My oldest son shared this boy’s name. My Cody was deployed God knows where with no guarantee of safe return. I swallowed my insides and breathed to open my throat. No time to think about that now. He seemed to relax into the task of answering my questions, so I continued, softly, trying to gauge his reactions. Trying to think of what to say next. Do you have a dog, are you on vacation? We conversed calmly as if it was a perfectly normal thing to do by the side of the interstate. Yes. Yellowstone. He seemed to attach to reality as he explained his family’s trip and the dog they left behind. Wait, they were driving to Yellowstone—going west–that means they rolled all the way through the median.
“Are my parents okay?” he asked again, gaze never leaving the patchy grass at this feet.
“The paramedics are coming. They’re coming. They will take care of your parents,” I reassured, almost chanting. My ears strained for the sound of sirens. Nothing. Please, for God’s sake, what is taking so long?
“My mom, my mom. Is she okay?” he asked with a quavering tinge of panic rising in his voice, not moving his gaze.
“Your mom is ok, but her door is stuck. We need help with her door. I think your dad might be injured, but the paramedics are on their way. They will help him,” I answered. He was coming to attention now, focusing. Evasions were not going to work much longer.
Interesting, interesting. Something in this boy’s brain is not letting him look, even though all he has to do is turn his head. He sits, but he is not injured. He does not want to know, which means he knows. Steve had found him wandering around in the middle of the road and brought him to sit on the shoulder, he tells me later.
I shifted to change position and realized that if I stood up or moved, my body would no longer obstruct this boy’s line of sight to the wreckage. He was not trying to look, but if I jarred his attention, he might inadvertently adjust his vision. He might turn his head. And then he would see, and whatever neurological impulse was protecting him in this moment might vanish. He would see his mother stuck behind a dented door. And his father. I settled my knees back down into the gravel, tucked my skirt around my thighs.
“Do you pray?” he asked.
“Yes,” I lied.
“Would you pray with me?”
I closed my eyes, and from the depths of some long-forgotten memory, I pulled a prayer, a plea for peace and comfort. I don’t know what I said. God never made sense the way it was explained to me, but at that moment, asking for help on behalf of this boy felt right.
The fourth child, extricated from the back seat, was led to the shoulder, and seated in the gravel beside his brothers. His eyes were open but unresponsive. I got the feeling he was
more aware of the situation than he was letting on, there was no air of vacancy about him. Steve had tried to open his door from the inside, leaning in over his father’s body, the severed neck inches away. With help, the back door was released, but still, no one could get the mother out. She sat beside her husband’s body, screaming at first, “Look at my husband. What am I going to do?” She has four children. I have four children. The enormity of what lay ahead of her settled in me with stunning heartbreak. How will she cope with her own trauma and help her kids at the same time? Does she have a community? Money? Health insurance?
Steve found a ragdoll among the debris, shook glass from the cotton dress, and brought it to the little girl. Weeks later, he told his own daughter the story and recollected when they had a car accident many years ago; all Katie wanted was her doll from the back seat, and he wept. Finally.
Travelers from the surrounding cars became helpers, just like Mr. Rogers said, standing in the broken glass beside the mother’s window, “Look this way. Keep your eyes on me.” They chatted with her, and she kept her eyes on them. After what seemed like an eternity, emergency vehicles began to arrive. An ambulance for each of them. State troopers swarmed the scene. Stretchers, Jaws of Life, uniforms. Thank God.
An officer followed us to our car. “Get help processing this. It’s hard, even for us,” he said.
“How can I help this family?” I asked him, missionary zeal to fix the unfixable gripping my brain.
“Call this number,” he handed me a card for the South Dakota State Highway Patrol Crash Assistance Program.
“The family is all set,” the lady who answered the phone said when I called the next day. They had everything they needed to get home and help when they got there. They did not need me.
“I hope it helps you to know they’re ok,” the program coordinator said gently, letting me know the need was mine.
Traffic was backed up for miles. We were turned around one car at a time, to drive back past the waiting lanes. As we pulled forward to U-turn onto the shoulder, I saw several state troopers in the median. Bent over, faces near the earth, searching the rippling grass. Oh my god. Something inside me fractured.
We rumbled through the gravel past Dave and Deb, friends from Ohio we met up with at Old Faithful a couple of days before. They waved and hollered out the window to get our attention, with no idea what had transpired ahead of them. Then they saw our expressions and said they would follow us. “Stop at the first restaurant you come to. We will meet you there,” Deb texted me. And they did. We sat at a round table that seemed too big, explaining between gulps of beer.
A day later, we arrived in Chicago in the middle of 5:00 rush hour. Steve’s hands gripped the wheel, his face tight and pale as he navigated bumper-to-bumper traffic and unfamiliar streets until we found Emily’s apartment. We strolled around the corner to the zoo with Emily and her boyfriend, and to no surprise, every person we passed greeted her. We wandered through the silverback gorilla exhibit; I searched the primates’ ebony faces for some acceptance of their fate, some indication that they were okay. I couldn’t find it; all I could detect was resignation. Emily and I descended the metal stairs to the concrete-walled restroom, where I told her what we had seen in South Dakota, realizing I needed to explain our subdued demeanor. I stammered around the edges of the story.
“Wait a minute,” Emily gasped. “That woman was trapped in the car beside her husband’s headless body?”
I nodded and began to shake uncontrollably as we hugged each other in the basement bathroom underneath the gorilla cages of the Chicago Zoo. Grateful to put my arms around my daughter and breathe the familiar scent of her long blond hair, one last touchstone. The unnaturalness of relocating unsettled me as if I shifted my children’s magnetic pole–the people who are my children, but who do not need me the way they once did. I was free. But did I want to be? Who am I without the familiarity of being mother, with nothing and no one to manage?
Steve and I drove on in silence, anxious to get off the road and start a new life together. Holding hands as traffic allowed.