It was a hot Sunday, June 14, 1987. The sun bright and crisp. Having been inside all day, I felt as though I should get out of the house and do something—go for a ride, maybe. Yes, that was it. I’d saddle up Dan, my flea-bitten grey, Arabian-Quarter horse, and I’d ride for a while.
I didn’t really want to go. Not just out of laziness. I just didn’t want to do it. But I felt like I should. I hadn’t ridden in weeks, and I didn’t want to hole-up in my room all day when it was such a beautiful Sunday. I forced myself to pull on my almost-too-tight riding boots, heft up the saddle onto the horse, and head off up our road.
About a quarter of a mile from the house, the feeling of “not wanting to” grew to disturbing proportions. Dread and doom descended over me, and all I wanted was to go home.
Afraid and confused about what was happening emotionally, I wheeled my horse around and ran home. I was scared I would hurt the horse, his hooves pounding the ground. But I was more scared of what I was feeling, an unknown, indeterminate feeling of dread, confusion and darkness.
After the run, I should’ve walked him out to cool him from even that brief but hard run. But I didn’t. His water trough was low, so I went to fill it with the garden hose. As I turned, I noticed a police car driving up our gravel road. A rare sight.
I filled the tub of water. Dan drank desperately. My weird feelings were dissipating. I was home. Then I heard a yell: “Jennifer?! Jennifer!” I turned to see my mom standing on the porch up the hill. Behind her, the police car.
“Okay, I’m coming!” I yelled in return. There were no feelings now. I walked and ran up to the house, my boots muddy from messing with the garden hose at the water trough.
I rounded the corner of the house. The policemen weren’t in their car or on the porch. I opened the door, saw my mom sitting in her blue chair, facing the couch I couldn’t see. The couch that supported the weight of what was about to be revealed.
Since getting new carpet, our rule was to take our shoes off at the door.
I couldn’t get my boots off. I couldn’t get my boots off!! I couldn’t get them OFF!
I stood in the kitchen, on the linoleum, at the border of the carpet, and I leaned toward her. “I can’t get my boots off, mom. Just go ahead, what’s wrong?” I heard, but didn’t hear, a policeman speak. I saw, and wish I hadn’t seen, my mom slump forward in her chair, hands over her face, her body shaking out the sobs.
“What did he say, mom?” I asked, feeling nothing. “He said that Tim was in an accident and he’s dead,” she looked at me and squeaked. Screaming, I covered my face and felt again the fear and dread and confusion and darkness descend. Still with muddy boots, I left the house to sit on the porch and scream and cry into my hands. “No! NO! NOOOO!!!” was all I could say, was all I could feel. Every part of me wanted to resist this, cast it out, rebuke it, kill the news, make it unreal. I sat on the porch, alone, feeling like my insides were being torn out through my throat. My mom, alone, sat inside the house, comforted by policemen.
My grandfather, Pop “C,” who was staying in an RV on our property, heard my screams and came to see if I’d run into a hornets’ nest. That would’ve felt so much better. I told him that Tim was dead. And though he didn’t cry, his hardened, crusty exterior changed and he went inside to be with his daughter-in-law.
I stayed outside.
There’s no telling how long I sat there, eventually my maternal grandparents arrived home—they lived next door to us. Seeing me and hearing me, they walked down, I met them halfway and told them what was happening—our new reality.
Both of them went inside my house, to be with my mom and Pop “C.” The police left shortly after that. Someone called my oldest brother, Evan, and his wife, Tricia. How does one even start a conversation like that on the phone, when it’s news that changes the entire trajectory of a family? The most eloquent among humanity is not qualified.
My father could not be contacted. Cell phones were yet to be mainstream. He and my grandmother, his mother, had gone to the store together. As we waited for him, we also waited for Evan and Tricia to arrive. What a long drive that 20 minutes from their house to ours must’ve felt like.
Evan was frantic when he arrived, just like we all were. I remember he took me by the shoulders and asked me where mother was. He wasn’t trying to hurt me. He was just physically responding to what we were all inwardly feeling. He ran to her, picked her up, carried her to her bed. She was asthmatic, and Evan was afraid she’d be overcome by it. I think he also wanted to protect her, to comfort her.
And then dad drove up to his print shop that was down the hill, next to the horse pasture and barn. Seeing him and my grandmother exit the car and go into the shop, I realize now that I was watching a man’s last moments of a normal life—not urgent, leisurely opening a door, walking inside.
“Dad’s here,” I called to no one and to everyone. Evan ran from the house, and down the hill. I ran after him. I tried to keep up. I wanted to shield dad from the blow that was running down the hill at him.
Evan told him. And I told him. And he said, “Oh,” and looked away. And I told him again, maybe he didn’t hear. And I hugged him. And he didn’t hug back. And he said, “What?” And Evan told him. And dad said, “Oh, no.” And though he didn’t fall, I saw him crumble.
Grandmother, somewhat on the outskirts of our verbal emotionally frantic confessions, was confused, so we had to tell her again. She kept denying it, as new grievers do.
Time collapsed inward this day. I don’t remember how long things took. I don’t remember how long I stood with dad and watched him dissolve. Sometimes I don’t remember the sequence of exchanges.
I remember the eventual retreat of my dad, my brother and my grandmother, up the hill into our home . . . as I stayed at the shop, shimmied myself up onto the tailgate of our truck and silently cried, swinging my still muddy-booted legs harder and harder. I tried to sing, I tried to pray. Sometimes, the words didn’t come out, but the sounds of my soul did—begging, pleading, bargaining for this to be the worst nightmare I ever woke up from.
My mom’s dad, Pop walked down the hill toward me. It’s an awkward thing, isn’t it, to sit in line of one’s direction, knowing they’re coming to you, coming for you? He sat down next to me and talked with me. He got my crying and breathing under control. And he persuaded me to join the family in the house. We walked the hill—I’d walked it too many times this day—and we came to the threshold of my house. “I can’t go in; I gotta take my boots off, they’re dirty,” I told him. Pop stooped down to my feet, put his hand behind the heel of my boot and pulled off one, then the other.
I entered the house and found a place to sit for a moment. Calls had been made to family, who were then spreading the tragic news throughout our church, our community, our schools, our family. Someone suggested I call some of my friends so that I would have their support through this. I walked next door to my grandparents’ so I could use their phone. At 14, my friends and I knew very little about supporting anyone whose brother had been tragically killed in a car accident. I called two classmates, and asked if they would call our other classmates for me.
Dusk was falling over everything. I remember the sunset was pretty and only a dusting of clouds across the sky. Lightening bugs were warming up, tree frogs were tuning up, crickets stretched their legs. Nature didn’t know that one of their biggest fans was dead.
I noticed the cars parked in our driveway, on our lawn, down our road, in our pastures. A hundred cars carrying hundreds of friends, family, printing customers, neighbors—all packed in our tiny house, and on our tiny porch. Seeing all of this, I decided not to go back in the house but to stay outside, under the sky that I wanted to soar up and through and then away. I walked with friends, I talked with friends. Mostly, I cried.
Tim’s funeral was the most despairing funeral I’ve ever known, and I’ve been to many . . . too many. To me, it was so dark because I witnessed so many losses of life. A 19-year-old civil engineer student was dead. My parent’s son was gone. My brother’s friend and partner-in-crime, lost. My grandparent’s helper and kindred spirit, passed away. And my own loss of not just a brother, but an idol, friend, protector, and teacher. And to each of the people in his life, they lost a light, a joy in their day.
Hundreds of people were at the funeral. Because of the congested parking around the funeral home, the factory next door had to close for two hours. The 100+ procession of cars from Douglasville to Oakview Cemetery clogged the roads and interstates again for hours.
The day after the funeral, I sat at the breakfast table and looked out the window as my dad walked down the hill to the mailbox. As he walked back up the hill, about halfway, I saw his shoulders shaking. Moving closer I saw his chin quivering. I stood up from the table walked outside and met him. I hugged him; he cried. His words as he wiped his face: “My son is dead.”
We left for the beach the day after that. Just to remove ourselves and find some way to keep facing the next day and the next day and the next, a little more empty, a little more incomplete.
Things don’t return to normal after death makes a cavern in a family. There’s just a new unwanted normal. Since I was 14, I’ve lived this new normal. The old normal, with Tim alive and laughing and being a silly redneck, was the best normal.
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