I started the motor and it rolled into life. We moved, then slipped, years too late, into the sky.
– Michael Ondaatje, “The English Patient”
One of the motorcycle rides I always dreamed of was to see my grandmother in Florida.
When I was six, my maternal grandparents, Walter and Charlotte McDaniel, moved from Cleveland to Zephyrhills, a small town not far from Tampa. They were tired of the cold and snow of Ohio winters and wanted the sunshine and beaches of the Gulf.
I remember it was hard to see them leave, since they were going so far away. A few years later my parents started driving us all south to see them in the summer; for a few years it was an annual ritual, packing us in the car, the interminable drive. Dad often drove straight through.
Getting there was worth it. My grandparents lived in a tiny house, roughly 24 feet square, but it was a magical place. Spanish moss grew all over the trees and you could find tiny frogs in the glass jalousie of the screened-in porch. We used to sleep on that porch and wake to the cries of blue jays in the back yard.
My grandparents had a series of small sheds around the property for tools and lawnmowers and such, and we used to play in and around them. We would go to Clearwater Beach, my Grandma’s favorite, the sand like sugar, and it was there I swam in saltwater for the first time. I loved it.
Years passed and Life started crowding in; graduation, college, jobs. My grandfather, a career Navy man, passed away in 1981 but it wasn’t until the next year I was able to get back to Zephyrhills.
It was good to see my grandmother and the way her fierce independence was carrying her along. We went to Clearwater and the salty Gulf. I was studying photography then and shot many pictures of her and the house.
She took me to the cemetery where my grandfather was buried, and we stood silently over the grave site. She ran her hand over the blank space on the marker next to my grandfather’s name. “Here’s where I’ll be,” she said.
I was with her for less than a week, I think, and then I went home.
A marriage turned into divorce and I moved around the country chasing new jobs. Another Florida trip wasn’t financially possible; I wanted to go, I meant to go, but I did keep in touch with my grandmother through phone calls, letters and postcards.
I moved to Reno in 1995 and re-established contact with my favorite motorcycle-riding uncle in San Diego (my grandmother’s son). Along with his daughter (my wonderful cousin Shannon) we started riding together and began planning our big ride from California to Florida to see Grandma.
She was getting on in years and having memory problems and was living with my aunt’s family in Flagler Beach. But she still loved to talk on the phone.
And we kept making our plans, seriously this time, clearing space on the calendar, prepping the motorcycles, poring over maps to find the best route and I had this vision, you know, of all of us at long last rolling triumphantly to my Grandma’s door.
We set launch for the first of May 2000. Everyone was excited, green lights across the board. And then, 21 days before we were to leave, the phone call came. She had collapsed and was in the hospital.
The mission was on hold. Doctors weren’t sure how long she’d be hospitalized. For a while, she got better. Then everything nosedived and she passed away on April 26.
We went to Zephyrhills, in a mad cross-country dash in my uncle’s car. We got there just in time for the funeral. I put my last postcard to Grandma, written out the weeping night before, in her casket. Shannon put in something, too, but I can’t remember what. My uncle put in a sprig of violets, I think. They were Grandma’s favorite flower.
“She loved your cards,” my aunt from Flagler Beach told me at the service.
That was nearly 15 years ago. I live just outside of Washington, D.C., now and my wife Linda and I go to St. Petersburg every November to walk on the beaches and enjoy the sun and saltwater. We’ve been doing this for 8 or 9 years now.
And we stop by Zephyrhills to see the house I loved when I was a kid. We go to the cemetery, too, and brush sand off the marker if need be. One time I reattached a small American flag over my grandfather. The last time we were there I tightened the screws on one of the date plates on my grandmother’s side.
And every time we drive away from the cemetery, I reflect, bitterly, I admit, that now I have time to go see them, years too late. I realize I’ve visited Zephyrhills more in the last 10 years than I have in the previous forty. I mourn the misplaced priorities of those 40 years and I wish, oh, I wish, that we could have taken that lost ride.