One Night in Tennessee

Old Weathered Mailbox

Sept. 9 | Day 3: We arrive after dark, the GPS giving me muddled directions, or maybe I was just tired and confused. Linda and I roll into the driveway around nine o’clock, I think.

And yet the woman I have come so far to see and her husband are still holding dinner, hugging us as soon as we get off the motorcycles.

“Forty years ago, did you ever think we’d be meeting like this?” she asks me, and I have to say, honestly, no, no, I did not.

Let us call her The Poet. She was a girl I’d known in high school, a true poet, a perceptive and heartfelt writer, a genius, and one of the kindest, gentlest and most Zen-centered people I’ve ever known.

She was best friends with The Artist, another girl I knew, a gifted artist and soulful poet and writer who dazzles me with her intellect, insight, empathy and clarity of thought.

We hung out together (as we used to say) but they were a binary star I orbited at a distance since I could not match their brilliance.

I admired both. I learned from them and remembered them — though it was less a case of remembering and more of never forgetting. After graduation we built our separate lives, fanning out across the country, across decades.

Forty years — what a mammoth block of time. It’s been that long since I’ve seen her and now she’s standing before me, and I’m with my wife and our motorcycles, the vehicles of my own time that brought us here, all on a dark driveway in Tennessee.

“Well, come in, come in,” they say. “Are you hungry? We’ve got dinner.”

Since we’re staying the night, I pull the bags off Terra Nova and Linda’s Vespa and we go in to eat. Over savory bowls of Thai-inspired chicken-and-rice soup, we fill in gaps four decades old:

For me, a couple of wives and a series of newspaper jobs around the country. For her, a journey of self-discovery out West, meeting a wonderful man and having children. A deep-rooted faith in their Mormon religion and church.

The night runs late and the dishes grow cold on the table. I want to hear more. She speaks of how they ran their own family dairy farm, honest caregivers of the land, their lives entwined with those of neighbors, community, and church.

I want to hear everything and she tells us this:

Their first child is a loving and happy and intelligent son, and learns to talk and walk early, following them around the house. At age five, he begins fetching mail from the box across the rural road.

An avid talker, he tells his parents about an angel, saying to his mother, “Mom, I saw an Angel and I know what they look like.”

And one day…

“He was running across the road to get the mail and a motorcycle came over the hill,” she says. “He was hit and killed.”

Time stumbles as the shock ripples through us. I had not known, even after all these years. I struggle to focus and a somber voice in the back of my mind whispers I never thought we’d be meeting like this.

I can’t remember what Linda and I say beyond oh, my God and I am so sorry and such; it was inadequate anyway. Still and silent, we listen.

She tells us how she, her husband, their families and everyone they knew were devastated beyond comprehension. She says to her husband, sometime later, “I don’t see how we can survive this.”

And he, from a place of inner strength I did not know could exist, offers the most courageous and unforgettable thing I have ever heard.

He tells her: “We can be bitter, or we can be better.”

Slowly they take up their lives again. The church and community rally around them. They forgive the rider on the motorcycle, giving him back his life. They have more children. They rebuild around the awful loss.

It is very late. We all say good-night and are ushered into a guest bedroom. But it is hours before I sleep.

It’s impossible for me to reconcile the sweet girl I adored in high school and the pain of that day; they cannot exist in the same space. I’m in awe of the strength and courage of her husband, who gave them a way forward. I grieve for the wonderful child I will never know.

And how, dear God, we’ve come to their doorstep on motorcycles.

Time has lurched on, but I am forever haunted. We were only 52 hours into the mission, with 16 days, two thousand miles, and now the rest of our lives to go.

The next day I call The Artist long-distance after we shut down the bikes in Birmingham, Alabama. We talk and I weep a little and she, with her wisdom, pulls me back from the edge.

But Linda and I are subtly changed, tempered somehow, forced to take a different perspective. The belief we can be better takes up residence in my head1.

We’ll find the New Orleans motorcycle ride will be more intense, more deeply felt, than anything we’ve done before. All that’s ahead of us — the fall in Underwood, the stranger in Selma, the lonely sadness of Bryant’s Grocery and everything else — begins this night in Tennessee.

Stone cherub praying


Note: It took more than a year for me to write this story. I’ve shown it to my two friends; they have kindly given permission to post. I could not have done so otherwise.
Addendum: In later correspondence, she tells me, “Following his death I imagined his sweet spirit running across the road into the arms of an Angel while his earthly body was waylaid and left behind.”
1 — Where it stays to this day. And I will testify his words helped me deal with Steve Wargo’s death, 164 days later.
.

 

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