The Journey Home
Oklahoma in the springtime has become a dreaded season for me. May is right smack dab in the middle of tornado season here. Three-minute tornado sirens blare over the airwaves. You can’t escape them. When I used to hear them, I would hide out in the bathroom, heart racing, eyes glued to the news channel, and hands texting as fast as I could to my nineteen-year-old daughter Sarah in Austin, Texas, just in case I didn’t make it.
The whistling wind and the dark grey clouds became a familiar sight after the first year, but I never got used to those sirens and tornado warnings. They still shake me to the core even more so now—but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The strangest thing is to see people driving in the hail, with the wind gusting sixty miles an hour. They have a business-as-usual attitude and just ignore the warnings. I remember thinking when I first witnessed this, the people here must really be tough or stupid—or maybe, they’re just immune to it. It made me confront my fear of death, which was the most annoying and unsettling thing to have to think about. Little did I know, that at that time, I would soon be getting a call that would not only make me face my fear of death, but also force me to have a closer, more intimate look at it.
On May 21 2015, I received a phone call from my oldest sister Debbie. She took her birth position very seriously, and as such, she was the one to make sure everyone was informed about family business.
I could hear the sadness in her voice as she said, “Daddy’s in the hospital in Roanoke - it doesn’t look good. They have him on a ventilator to keep him breathing, and he’s been unconscious ever since they admitted him last week.”
Why hadn’t anyone called me? I can’t remember what she said next because my brain wasn’t grasping every word—words like hospital, fourth-stage liver and stomach cancer. I wanted to get off the phone. I had to process all this.
I said, “Well, thanks for letting me know.” And hung up the phone. So many thoughts were going through my head: should I try to go see him? Would he even regain consciousness, and could I handle seeing him? I mulled over it for several days before making the decision to go. I thought: I could at least go and help him pass. This was the push I needed for the healer in me to kick in.
The weather was getting bad out. The wind was blowing hard, and it had been raining for days. The sun hadn’t been seen for days now and the dark grey sky added gloominess to the situation. I welcomed the gloominess, because it didn’t seem right to have the sun shining down its happy face while my dad lay dying. There was heaviness to my movement that stayed with me all the way to Virginia. I wanted to see him, and I didn’t. I wanted to say goodbye, and I had no idea what I would say to a man that was my father and yet a stranger.
I plodded along, fumbling through my things and trying to think about what I needed to take. I was relieved that my partner James had decided to come home from his job as a truck driver. He had no idea what I was experiencing under my usual poker face. As I packed, the few memories I had of my father ushered into my thoughts: the smell of Old English Leather after-shave, a pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes, the sound of Johnny Cash singing, and the sadness of not knowing him better.
I checked the Weather Channel, and the forecast said there was a high chance of flooding and possible tornadoes. A front was moving across the United States, producing severe thunderstorms. It was nothing unusual for Oklahoma. The flood warnings did bother me, but I welcomed the chance to get out of Oklahoma in May.
It was the 29th of May before I decided to hit the road and try to make it to Roanoke, hopefully before my dad passed. We left at noon. It had been raining so hard that we now had big puddles of water in our yard. It didn’t look like it was going to stop anytime soon, so we left with flash flood and tornado warnings. I can still hear the sirens increasing in loudness. We could only go twenty-five miles an hour, because there was little to no visibility.
I needed something to eat to calm my nerves, and I could tell James was frustrated at me for having to stop. He was used to plowing through any type of weather in his eighteen-wheeler, and we weren’t exactly making good time. We stopped in Okmulgee, at Creek Nation Travel Plaza-Shell, and grabbed a fast meal inside their Burger King. While we ate, I kept thinking we could always just turn around and go back home. I have an out, and no one would blame me, with all the terrible weather. I wrestled with the thought for the next hundred miles before I just gave into the fact that I was going. I needed to. I had managed to avoid him for the past ten years, and I didn’t want him to pass without saying goodbye.
The flooding gave way to worse weather. Right before we made it to Sausalito, Oklahoma, on Highway 40, a tornado warning alert sounded from James’ phone. He wasn’t going to stop because he thought a warning meant to watch for a tornado, not that one was already on the ground.
I said, "James, you need to get us off the road, NOW!"
We pulled off the highway onto the access ramp. About that time, we saw that a police car was blocking the entrance ramp to Highway 40. I knew by the looks of it with the low grey sky that a tornado was close. Reading the weather becomes second nature, living in Oklahoma. We turned left over the bridge and ducked into Love’s Travel Stops in Webbers Falls. The people inside were looking out the big front window with the same intensity as a cat watching a mouse hole. It felt like I was living a Stephen King movie, all held up in the middle of nowhere with about fifty other people.
After about ten minutes, you could feel the relief sweep through the crowd as the store manager told us the ramp was now open and it was safe for us to get back out on Highway 40. In that instant I thought the tornado mirrored my whirling emotions, and the flooding was symbolic of all the emotions and thoughts flooding my mind.
That day, we only made a small amount of progress in our 1,051-mile journey. We stopped at a Motel 6 in Jacksonville, Tennessee to rest for the night. James wasn’t sleeping with his CPAP mask, so his snoring like a bear had kept me awake all night. This was going to be one long trip with no sleep mixed with my churning emotions.
About an hour outside of Roanoke, we stopped at a Stop-N-Go tucked in a small shopping strip off the road. We pulled in right by a white magnolia tree in full bloom. I had the thought to take a blossom to my dad. He was an artist and poet, and I thought the flower would appeal to his sensitive nature. So I plucked a blossom, emptied a bottle of spring water into a glass bowl, and gently laid the giant flower on top of the water.
The aroma filled the car with a sweet, lemony scent. The fragrance immediately lifted my spirit. I remember thinking that it felt like the divine hand of God had reached down and touched me.
We finally arrived at 6 p.m., running off sheer exhaustion. There was an exaggerated happiness about the hospital staff—the kind of naive happiness you have when you haven’t had to fight your entire life for everything that you wanted. I am sure their giddy exuberance was exaggerated in contrast to my gloominess and exhaustion. I remember thinking, what the hell is everyone so damn happy about, anyway?
Once off the elevator, I was embraced by the quietness. The only sound was the occasional bleep from the nurse’s station breaking the silence. The signs read, “Please keep your voice low.” The fluorescent lights seemed strangely bright, and the way the nurses whispered to each other was very unsettling. I smelled the magnolia bloom out of desperation, hoping it could somehow transport me out of here or at least buffer me from the situation I was facing. I braced myself for the worst.
The first thing I saw upon entering the room was my sister Debbie standing like a sentry over my 77-year-old dad. Her excitement to see me and joyful attitude didn’t seem to match the situation. However, it was a relief not to see her weeping and sad. I got the feeling she knew that and, like always, she was trying to protect me, like when we were kids.
He lay there unconscious, with his mouth open. I whispered to him that I was there as I gently stroked his head. I placed the flower by the bed and wiped some of the water from the flower bowl on his clammy head and dry, cracked lips.
I whispered to him, “It’s okay to pass.”
His breathing slowed and settled into a slow rhythm.
I felt sleepy and tired with the weight of the situation bearing down on me, but I couldn’t go to sleep. I had to stay awake in hopes of talking to him one last time. James and my sister were sleeping hard. I gave him some Reiki, hoping it would make him pass easily, and then I moistened his lips with the magnolia water.
At 1:15 a.m., I noticed his eyes open, and I ran to his bedside thinking that he had regained consciousness and I would be able to speak to him. I looked into his watery eyes, but no one seemed to be there, just a blank stare.
I said, “Dad,” but got no response. I nudged my sister and said, “Dad is awake, but he’s not talking.”
She looked at him for a long moment and gently closed his eyes with her left hand. I could still see he was breathing from the pulse in his neck. My dad took a few deep breaths, with delayed exhales. I noticed that I had started to hold my breath too, in anticipation of his next breath.
I asked James, “Go get the nurse; he’s not breathing.”
The nurse came in and listened for his heartbeat with her stethoscope. She then looked up and said, “It won’t be long now.” She left the room for us to say our goodbyes.
I looked over at James as tears rolled down my face. I watched the pulse on my dad’s neck. I moved around the bed to his right side so my sister could get to him if she wanted. She got up and held his left hand, while I placed my hand in his and noticed his swollen fingers. A sadness like I had never known grabbed ahold of me. It took everything I had not to let my emotions overwhelm me.
The nurse came back and checked his heart. I watched his pulse through his thin olive skin.
When she looked up at the clock, I knew that he had passed. A few seconds later, the pulse on his neck had vanished along with it any chance of me ever getting to talk to him. The look on my sister’s face was one of such sadness and pain, but no tears came for her. I knew she didn’t like showing her emotions publicly, but the grief was deeply etched on her face.
I was exhausted beyond words. I sank down in the brown recliner, just like my heart sank in my chest. The entire heaviness of the trip flooded my mind. The nurse said we could stay as long as we wanted. I tried sleeping, but I just couldn’t.
My sister said she had to be by herself. I completely understood her need to cry in private. She hugged me and kissed the top of my head, as she said. “Goodbye, love you.” After about ten minutes, I told James I couldn’t sleep in here with my dad’s dead body, so we went back to the car and drove to Phillips 66 off the highway. We rested a while; neither of us could sleep well. I had to make the decision if I was going to my dad’s memorial service in several hours or if I was going back home. All I could think about was how much I just wanted to be home.
James had just driven us 1,051 miles. I felt bad about asking him to drive us back, but there was no way I could deal with my family now. He completely understood. We decided we would find a hotel and getting back on the road would be our best option. I didn’t speak all the way back home. James respected my need to be silent and didn’t play the radio. Around noon, we stopped at the Motel 6 in Knoxville. I crashed pretty hard, while James intercepted the calls from my family, because I didn’t feel that I could speak to anyone.
We left the next day around noon. James started to turn on the radio, but I asked him not to. I needed the silence. And every time his phone would chime with severe weather alerts, I would cringe, not from fear this time, but because of the sound I would forever associate with my dad’s passing. The fear of death didn’t seem important now. Memories of my dad that I had suppressed all these years now started surfacing. Like how he would play the guitar for us kids and sing a country-western song. How he would read a book to me while I sat on this lap. How tender-hearted he was. And the time I had cried on my way to school and he let me play hooky with him and took me to the neighborhood bar.
He’d said, “Just as long as you don’t tell your mom, you can come with me today.”
The way he said that, I felt like I was two feet taller getting to stay with him and ditch school. The way he’d driven us home, zigzagging all over the street, I had feared for my life that day, but never told my mom.
He taught me how to shoot beer cans with a pistol when I was five years old.
I thought about how I had waited from the time I was twelve for him to come and rescue me from my mentally ill mother and her military-strict husband.
I wondered what it had been like for him growing up in Bluefield, West Virginia, and what kind of pain he had endured when his father left to get a pack of cigarettes and never returned when he was just a small boy. I wondered how it felt to be raised in such poverty that all he had to eat was the fried apples from the tree in his yard. Or about his speech problem of speaking so fast it was hard to understand him. Or what it was like to leave home at fifteen years old and lose his mom at age sixteen.
These thoughts filled my head all the way home.
Once I was home, I hit my bed and cried for what seemed like three days straight. Not speaking to anyone for the next three months gave me plenty of time for reflection. I realized that, for the first time, I actually felt in control of my life. I discovered that the journey was not only a journey to my dad, but also a journey back to myself, a self that I had abandoned years ago in hopes of keeping others from abandoning me.
The irony was that I was the one that had been abandoning myself the whole time, with the enormous amounts of my energy I gave freely without end to others. My dad’s wound of abandonment was being played out on the stage of my life in all my relationships; and my life was mirroring what was going on inside.
I was finally free, like my dad. He had been freed from his body; I was freed from my faulty beliefs. The forgiveness that had been denied him while he was alive now came easily, after I had shared the last hours of his life.
I finally realized that I had never stopped loving him—that my love had been numbed with all the pain. I also realized that he could never leave me, because he lived on in my heart and that his sensitivity and creative gifts had been passed down to me. Somehow, I had to find a way to share them, to honor his life.
Now, when I think of my dad’s life, I am reminded of the Chinese proverb: “A diamond with a flaw is worth more than a pebble without imperfections.”